Envisioning an Active City: Lessons from Montréal

Oh, Canada. The United States’ neighbor to the North seems to have public services down to a science. On a recent trip to Montréal, Quebec, my suspicions of superior public amenities were confirmed as seen in the city’s compact urban design and nearly flawless transportation infrastructure. Montréal and other Canadian cities embrace the principles of smart growth with dense urban centers and transit-oriented development, and this approach is supported by a mixture of governmental funding, regulations, and public interest.

Quebec’s most populous city not only boasts frequent, reliable bus and metro service, but also Canada’s largest bikeshare program, Bixi (short for “bicycle taxi”), with a fleet of over 5,000 bikes throughout the city. Montréal is seemingly a bicyclists’ haven: 44 miles of separated bike lanes, over 150 miles of bike routes, and cyclo-centric cafes such as  Café Marius, which conveniently doubles as the office for a cycling nonprofit. In fact, Canadians in general bike a lot more than Americans despite the bitter cold that envelopes the country for half the year.

A Bixi Montréal Station. Photo Credit: Paul Joseph (Flickr Creative Commons).


Even without bicycles, the city is human-scale at its finest, making it a breeze to walk just about anywhere, and it is only getting better. In fact, Montréal added several new pedestrian streets this year and local businesses have heralded this as increasing foot traffic two-fold. Even the ubiquitous predicament of food deserts is not an issue in Montréal, and marchés (grocery stores) seem to reside on every street. Active transportation has also been linked to decreased rates of obesity in the city, and Montréal also follows suit with obesity rates below Canada’s national average. Montréal, like many other Canadian cities, is leading North America when it comes to transit-oriented, human-scale development.

Bike highway in downtown Montréal. Photo Credit: Waferboard (Flickr Creative Commons).

Before you get your passport and fly to Canada’s finest poutinerie, let us explore why Montréal’s development differs so greatly from any American city.  Some hypothesize it is all about density given Canada’s heavy utilization of dense, mixed zoning. These developments make for trip distances that are roughly half as long as trips made by Americans. Another theory centers on demand; less Canadians own cars because the cost of owning and operating a car is higher in Canada than the US. Therefore, people are more likely to demand cost-effective modes of transportation, like public transit options and increased bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

The government’s role in transportation regulation and funding is also a key factor. On both of these counts, Canadian federal, provincial, and local governments have provided more regulations and funding to bike-ped infrastructure, traffic-calming measures, and even cycling education courses. However, income taxes are much higher in The Great White North than the US, and Quebec lays claim to the highest income tax of any Canadian province at 16%, assuming an income near the median for an individual. A small price to pay for superior public services, eh?

Walking in the Plateau borough. Photo Credit: Gerry Lauzon (Flickr Creative Commons).

What would it take for smart growth development to take root in the United States to such a high degree? I propose our efforts must be multi-factorial:

  1. Use active public interest in the form of grassroots advocacy to promote increased public transit service, better bike-ped facilities, and a higher degree of safety for cyclists and pedestrians.
  2. Create regulations to disincentivize car travel. As we see with higher costs of car commuting in Canada and Europe, this tends to be associated with increased use of alternative modes of transit. A local example can be seen in the Wake County Transit Referendum, where increased vehicle registration fees are being used to provide funds for public transit improvements.
  3. Push governments to utilize land use regulations to curb sprawl, increase density, and encourage mixed-use developments, which would lessen trip length and decrease barriers to biking or walking.

With a dynamic approach from both the government and the public, cities and towns in the United States can make strides toward more sustainable, livable communities. 


About the Author: Ally Clonch is a North Carolina native and first year graduate student in City & Regional Planning and Gillings School of Global Public Health. She is interested in researching the effects of the built environment on population health outcomes, especially as they relate to health disparities in low-income and minority populations. Outside of school, Ally spends her time perusing thrift stores, getting coffee with friends, or reliving her glory days by watching 90s television shows.