We citizens of Canada, living in one of the world’s safest countries, and belonging predominately to the ranks of the middle-class, take our mobility for granted.
If I need to go to work, I walk 15 minutes up the relatively pedestrian friendly avenue du Parc. If I were in Mexico City, where the pedestrian death rate is 3 times higher than that of Los Angeles (and L.A. is by no means a walker’s paradise), going to work would be a life or death decision.
If I need to go to school, I climb Mont Royal (which is more a large hill than an actual mountain) by bicycle, reaching my destination in less than 15 minutes. If I were in Gulucan Village in West China, the everyday walk to school would require navigating a narrow and winding path carved into a cliff. On one side, rock; on the other, a 5000-foot sheer drop.
If I need to escape the monotony of the Montreal entertainment scene, I board a bus, rent a car, take a train, or catch a flight to any destination in Québec, Canada, or the world; and do so at a low-cost. If I were in Iqaluit, leaving town would involve embarking on an epic journey. Despite being the capital of Nunavut, it is not connected to any other Canadian city by road. One must rely on boat during the short 2-month period when the waters surrounding the town are ice-free, or depend on a combination of dogsled and snowmobile the rest of the year. And, with flights to other Canadian urban centres at a premium, flying almost becomes a privilege bestowed solely upon the rich.
Clearly, as the previous examples illustrate, we all do not profit from the same degree of accessible mobility. These differences consequently have a tremendous impact on the style and the quality of life one leads. Increased mobility affords greater opportunities for one to become an integrated member of society. This raises the question: What happens when one lacks or is denied the same mobility as their fellow citizens? The answer: Social exclusion. Would this be the case for the residents of Montréal-Nord, one of the most densely populated areas in Montreal not linked to the city-centre by a rapid form of transit, and home to what many consider some of Montreal’s most serious social problems?
- « a multidimensional process of progressive social rupture, detaching groups and individuals from social relations and institutions and preventing them from full participation in the normal, normatively prescribed activities of the society in which they live. »
These activities include, but are not limited to, employment, a stable and permanent income, housing, citizenship, democratic participation, humanity, and respect.
There are many causes of social exclusion:
low income (insufficient financial resources to access inclusion)
physical barriers (physical difficulties to access inclusion)
communication and information (inability to understand the necessary language to access inclusion)
transportation (difficulty in getting to spaces of inclusion)
discrimination (rejection by the majority group of the society)
social isolation (the psychological feeling of exclusion).
The ramifications of social exclusion echo across society and they are too numerous to provide an exhaustive list:
• A Scottish study attributed poor educational skills, low income, inferior housing, family problems, and generally a general reduction in quality of life to social exclusion
• An English study demonstrated a correlation between criminal activities, poverty, and unemployment and rate of social exclusion
• Health Canada reports that the health of social excluded individuals tends to deteriorate, leading to conditions such as hypertension and drug abuse
The case of Montréal-Nord
I have always been fascinated with Montréal-Nord. Sensational headlines describe the borough as a « quartier difficile » : Le spectre des émeutes hante encore Montréal-Nord; Un adolescent noir aurait été maltraité par des policiers à Montréal-Nord; Fusillade à Montréal-Nord: personne ne collabore; Coup de feu sur une voiture du SPVM. By following media reports, one could conclude that the community is rife with « problems » ranging from street gangs to troubled schools. Tensions with local police forces due to accusations of racial profiling and bullying have not made the situation any better. The Fredy Villanueva incidient of 2008, in which a 17-year old was shot and killed by police officers in a local park, only served to highlight some of the hostility felt in the area. All things considered, it would be easy for this high immigrant and visible minority population to become social excluded, with or without good public transit; in general, the area has become a long forgotten corner of Montreal.
If transportation could help bring about solutions to the issues stemming from social exclusion, why have our political leaders allowed public transit to remain so inaccessible in Montréal-Nord? I posit that it is because investing in public transit infrastructure is not as easy as just wishing for a safer and more family-oriented borough. Investing in public transit infrastructure is not as immediate as giving money to sports, cultural, and social services for youth and families in the area. Public transit infrastructure cannot be realised in a day. It takes months, sometimes years of planning, in which case, the politician who provided the spark for such initiative may have already been voted away. Investments in public transit therefore take vision; something that is sorely lacking from most of our so-called leaders in government.
