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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Montreal Metropolitan Area: more sprawl, more transit

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Being a big transportation nerd, I was pretty pumped up to learn that the AMT has finally released the results of the transportation survey they did back in 2008, or at least what they consider the highlights of the results. Here’s a few things that caught my eye…

In 2008, the Montreal Metropolitan Area grew. That is, the territory included in the AMT study expanded by a third (about 2700 square kms) to include places like Ste-Adèle and Morin Heights. I believe that, to qualify for AMT scrutiny, a certain proportion of residents must work in Montreal, although the report released last week does not clarify the criteria.

It was somewhat disturbing for me that friends’ and parents’ cottages have been swallowed up by the new MMA map. It also boggles my mind that what for me is a big weekend getaway is, for others, the daily commute.

AMT od study territory 2010

If we only consider the area that has been studied since 1987, the population grew 5% between 2003 and 2008.  But the  increase in the number of cars in the region outpaced the human growth: the auto population went up by 10% since 2003, a greater rate than observed between 1993-2003.

So there are more people commuting each morning, and more people own cars. With that in mind, it’s really quite surprising that car use during morning rush hour actually went down by 1% between 2003-08. It’s the first time that car use has decreased since the AMT began collecting statistics in 1970. That said, 71% of trips in the region are still made by car and most of the cars on the road at rush hour are still single-occupancy vehicles.

The big headline of the day was the sharp rise in transit ridership: a quarter of commuters now use transit. This is up from 22% in 2003, but only slightly surpasses 1993 levels of transit ridership.

evolution of transit use 1987-2010

This includes many who travel from the suburbs into the city each day: a full two thirds of people who work or study in downtown Montreal commute via public transportation. And, in fact, the greatest local increase is transit ridership is furthest from the city core:

transit increase

Despite this apparent transit renaissance, the rise in car use still outpaced transit in number of trips in the suburbs (for instance in the North crown there were 11,000 additional car trips, representing a 6% increase, and 6,000 additional transit trips representing a 40% increase).

In a Radio-Canada report in January, Jean-François Lachance, of the Institut de la Statistique du Québec, hypothesized that better and more far-reaching transit, along with more affordable property,  makes the suburbs more attractive.

Kate M at the Montreal City Weblog asked whether better transit could be fueling suburban sprawl? And if that is the case, ain’t that a dill of a planning pickle.


All images are extracted from the AMT’s Enquête Origine Destination 2008 Faits Salients and Resultats – faits salients documents. I’m still eagerly awaiting the complete report which includes all those non-salient tidbits like the breakdown on active transportation in the region.



  1. This was a great study. In the end i wonder if the reduced car trips as a result of better mass transit (i assume this is mostly AMT trains) have a bigger effect that increased suburban land use… probably not.

    also i wonder if this is good quality farmland that is being paved over, or low quality soils?

  2. Duh.. of course expanding mass transit farther and farther out contributes to sprawl.

  3. I don’t think that there are many people who would choose to live far away from Montréal. The reality is that it’s too expensive for most people to afford housing close to the downtown core.

    Hence good quality transit is necessary from the suburbs. Designing suburbs intelligently to avoid too much sprawl is another matter entirely. If suburban transit is not effective, people will take to their cars, so the results of this survey should be taken as general good news.

    Montréal has some great examples of good transit planning. Take, for example, the Champlain bus corridor and services from towns like La Prairie that are fast and efficient. These successes should be celebrated.

  4. The question is a good one but I would’nt go as far as making it a self evidence. If we look at South shore, for instance, where growth of public transit is the biggest, no new mass transit line lead somewhere there were no development before. And in most of the cities where transit systems are inhanced even more car dependant developements rise. This probably expains why the rise in total number of trips is higher for the car than transit. Without saying there is no link between better transit and suburban sprawl, I would definetely say the car is still the biggest driver of suburban sprawl.

  5. I think the key sentence in this interesting article is the following:
    “This includes many who travel from the suburbs into the city each day”

    From my perspective, there is an interesting potential paradox to be resolved in decentralizing workplaces from the downtown core.

    On one hand, business clusters outside the core can be considered ecologically friendly as they (presumably) close to worker’s homes, reducing travel distance and congestion.

    On the other hand, low density reduces the efficiency of public transport or renders it non-viable (how do you encourage bus use when the street curb is further from the corporate campus than the carpark?). Moreover, we cannot necessarily presume that people live in suburbs close to their workplaces. Anecdotaly, I have heard of people commuting between Laval and St-Hyacinthe!

    It would be interesting to know more about commuting patterns that do not involve the downtown core.

  6. William, I very much agree with you. I worked in transportation management in Saint-Laurent, an area with a massive industrial park served by a bus that departed from the tail end of the orange metro line. People were commuting from the Laval, the south shore, Terrebonne, Hudson. For many of them, using transit would have required hours of bus-train-metro-bus, with the 2 buses being winding suburban routes. It just wasn’t feasible.

    Even when people happen to live in the same suburb where they work, these industrial parks are usually isolated by highways, have inefficient bus service, and are very uncomfortable to walk or cycle in. This kind of division may be necessary for an airport, a trucking company or a polluting industry, but not for telecommunications, labs, or service jobs…

  7. Thanks for quoting me – just changed my blog to a new platform and the link should be to

    I remember talking to an old boss of mine; he was quite arrogant about how he and his family had to live way far outside town for the fresh air. He was less amused when I pointed out that the more folks felt that way, the more polluted the air was going to get out in his semi-rural getaway.

  8. Jobs are not eternal, few people work at the same place their whole lives let alone 3-5 years at once.

    So obviously if you live anywhere, and your new job is somewhere else you’re not gonna automatically move there.

    If you have have kids at school, with their own social network, you’re not gonna break that for the sake of being environmentally friendly, screw that.

    This is the day to day dilemma that people have to live with even if the have the environment in mind.

    If I live in Boisbriands and worked in their industrial park, and my new job is in Laval or PAT, so be it, I wont sacrifice my kids for the cost of a few more liters of gas and a longer commute.

    You can’t expect to always live next to your workplace.

  9. Claude said:

    “I wont sacrifice my kids for the cost of a few more liters of gas and a longer commute.”

    You might see holes in your argument when you end up driving to the pharmacy to pick up asthma inhalators for your kids.

    Christian said:

    “I would definetely say the car is still the biggest driver of suburban sprawl.”

    I would say it’s the other way around. The way sprawl is built leaves people like Claude with little options but to drive around, since cul-de-sacs and “spaghetti” streets are virtually impossible to properly service by public transit.


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