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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Mont Royal Ave’s first flirtation with pedestrianization

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mount royal ave mallSummer 1970: Montreal’s first mall. Not the suburban kind of mall we’ve grown to dread, but a pedestrian shopping area in the heart of the city, on Mount Royal avenue between Chambord and Marquette.

“A substantial body of public opinion in this city firmly believes that it is urgent to relieve downtown areas of the congestion and confusion of excessively heavy motor traffic…Only radical measures can head off a paralyzing stagnation of city life brought on by an uncontrolled proliferation of cars and trucks,” the Gazette editorialized in July 1970.

But no sooner had the pedestrian mall opened in October 1970, the Gazette declared it to be flawed. They criticized that buses running along Mount Royal and traffic on the cross-streets compromised the ideal of the all-pedestrian shopping experience (although the plan included public transit from the start).

The sidewalks had been widened to 25 feet on either side of the street and a single lane remained open for buses. However, cars were always trying to sneak down the bus lane and when police cracked down by handing out hundreds of tickets, it only added to the public frustration that was beginning to surround the mall.

Merchants had begun to complain that the inconvenience of having to park outside the mall was deterring customers, a complaint that makes sense if you consider that this experiment began in October and continued through the winter. To make matters worse, store-keepers said, the potted trees brought in to spruce up the mall were obscuring their displays from window-shoppers.

The following spring, three UQAM students surveyed hundreds of shoppers found that 80% enjoyed the pedestrian shopping experience but many wanted the reclaimed street to offer even more: fashion shows, musical entertainment, sculptures, and sidewalk cafés were suggested. But the recommendations came too late.

By mid-April 1971, the city caved and re-opened the street to traffic, pending a redesign which never materialized.

Wait a minute. This failure of pedestrian shopping areas in Montreal was established with an experiment run from October until April? Through November rain, through three feet of snow, through minus thirty and the slushy thaws of March. Could anybody overlook fundamental flaw with this model?

I truly wonder, if they had given this experiment just 6 more months, how different our urban landscape might be today.

When the Mount Royal mall was announced, Saint-Hubert street and Monk blvd were meant to follow (although, interestingly, Sainte-Catherine street was declared unlikely). Those plans were quickly nixed when the pilot project flew off course.

Also, it would seem that the Mount Royal Avenue merchants’ association has been permanently burned by this first flirtation with pedestrianization: they firmly opposed a later proposition by the Comité de citoyens Mont-Royal Avenue Verte to pedestrianize the street. In 2002, the citizens’ group gathered 20,000 signatures and the support of a dozen environmental NGOs to close Mount Royal avenue to personal vehicles from Parc all the way to Frontenac, but the city never even followed up on their request for a consultation.

The Plateau’s new Project Montréal-led council have promised to look into pedestrianizing all or part of the artery, but we remain a good deal further back than we were 40 years ago.

If we learn anything from this experiment, it is that Montreal’s climate cannot be overlooked. No matter how beautifully-designed the streetscape, a stroll down main street is not an attractive prospect in the depth of winter. This is the reality we have to adapt to, be it through architecture, like the glass awning on Saint-Hubert street, or adaptability, like the seasonal pedestrianization of Sainte-Catherine street in the Village.


I wasn’t able to find any photographs of the Mount-Royal pedestrian mall, but if any of our readers have them or know where to find them, please let us know!



  1. i know buses killed State Street mall in Chicago — I suppose the same would have happened anywhere. not surprised.

  2. Same thing was done in Vancouver on Granville Street. Helped kill the street. I’m a huge fan of pedestrian malls, but am really on the fence with pedestrianizing Av. Mont Royal. I think seasonal and daytime pedestrianization is still the best option. No cars at night on Av. Mont Royal = a dead street. You need those flowing taxicabs to bring it life, and safety. Simply not enough density and attractions the whole length of the Avenue to pass the critical mass of folks on the street most hours.

  3. This is a great article, thank you! Hopefully someone can find some photos :D

  4. Many places have varying patterns of street-use. For example, pedestrianized for certain hours during the day (say 11-11) or on certain days (weekends in particular).

