[Editor’s Note: STB Founder Andrew Smith visits to resurrect our “Transit Report Cardseries, 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

Scope: B+

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: A

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.

A Guimard entrance at Square Victoria, a gift from the city of Paris (all photos by the author)

Routing: B+

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.

Rubber-tired Trains

Grade/ROW: A+

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.

Culture: A

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.

55 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Montreal”

  1. I fell in love with this system in its original incarnation when I visited for Expo in 1967 as a sophomore in college. My sister attended McGill University beginning in 1968 and lived in Montreal until 1990, so I visited regularly for just shy of a quarter century. The Metro and the bus systems are highly integrated, but as Andrew points out the core stations were constructed long before accessibility became a standard in transport construction and sadly has been little modified in the last decade toward that end. The original core station’s designs would remind Seattle visitors a bit of the DSTT stations, the newer ones are a bit more prosaic. A delight in every respect (unless you are using a motorised or push chair or using a pram).

    1. The term “Shuffle off to Buffalo” came from the necessity of the residents of York needing to go to their nearby American neighbor city for any excitement. York is now Toronto, and has supplanted Montreal as the business capital of Canada. And I wonder how long until Calgary overtakes Montreal’s current status behind Toronto and Vancouver?

      Some Montreal Metro trivia: The island that the Jean Drapeau station is located on is next to another new, artificial island that was made from the rock excavated for the Metro system. These islands (the natural one was also enlarged by Metro rock) had, during Expo ’67, a separate, incompatible with Montreal Metro heavy rail transit system called Expo Express:
      which was the first fully ATO system in North America.

      The Montreal Metro brakes use birch blocks injected with peanut oil, which sometimes leads to a distinctive burnt popcorn smell after heavy braking.

      Thanks to its indoor-only service, Montreal has some of the oldest rail transit vehicles still in regular service. The MR-63’s are now 44 years old, but you would know it by looking at them.

      1. You’re kidding right? “And I wonder how long until Calgary overtakes Montreal’s current status behind Toronto and Vancouver?” Much as I enjoy Vancouver, its status is still definitely behind Montreal, whether it be by economical or cultural stature…

  2. I’ve used the transit system in Montréal the métro as well as the bus system and made use of the numbers at bus stops for that line to tell you when the next stop is coming.

    That sort of thing is available here in Seattle as well though you have to “know” what stop number they’re pointing you to. It’s the stop number that OneBusAway is referring you to rather than KC Metro’s “bus-time” stop numbers. I’ve found that KC Metro’s bus-time stops are hit or miss. Some stops don’t even have numbers or if you input it on the telephone interface it goes nowhere and just routes you to a metro operator (provided of course that it’s during their staffed hours.) It would be nice of course if Metro either kept up with their system and regularly updated it, but it looks like that’s not going to happen. Metro’s bus-time system needs to be updated in a bad way, but with KC Metro’s funding deficiencies it’s likely a bottom priority. KC Metro can’t even keep the upholstery in buses from looking thread-bare. Updating their scheduling equipment is at the bottom of their priorities.

  3. What’s with the critique for things being in French or for the pronunciation of English words? Québec is a French speaking country.

      1. If the rest of the country is bending over backwards to have signs (even in freakin’ Vancouver BC where more people speak Mandarin) in both French and English you’d think they could too. It’s comes off as arrogant and rude… and doesn’t help the stereotype of francophones.

      2. It’s got to be really hard to preserve your language and culture after 250 years of occupation. If they don’t want to speak English, it’s cool by me. But you should be aware that the signs are in French only if you visit.

      1. Erik, I realize I was only there a week, but I didn’t have any problems there and about the only thing I knew how to say in French was Laissez les bons temps rouler. Much like the French themselves I think the Francophones reputation is not entirely deserved. Like any place I’ve been to, if you learn how to say a few basic greetings and responses and ‘do you speak English’ it goes a long way.

        Heck, the parents (francophone) of a friend of the the friend I was there visiting with heard how I was upset over missing the Auburn-Wisconsin bowl game that year and even though they didn’t have American TV, went and Pay-per-viewed it and surprised me with an American Football party!

    1. I wasn’t trying to be critical, I was just noting that even though the city is bilingual, the Metro is french-only.

      1. STIB in Brussels has almost all announcements in French and Dutch as well as important information in English. From my experience fare information is the most important information. If you can’t figure out how to pay it is impossible to use, as where most people understand timetables and maps.

