Montreal’s light-rail saga: avoiding bad planning is not good planning

Latest developments

Over the last few days it has been announced that the Eastern portion of Montreal’s light rail system, planned with no community, regional or urban planning input by Québec’s finance-driven pension fund, is being suspended.

Responsibility for designing and planning has now been handed to elected officials and to the various transport agencies that govern networks in Montreal.

Is this good news?

Bearing in mind my previous blogs (such as this, this, and this), readers would be forgiven for thinking I am elated by this development. It is no longer an autarkic pension fund, but elected officials and public agencies which are in charge. Hooray!

But no. I am cautiously less pessimistic.

Why is this not necessarily good news?

It is not because an example of bad transport planning (i.e. secretive, top-down, solely financially driven) has been suspended that the alternative is necessarily good.

At present, there does not seem to be any planning process in place: there is recrimination, and a seeming free-for-all as elected officials, community groups, and commentators clamour for participation and for their point of view to prevail.

Too much participation and consultation can be as bad as none at all.

As each point of view is considered and weighed, time passes, opportunities dissolve, and nothing gets done. For all its faults, the CDPQ would have been able to get its (poorly thought-out) project built; and all commentators agree that any light rail system serving the east of Montreal island is better than none.

Missing in action: a broad vision for mobility

What is missing is a broad vision for mobility across the Montreal metropolitan area.

Such a broad vision, which should adopt a 20 to 30 year time horizon, would set out in general terms how the metropolitan community envisions land-use and mobility. This vision should articulate short, medium and long term goals, and should be revised periodically (a long-term vision does not predict the future – it serves as a guide to building it, which should evolve as the city and its population evolves).

If such a vision existed, then specific projects, such as Montreal’s light rail system (the REM), could be assessed relative to how well it furthers the general vision. If it doesn’t further this vision, and if this is explained and justified, then discussions can be had about whether the vision needs updating or whether the light rail plan does.

What does a vision look like?

It can take many forms, but the key is that it distills wild ideas, hopes, data, expert opinion, community input, and technologies into concepts and maps of the way forward for a region’s mobility.

For example. The vision for Paris’s Grand Paris Express began in the early 2000’s with sketches like this:


These sketches, accompanied by text, discussions, debates, and research then became more formalised:


Then, things were narrowed down:


To eventually get to a plan, in 2011, rather like the plan proposed by the CDPQ for the REM Est:


The process took about ten years (roughly 2001 to 2011). Only then did the Grand Paris Express begin detailed construction planning.

Unfortunately, Montreal has not spent 10 years (nor even 2) thinking big and envisioning the future of mobility : the planning process was started at the end (with a detailed proposal). It now needs to work its way back to a vision.

To conclude

The East of Montreal needs a good transport system. It also needs a proper mobility and land-use plan, which meshes with a wider metropolitan vision. This will not ensure concensus, but will ensure the airing of ideas and clarity with respect to why decisions are taken.

It is not because CDPQ’s proposal is off the table that the alternative will be better.

A ‘better’ alternative can only be judged by whether it shifts the Montreal region closer to high-level strategic goals (in terms of mobility, energy use, land-use, spatial justice and spatial development) it has set itself.

What are these goals? What is the process for identifying them? Where are the conceptual sketches, reports and debates that will allow this vision to emerge?

Note: For more information on the Grand Paris Express, and the processes that led up to it, see:

Bourdeau-Lepage, L. (ed) 2013, Le Grand Paris, Revue d’Économie Régionale et Urbaine, special edition, 2013/3

Bureau, D., J-C, Prager & E.Quinet, 2019, Le Grand Paris Express: les sept clés du succès, Paris Economica

Enright, T., 2016, The Making of Grand Paris: Metropolitan Urbanism in the Twenty-First Century, MIT Press

Prager, J-C (ed), 2019, Le Grand Paris Express: Enjeux Économiques et Urbains, Paris, Économica

Schorung, M., 2021, Anticiper et préparer l’arrivée d’un réseau de transport. Une analyse des dispositifs de coordination aménagement-transport autour des gares du Grand Paris Express, Université Gustave Eiffel; Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris

Williams, T., 2015, Le Grand Paris & Sydney: why Sydney should look to the Paris model of architect-led ateliers for urban growth – that put ideas, not politics at the forefront, Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarships Journal Series, NSW Architects Registration Board

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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