With that said, I’d like to walk you through (pun intended) some of my observations and experiences that both illuminate Montreal’s successes and Miami’s potential.
Montreal’s subway system was very clean, efficient, and took us most places we wanted to go. I took a couple trips on the “Green line” that runs between Angrignon and Honore-Beaugrand. Levels of service were high based on my experience, whereas I never waited more than five minutes for a train even on Saturday and Sunday. At $2.75 per one-way trip, the fares were a little steep, though I’m assuming that would be mitigated if I had bought a 3-day unlimited or monthly unlimited ride pass.
Though it’s not transit per se, I was thrilled to see separated bike lanes at least a few major boulevards. Not only are they protected from traffic, they’re bidirectional unlike most Class II striped bike lanes and even some Class I separated lanes, like on 9th Ave in Manhattan.
Ah, my favorite part. I’m a firm believer that it’s the quality of a city’s public spaces that make it a truly great place to live, which is why Montreal scores so high on my livability scale. The city is loaded with really nice parks and plazas that serve as social and civic gathering magnets. As far as plazas go, Place Jacques Cartier and Place d’Armes were my favorites, though several others could easily make the cut.
However, my runaway favorite public space in Montreal is the city’s namesake park, Mont Royal. When I first heard about Montreal’s “mountain”, I have to admit I was pretty skeptical. I figured it was a series of rolling hills at best, with just enough of an incline to force cyclists into a medium-to-low gear.
Was I ever mistaken.
Looking from downtown, which the park roughly abuts, it actually appears that the city abruptly stops up against a mountain on one side. To add to the effect, several bouts of snowfall from a long Canadian winter remained draped across Mont Royal’s landscape not unlike that of a small snowcapped mountain in Vermont or Upstate New York.
The park is beautiful. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. If you want to climb it, you can either follow winding paths at a moderate grade, or you can take the shortcut and go straight up. About halfway up the views of the downtown skyline are already spectacular, but at the top you have incredible panoramic vistas of most of the city and the St. Lawrence River.
Sadly, Miami doesn’t really have a grand park that is centrally located and easily accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians. I consider Crandon Park to be pretty great, but it’s an isolated island and not a centrally located grand urban park. The beaches of South Beach and North Beach are adjacent to high density areas and are high quality public spaces, but they are in a different category and serve different purposes than a centrally located urban park. Museum Park has the potential to be great, but it’s limited size and extreme easterly location may keep it from fulfilling that role.
Montreal’s urban design was of high quality. The density of most neighborhoods is relatively high thanks to rowhouses and apartment buildings that helped define street space. Downtown was full of high-rises, but most of them were designed well to fit with human scale and the pedestrian realm. The architecture of both old and modern buildings was of high quality. Moreover, most streets were well in tact and had not given way to curb cut mutilation and excessive off-street parking.
Even the newly developed neighborhoods on the fringe of the city consisted of modern-looking rowhouses and apartment buildings, which was very encouraging to see. Overall, the streets were very clean and comfortable as well. Interestingly, the streets were pretty quiet with automobile traffic, drivers drove safely and courteously, and very little congestion was present.
What’s the lesson for Miami? Montreal serves as just one more example of a major city full of neighborhoods with medium-to-high density that is extraordinarily livable. Because buildings are built right up to the sidewalk and are often attached, they do a great job defining street space and making the pedestrian experience a pleasant one. You can walk all day in Montreal, in inclement weather no less, and not get tired or anxious because space is well defined and you always feel like you’re somewhere. Without these characteristics in most of Greater Miami, it often feels like even short walks take forever and go from nowhere to nowhere. Miami 21 will probably be our best opportunity this century to improve this condition.
Stay tuned for additional lessons from Montreal.
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