    2. When we vote to become a separate country, we can be called as such. But as of yet we are a province of Canada, no matter what you may gather from the sovereigntist rhetoric.

      And “250 years of Occupation”!? What a load of BS. My family came here not 100 years after the French, who themselves were imperialist colonizers. I sympathize more with the plight of the native population.

      Face it, there always has been and always will be a large Anglo population in Québec.

      1. “And “250 years of Occupation”!? What a load of BS. My family came here not 100 years after the French”

        That is completely illogical. India was occupied by the British for hundreds of years. If a Burmese or Nepalese person moved there, does that person invalidate the occupation? (Obviously it wasn’t occupied if there were immigrants, OMG!) Are the Mogul’s decendents not occupied? (OMG, they were invaders, they are as bad as the British and therefore have no rights!)

        Nevermind that the French and Natives were allies, and fought together against the invasion:

      2. Sorry, I don’t doubt there will always be a large Anglo population, all I was saying explain was how they felt.

        Who would have thought secessionism would have been a touchy subject?

    1. I don’t understand why we have so much dead space in the DSTT stations, particularly Westlake. It seems like we’re missing such a great opportunity to have small shops like barber shops, shoe shine parlors, and newsstands as they do in many NYC subway stations.

      1. Actually no, I am referencing the Newsstands, who will inevitably sell snacks and sweets, thus drawing the rats, ants and roaches.

    1. Yes! It was a pain in the butt pushing a then-one-year-old around in a MacClaren, which could fold and be tucked under one arm, kiddo under the other.

      There is also a surprising lack of curb cuts on the surface sidewalks and ramps in the Underground city:

      (Don’t get me started on the lack of high-chairs at restaurants and changing tables everywhere.)

      1. I didn’t have a problem with high-chairs, though I had a huge problem with the accessibility. Like you said, few kerb-cuts, few ramps, and few elevators.

  4. “Some stations have new next train display signs, though all of these are in French.”

    How tourist-friendly…NOT!

    When I was there in 2006 the big scandal in the French language papers was about stores who did not great their customers first in French, despite their obvious Yankee appearance, never mind Plains of Abraham and all that.

    It is so sad to have witnessed Montreal’s decline since the PQ takeover scared everyone else away. On the plus side and keeping on-topic, the outflow to Vancouver gave us SkyTrain, etc!

  5. Keep in mind that $2.75 is not $2.75 to someone paid in Canadian dollars. Comparative prices (i.e. seen in terms of real purchasing power date from a time when the exchange rate was significantly different.

    CA$2.75 was more like US$1.75 or US$2. For someone who works in Canada and gets paid in Canadian dollars, CA$2.75 is still the equivalent of US$1.75 or US$2. Even though it’s now closer to US$2.75 for us. (That’s why travelling in US currently seems so cheap for Canadians, even though their economy isn’t objectively stronger.)

      1. For about 4 of the years she lived there, my sister lived above a bagel bakery – come 0400, the smells wafting up from below were absolutely heavenly. Nowhere in North America has bagels as uniformly good as those in Montreal.

  6. Could you PLEASE take a picture of the stick man getting the crap beaten out of him besides the emergency call button. The computer I had it on crashed, and the place it was hosted on is gone. :(

  7. As a Montrealer who takes the metro every day, it’s very interesting to see the perspective of tourists that visit my city.

    Thanks for your very positive review of Montreal’s public transit network. There is a lot of improvements under construction or in the planning stages to even further improve the system.

    Construction or completed:
    – on 30 bus routes from 6am to 9pm
    – from the airport to downtown
    – line along Boulevard Pie-IX (Named after Pope Pius IX!)
    – Elevators at the major Orange line stations (can’t find a link)

    – A rail-link to the airport
    – A modern tramway line down Chemin Cote-des-Neiges (free translation: Snowy hill road)
    – Extension of the blue line past St. Michel (to intersect with the future Pie-IX BRT line)
    – Extension of the orange line north of Cote-Vertu (to intersect with the suburban train line at Bois-Franc

    I don’t know why you give only a B+ to TOD. To me, putting a park and ride lot next to a metro station is a colossal waste of space that could support an entire neighborhood. The area near the Jean-Talon metro station doesn’t want park and ride areas.

    Montreal is a great place to live and the metro/bus network makes if very possible to live without a car (at least in the central areas).


      1. Interesting to note the fare for the 747 express bus: $7, coins only, bills are not accepted.

        Obviously you’d never see that in the US, but imagine how much faster boarding would be if everyone wasn’t fumbling around trying to feed dollar bills into the fare box.

