In The Beginning: History of the Westmount Bike Path
This is the story of the saving of a turn-of-the-century residential area, west of downtown Montreal, along, and on both sides of, a street
once called Western Avenue
Montreal first developed north, along a series of terraces above the St. Lawrence
river. Sherbrooke Street marked the base of Mount Royal, and for a while, the end
of the northward movement.
However, those with means had horse and carriage to take them up West Mount;
and by the turn of the century the wealthy were taking to a new toy: a carriage that
needed no horse, while the horse and carriage was being democratized as the
horse drawn streetcar. The "iron horse" too, had been domesticated, allowing
summer cottage areas to become "mass transit suburbs" to develop and expand at
commuter rail stations.
The lower part of Westmount was one such suburb. The houses along and in the
vicinity of Western Avenue were built without coach house or garage. They were served by the streetcars on St. Catherine and
Sherbrooke Streets and to the east, the streetcar terminus, on the edge of downtown Montreal. To the west was the first stop on the
In its midst was a landscaped park, faced by a school and its playing fields. Two local shopping streets served the area. This was how
it was for two thirds of a century,
Meanwhile, Montreal was turning into a metropolis of three million people. After World War II, the streetcars were replaced by buses
and in the mid-sixties, a long-time dream was realized. A metro, like the one in Paris, was finally approved by the province.
Ironically, it was the metro that caused Western Avenue to be inundated by traffic, for downtown, it was built in "open-cut" (digging down
from the surface). This allowed the creation of de Maisonneuve Blvd. from a series of short, disconnected streets north of St. Catherine
Street, the main shopping street downtown. De Maisonneuve was to become a one-way pair with St. Catherine Street. Despite it being
a 24 ft. residential street, Western Avenue was made part of this new road. Thus all of a sudden, there were almost as many cars
traveling west through this residential area as on the adjacent arterials of St.Catherine and Sherbrooke Streets combined. The whole
neighbourhood, being only two blocks wide, was under threat.
Fortunately, a massive freeway (the Ville Marie Expressway) was being built a short block south of St. Catherine Street. HABITATS, a
citizen group developed by urban planner Dr. John Udy argued that inner area citizens should benefit, along with the suburban
commuter, from this huge public investment,
It recommended to three consecutive Westmount city councils:
to close de Maisonneuve the length of the Park;
attach the strip between the Park and the school to the Park, except for a two-way bicycle path;
to divert the traffic now traveling through the residential area to St. Catherine Street;
to develop a two-way bicycle path along the length of de Maisonneuve in Westmount.
There was opposition from:
those who believed (illogically) that "once a traffic road, always a traffic road'';
those against bikes in the city;
a citizen group from Cote St. Antoine Road, which believed (erroneously) that they would inherit the through traffic.
An origin-destination study carried out, at the city's request, by a group of traffic engineers with an international reputation, showed
conclusively that HABITATS intuitive belief that the freeway would take this traffic was factually correct.
Thus, after five years, attendance at over 100 city council meetings, getting signatures on three petitions to the council, meetings with
planners and elected representatives from Montreal, the Montreal Urban Community and the Province, de Maisonneuve was finally
closed at the Park.
Ten years later, the City landscaped the strip between the Park and the school. It took another five years for the council to inaugurate
the bicycle path.
The lessons learned?
To make alterations democratically is a very long-term commitment.
Politicians and bureaucrats have to be educated to see what is obvious to trained planners;
There will be fierce opposition from those who fear change;
You may not win all the concessions you want. (We still haven't been able to convince the city council to divert the remaining
traffic before it enters the residential area);
Author: John Udy / Urban Planner
Westmount Bike Path: Now and In The Beginning
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