    A good starting point might be to recognize that streets need to cater to a diverse range of needs, not all of which are transportation related. We need to experiment to find approaches which best fit a particular location and season. And fundamentally, we need to recognize that this is an open-ended and on-going process. We need to be flexible. Planning, discussion and debate can only get us so far. We need to take some action now. Only by trying something can we learn what works and what does not. We should not be afraid of change.

  5. Turning Ste Catherine street in its entirety into a pedestrian mall would be insane. It is not a secondary street but a MAJOR west-east axis. One of a very few. Moreover, at times, it WIll look like a dead street. De Maisonneuve is already a mess (in particular in the winter) with the permanent bike path. Sherbrooke street is a relatively narrow thoroughfare.

    This populist push to erase cars from the city is tampering with an element that has always made Montreal exciting. And, I know this is a foreign concept to some, but there are economic benefits helping cars and trucks (ie: access) move around and through the city with ease. Should we be tackling the pollution problem absolutely. Is turning every street into a mall the way to do so? Unlikely.

  6. Great article thank you!

    Seems the link where “the Gazette declared it to be flawed” is pointing to the same page as “Gazette editorialized” a few lines above it.


  7. Edward, are you kidding? You make it sound like Ste-Cath is an highly efficient traffic mover. Traffic barely inches along on Ste-Catherine between Guy and Berri. As a car sewer, it’s completely useless. Blocking it to car traffic would just put the drivers who wander on Ste-Cath out of their misery.

    As for it being part of the “very few” east-west routes, may I suggest massive René-Lévesque blvd. just one block south? Or how about a friggin’ *expressway* (plus the Viger and St-Antoine “service lanes”) just 3 blocks south?

    And don’t forget the fact that Ste-Cath is being serviced by the highest density of metro stations in the entire city.

    If New York turned Times Square into a pedestrian plaza and avoided carmaggedon, I think we’d survive Ste-Cath being closed to car traffic for a few blocks.

  8. Edward, I must disagree.

    “Maisonneuve is already a mess (in particular in the winter) with the permanent bike path” -> and that’s the fault of the bike path, is it? The _only_ east-west bike path? Look at a map, motorists can use: Sherbrooke, St Catherine, Rene Levesque, Gauchetiere, the 720, etc. I submit that if Maisonneuve is a mess, it’s because there are too many cars and not that the cars don’t have enough space allocated to them.

    “Should we be tackling the pollution problem absolutely. Is turning every street into a mall the way to do so? Unlikely” -> I realise you are exaggerating, but come on. There are 5000 km of streets on the island, we’re only talking about pedestrianising 10s of km. Also, 40% of Quebec’s greenhouse emissions are from transport, so it seems to me discouraging car use would be helpful.

  9. Philly tried this on Chestnut Street and also allowed buses. It became a “bus highway” and uncomfortable for peds. It also crippled a thriving commercial street. Lesson: Either all peds and no vehicles or just allow vehicles. The point is to slow down traffic so peds will feel safe. One way streets and “bus highways” or even the newly vaunted “bike highways” are not friendly to people strolling and therefore a killer of street life and commerce.

  10. There are a wide range of options between streets dedicated to vehicular traffic (whether that be cars, trucks, buses, or even bicycles – they all are in “transit”) and pedestrian zones.

    In my opinion, the important thing for creating vibrant street life is providing appropriate public spaces which are well connected. There is no reason that we should hibernate in caves duriing the winter months. For those of you who have never had the experience, being able to walk around a city, without constantly being exposed to the physical presence of motorized vehicles,is truly a pleasure.

  11. One way to make boulevard de Maisonneuve less of a “mess” would be having the west-east bicycle path circulate along Ste-Catherine and place la piste Claire-Morrissette on the north side of the street, along with traffic flow. And restore the trams, of course, including delivery (goods) trams. This could be compatible with limited polluting vehicular traffic.

    The Projet Montréal plan for Mont-Royal also provides for a tram, so people would not have to walk from Iberville to St-Laurent or avenue du Parc on frigid days.

    And yes, Edward, I definitely want to erase private cars from cities. Cities have existed for thousands of years before petroleum-fuelled private cars and will survive the end of pertroleum. Modern trams (which are accessible to almost everyone), electric emergency and delivery vehicles, bicycles (and perhaps even nordic ski trails in northern cities?) and walkable neighbourhoods can make for a very exciting and lively city indeed. People flock to dense cities where most people, even those who own a car, use efficient public transport, or simply walk, to get around. Look at all the tourists from suburban nowheres who are thrilled to be in Paris, New York or Amsterdam – or even central Montréal.