Why is transportation mobility an important question facing Montréal-Nord?
In the 2006 census, it was revealed that 73% of workers from Montréal-Nord travelling during morning rush hour leave the borough for work; 38% of students leave the borough for school; 52% of residents leave the borough for entertainment.
« Where do all these people go? », you ask.
The vast majority of these trips are made to the boroughs of Ville-Marie, Villeray―Saint-Michel―Parc-Extension, and Ahunstic-Cartierville. In fact, the amount of people who travel to Ville-Marie to work equals the amount who work within Montréal-Nord.
The real question becomes: How do these people arrive at their destinations?
Let’s take, for example, a sample departure point from Parc Henri-Bourassa. This park is over 8 km from the nearest métro station (Henri-Bourassa), which, according to Google Maps, translates to a drive of about 12 minutes, a bus trip of 30 minutes, or a walk of 1 hour and 37 minutes. This is just to arrive at the métro station; do not forget to take into account the time it takes to get from métro Henri-Bourassa to one’s final destination. To put this distance into some perspective, Parc Henri-Bourassa is almost as far from métro Henri-Bourassa as métro Henri-Bourassa is from métro Sherbrooke.
If one chooses to take the bus, be prepared for a cramped ride. I decided to test out our public transit facilities one afternoon after finishing my work day in the Plateau. I caught the métro at Laurier around 5:30 pm. The cars were so packed; I could barely squeeze myself in. I descended at métro Henri-Bourassa where I was greeted by long queues waiting to board one of the buses. Two (2) buses filled up and departed before I was able to get on one. Packed to the rafters, the bus set off to Parc Henri-Bourassa.
More of the same, my return trip provided no relief. One bus drove right by the stop I was waiting at, for it was bursting at the seams. As luck would have it, the next scheduled bus arrived late. I was fortunate enough to even be able to board the bus; the others I left behind would have to wait until the next one saved them.
I certainly could not imagine doing such a commute, day in and day out. The forced occasions in which I take public transit annoy me to all hell. From what I hear, the bus on Pie-IX is no prize; but for now, I will have to rely on anecdotal evidence. Despite the favourable weather, there is no way that I will be repeating this same experiment.
On the other hand, if one chooses to walk, be prepared for quite the trek. An hour and a half is a lot of time to waste, especially when you are commuting to work. Sure, there may be a few trees and grass planted in the median of boulevard Henri-Bourassa, but this « boulevard » is nothing more than an 8 lane autoroute. The sidewalks almost feel like urban planning afterthoughts.
So I suppose the only option for our fellow citizens living in Montréal-Nord is to own a car. This is the only viable option in a borough where 57.8% of the population « survive » on a low income.
What can be done?
The Ville de Montréal has finally begun to do its part. Recent announcements include the construction of the Agence métropolitain de transport (AMT)’s fabled Train de l’Est, which would include a station in Montréal-Nord along with other underserved areas of the city. The Pie-IX/Henri-Bourassa viaduct will be reconfigured into a human-scale intersection that will hopefully be more pedestrian-friendly. And one must not forget the plans to revive the Pie-IX reserved express bus lane.
Now, transit is not the only thing fuelling the social exclusion in which the community exists. Rivière-des-Praires, Pointe-aux-Tembles, St-Léonard – in fact, the entire eastern portion of the island of Montreal suffers from the same transportation isolation as Montréal-Nord. However, what makes Montréal-Nord’s situation special is the population’s vulnerability. Mobility or lack thereof, is just another element, on top of race, ethnicity, immigration status, and language, which is feeding the process of social exclusion in the borough.
Overall, cities must view mobility equality as a basic human right all persons deserve. Our leaders must also act with vision: Instead of just trying to curry favour and buy votes, politicians should be working to create a better quality of life of all citizens in order to build great, sustainable cities. However, as long as politicians are only in the politics game for career aspects, good pensions, and prestige, communities like Montréal-Nord will probably not see any tangible improvements anytime soon.