      2. Canada has $1 and $2 coins that people actually use – They make change useful whereas here in the US spare change is mostly a nuisance. I used to go out of my way to get rolls of $1 coins when I paid cash for my bus fare. Why $1 coins don’t catch on here is beyond me.

      3. They don’t catch on for two reasons:

        – American wallets (particularly the kinds that men generally use) are much less likely to have coin storage; and
        – Most people don’t participate in transactions where dollar coins are especially useful.

        It’s clear that Americans don’t have an innate reluctance to have coins: everyone likes quarters, because they’re useful for parking meters, laundry machines, etc. Conversely, no one likes pennies/nickels/dimes, since they’re more annoying than they are useful.

        If parking meter fares were $1.00 for (15/30) minutes, and they accepted dollar coins but not bills, I’m sure that demand would be much higher.

      4. Hope this ends up at the right level. Yes, Canada has adopted the Loonie an the “Twonie”. The US has consistently sabotaged attempts to introduce new coins for years (decades?). Make the new dollar look exactly like a quarter… looser. Make a coin dollar insanely big; it ain’t silver so again, losser. Even the 50 cent piece which isn’t maybe such a good idea was done oh so wrong. The mint knows paper dollars are high cost. The States series quarters was fun. Now let’s start doing the job of government. Stop printing $1 bills. $1 coins last longer (Centuries acutally). Two dollar coins next up.

      5. Dollar coins don’t catch on due to *habit*. Everyone is used to using dollar bills, so they keep using dollar bills.

        The general use of dollar bills dates from when dollar coins fell out of use back in the *1960s* when Kennedy dollars were large and clunky to copy the size of silver dollars. (Nobody would make a coin that big nowadays.)

        In Canada, they eliminated the two dollar bill when they introduced the two dollar coin, and I believe they never had a period when dollar coins were out of use. But they eliminated the dollar bill anyway. In the UK, they eliminated the pound note with the introduction of the “new” pound coin.

        The US will simply have to eliminate dollar bills in order to make dollar coins catch on. (And why not?)

      6. People don’t use dollar coins because they don’t receive them in their change. In fact, it’s difficult to get them at all except as change from a post office vending machine. I used to go to the bank and ask for (Sacajawea) dollar coins, and the tellers had to scrounge through each other’s drawers for ten minutes to find twenty of them. After doing that a couple times, I gave up.

  8. My wife and I will be heading to San Francisco in a few months and I’m looking forward to taking the BART and Cable Cars while we’re there. Being able to get to different cities via rapid transit is going to be great!

  9. I can confirm Andrew’s comment about the widespread usage of transit on Montreal. I ranked the per-capita transit ridership of North American metro areas (based on APTA ridership reports), and Montreal was 1st, slightly ahead of New York. Montreal’s metro area population is nearly the same as Seattle’s (3.5 million), and they have nearly 1,000,000 Metro riders each weekday.

  10. I’m surprised that nobody has commented on the small nature of the Montreal Metro cars. They always make me feel claustrophobic compared with cars on the Toronto or New York subway.

  11. Just a point of information on fare payments in the Metro system. There are now fare machines in every station (at least the ones I go to) where you can update your OPUS card, purchase single tickets, or purchase 1 or 3 day passes. The 1 and 3 day passes are really fantastic since they work exactly like the OPUS card. Only difference is that once they expire they expire and they are disposable.

    Also I was impressed with their student pass system. In the Seattle area, student discounts are extremely ad hoc which leads to a lot more administrative cost for the institutions and the transit agencies which have the negogiate pricing contracts annually. Here in Montreal there is a student discount offered by the transit agency itself. In order to obtain it, you must get a special OPUS card that is pre-programmed for the student discount. In order to get the card you need to provide proof of enrollment, proof that you live on the island of Montreal, and are under the age of 26 before October 31. The real draw back is that you have to do all of this in person and the lines at the begining of the school year are very intense. I would guess it took most people an hour or so at the peak. This compares to a system like at UW and the U-PASS where everyone automaticly gets their transit pass in the mail which helps to build a culture around transit use. In Montreal this may not be a concern given the high transit use percentage cited above and the Bixi public bike system which is used by many students and people in the city. If a transit pass, even at a student discount, just does not make sense for a user, they still have the option of the public bike system which is fairly inexpensive.

    Anyways, some additional food for thought.

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