    L’auto: ça pue, ça tue et ça pollue!

  12. I agree with Edward to a certain extent, but let me explain before you jump on me!

    Entirely pedestrianized zones can be rather frightening after dark – there is a certain collective sense of security which comes from the subconcious pack mentality. Vehicle traffic, somewhat ironically, contributes to this. Light traffic on Ste-Catherine is therefore important, especially considering the somewhat threatening nature of some parts of the street.

    Access is also extremely important (a point in agreement with Edward). Where I disagree with him, as with you all, is that Ste-Catherine is a critical East-West axis. What I don’t understand, with so many empty lots peppered along the length of Ste-Catherine, is why off-street parking isn’t better developed as it is in so many other places. Are Montrealers so lazy that they really have to park right in front of the store they want to visit? Imagine Ste-Catherine minus two lanes of parking on either side!

    René-Levesque is already 95% dedicated to vehicle traffic – let’s leave it that way and give it an additional role as a feeder for parking services for Ste-Catherine. (Needless to say, I think the correct route for the proposed tram is Ste-Catherine).

  13. William, if Ste-Cath is to remain open to car traffic, removing on-street parking would be a huge mistake.

    Parked cars act as a natural physical barrier between traffic and pedestrians. It also forces drivers to pay more attention because cars could be popping out of their parked spaces or doors might swing open. Parked cars are traffic calming devices.

    I do agree that some parts of Ste-Cath feel a bit dodgy late at night, but I can’t say that I feel much safer because a car is whizzing by every 10 minutes. People drving around are probably the least effective “eyes on the street”.

    I would argue that Ste-Cath would be a much safer place if the space generated by removing car traffic would be used by terraces ran by restaurants, bars, cafes, etc…

    Alternately, it could be pedestrian-only from 9am to 9pm, leaving one lane open after that for delivery of large items, maintenance vehicles and for taxis later at night. (This of course could be applied to Mont-Royal as well).


  14. Xavier, there are a number of studies that have been done, which (ironically I agree) show that pedestrians feel safer when there is some vehicular traffic (as opposed to none). I will try and find a study and post it here.

    I agree with your point about “natural barrier” but surely this could also be achieved with low fencing and other street furniture, as it is Europe and Asia. I think your proposition regarding time restrictions is interesting.

    Finally, from what I understood, the final stage of the Quatier des spectacles/Ste-Catherine street renewal involves putting the footpath and street at grade as a traffic calming measure. Does anyone know if this is still going ahead?,18985698&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

  15. William,

    The first outcry of carmageddon by local merchants when talks of making a street pedestrian is always: “But where will my customers park???”

    If you can convince them to remove on-street parking, then you’ve basically convinced them to make Ste-Cath 100% pedestrian. (Nobody actually expect people to window-shop while driving.)

    Regarding perceived safety brought by cars, I’m sure you’ll find some study to prove your point. Heck… just poll a random person on the sidewalk, at 1 A.M on a tuesday, on one of the numerous dead zones of Ste-Cath and ask: “Would you feel more or less safe if there were no cars here?” I’m sure they’d say “less safe”.

    That doesn’t mean that because cars are driving, it magically becomes “safe”… it’s just goes from really unsafe to marginally unsafe… still not good enough.

    Now go back to Peel & Ste-Cath at 3p.m on a sunny saturday (when the street is at maximum “activation”) and ask the same question to random pedestrians. Ask them if they feel the cars are making the street safer…

    I sense that we both agree that Ste-Cath needs more eyes on the street later at night. We disagree on the kinds of eyes. You say drivers and taxis would be sufficient. I say we need people using the street to other purposes than a car sewer. Of course, this is much more difficult to achieve, because we need to come up with a plan to activate the street instead of just fixing potholes and plowing snow.


  16. Actually Xavier, I don’t believe drivers and taxis would be sufficient, but I do believe most people, rationally or irrationally, consider them a part of the mix.

    I think the difference between our perspectives lies in the question of whether to give people what they need, what they think they want, or some combination of the two.

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