[Editor's Note: STB Founder Andrew Smith visits to resurrect our "Transit Report Card" series, in which writers generalize wildly based on short and limited experience with another city's transit system.]
Segments ridden: (over seven days)
Green Line: from Lionel-Groulx to Viau
Orange Line: Snowdown-> Bonaventure, Lucien-L’Allier->Montmorency
Blue Line: Snowdown -> Jean-Talon
Yellow Line: Jean-Drapeau -> Berri-UQAM
The 68-station Metro – Montreal’s rubber-tired subway system – has great scope for the denser areas of the city itself, and there are good commuter rail connections to the suburbs. As with most systems, buses fill in the gap for the areas not served by rail. Within the city, there are neighborhoods fairly far from the Metro and a bus transfer is required.
More after the jump.
Service is very frequent on the Metro (2-5 minute headways or so on the three main routes), and also frequent on some buses. I did wait a typical Seattle-bus wait (15 minutes or so) for a couple of buses from more remote locations. Service was from about 5:30 am to until about 1 am for the Metro and buses continued much later in many places.
Montreal’s geography is mildly challenging – it’s located on an island with a “mountain” near the downtown area – and considering that the Metro routing might be about as good as it can be. Still, the Green and Orange lines run parallel about a half-mile or so apart downtown, and there is no service to the airport. There are some neighborhoods that the system seems to have almost been designed to avoid, particularly the wealthy Anglophone Westmount neighborhood. The Metro also generally parallels busy surface streets in cardinal directions. Those slights notwithstanding, the Metro serves most of the denser parts of the city very well, and provides access to the near suburbs complemented by commuter rail service and buses.
The Montreal Metro is entirely underground. In fact, the metro’s electrical system couldn’t work in the snowy conditions in winter, so no elevated or at-grade routing is possible.
Montreal is an old city, and most of its central parts were made dense by streetcars (or horse-drawn carriages) long before the Metro opened in 1966. However, the Metro helped bring density to station areas outside of downtown, and many stations on the outer-fringes are surrounded by newer mixed-use buildings and construction projects. Only one of the stations I went to had a park-and-ride, and most had good bus connections.
The Montreal metro is very widely used – it’s the third busiest subway system in North America after only the much larger systems in the much larger cities of New York and Mexico City. For the entire region, 21.4% of commutes are by transit, (compare to about 7.3% in the Seattle area). In the area served by the metro, the percentage is obviously much higher.
Each station has mezzanine with one or more station agents in glass booths who can provide maps, give directions or sell tickets. Many mezzanines also have newsstands with magazines and soft drinks. Some stations have new next train display signs, though all of these are in French. Several stations are filled with interesting public artwork, and most of the downtown stations connect to the “underground city”. However, very few stations or buses are accessible, something I learned carrying a stroller up stairs for a week. Even some of the busier transfer stations were sans ascenseur, so wheeled passengers beware.
The Metro fare is a bit expensive for short trips: $2.75, but there is no distance scaling, so for long trips the metro is a bargain. A ticket can be converted into a correspondence – or transfer – that can be used on buses after a train ride machines inside the turnstiles. Surprisingly, there were no ticket machines in any station I went to (which was many). The machines that were available were only for recharging Opus cards (just like Orca cards) – single use tickets had to be purchased from the station agents.
The transit system in Montreal has a few more quirks for the unfamiliar. The rubber-tires on the Metro provide for a quieter ride, but can make deceleration a bit sudden. The recorded “next station approaching” announcement is in French, and can have surprising pronunciations for English looking names like “Sherbrooke” or “Square Victoria”. Station dwell times are very short, as little as 15 seconds, so exiting a crowded train with a stroller there takes some skill.
The Montreal system’s web presence is impressive. All bus stops are equiped with a code d’arret that can be used to find next bus information on the Société de transport de Montréal website. The website also posts all service interuptions prominently on the front page, and displays clear promotional information, like this 10 max minute frequency bus network map.
In a lot of ways the Montreal system shows that a well-designed, grade-separated transit system can make even a Seattle-sized North American city a transit user’s paradise. The Metro in Montreal has just 43 miles of track and only four lines – and one of those has just three stations – but it feels much bigger. It’s difficult to imagine how Seattle could ever raise enough money to build more than one line like that in the city in my lifetime, much less four, but it’s not difficult to imagine what sort of city Seattle would be if it happened, just look to Montreal.