Who sets the street agenda?

I spent a little bit of time in Montreal over the holidays. I was struck by several huge differences between Montreal’s treatment of downtown streets vs Ottawa’s.

In the following photos, notice that the traffic signal lights are pushed off to the side of the road. Their cases and mounting brackets are dark coloured, and very unobtrusive. They are mounted low, not high in the sky. The pedestrian signals, which are relatively rare in downtown Montreal compared to Ottawa, were mounted snugly close to the traffic signals.

the sky is visible to pedestrians, not obscured by bright yellow plastic frames around overhead traffic signals


did you notice the (lack of) overhead street lighting?


The discreet treatment of traffic signals means that the downtown streets are not dominated or given solely over to handling motorists. Infrastructure there is unobtrusive. Motorists actually have to pay attention to their environment and are not treated like incapable morons or automatons that need a dozen signals hung out over the street, repeated at least three times per intersection, and encased in gaudy yellow cautionary frames that scream for attention.

Here is downtown Ottawa’s Bank Street. It was recently reconstructed at great expense, and the primary impression looking down the street is the red, amber, green lights suspended on giant arms and bracketed with yellow plastic shields.

our newest main street design

Even though it was eight am on a semi-holiday Wedn morning, turning motorists discouraged me from slowing down (in a cross walk, no less) enough to take the following picture along Slater. It is fuzzy … so substitute your favorite image of a downtown Ottawa street: it won’t look much different.

To summarize the key differences:

Montreal: discrete traffic signals; Ottawa: dominated by traffic signals

Montreal: medium height street lighting that is over the sidewalks; Ottawa: high height street lighting that focuses on the street and ignores the sidewalks. Our new “mainstreet” lighting policies now encourage pedestrian scale lighting in addition to the high overhead stuff. Bank St is thus far the only “medium height” lit street, and even then, there is additional high lighting at intersections and ALL the lights are focussed on the street.

At some intersections in Montreal, the ped sidewalks continue right over the intersecting streets with no curb, no step, no break, no interruption to pedestrians. In Ottawa, peds always must give way to the motorists’ surfaces for even the most minor side roads, and increasingly for service entrances to parking garages.

In Montreal, wiring is buried. In Ottawa, our city-owned utility seems to love the artistic impression stringing wires on dead tree trunks. Privately owned competing utilities, eg, gas lines, must of course be buried.

In Ottawa, sidewalks can be separated from the street by large steel fences. A mid-block location is shown above; in other cases these fences are right by intersections. No jay-walking here! I did not see any fences keeping peds coralled in Montreal.

And which city had the most vibrant sidewalk life? Montreal caters to it; Ottawa focuses entirely on getting cars and commuters in and out as fast as possible.

The contrast speaks volumes.

11 thoughts on “Who sets the street agenda?

  1. Thanks for calling attention to this contrast.

    I live in Ottawa, I spend a lot of time in Montreal, and I did not really reflect on the different styles of traffic lights and the effect the difference might have on my behavior.

    Aesthetically-speaking, I agree. I much prefer Montreal’s traffic lights. As a committed pedestrian in both cities, however, I can say unequivocally I prefer to walk in Ottawa rather than Montreal.

    For me, our garish and easily seen traffic lights play an important role. Because we live in a car culture, in order to keep safe, I need to know what information drivers are responding to. I spend far more time paying attention to their traffic signals than pedestrian traffic signals.

    Perhaps, in time, I will become more accustomed to Montreal’s signals but, as a rule of thumb, if I don’t know what information is being communicated to the cars, I defer to them. Not being able to see their lights makes me feel much more vulnerable. And I think Montreal drivers have figured this out because I find them far more aggressive at intersections than Ottawa drivers. Of course, the aggressiveness of Montreal drivers could also be explained by other factors.

    At any rate, it’s an important difference to highlight and I will continue to track in future months! Thanks!

  2. Technically that fencing is separating the bus platform from the street, not the sidewalk, since the sidewalk is separated from the street by the platform.

    I could write an entire journal article on why these fences have been installed and why they would be wholly unnecessary were we using an equivalent light rail system in place of the bus system downtown.

  3. Just to be clear, this isn’t a “Montreal vs. Ottawa” issue, as you frame it, it’s a Quebec-vs-Ontario one. Our provincial regulations require lights to be designed a certain way, ostensibly for the safety of all road users. (Also, I think you meant “discreet”, not “discrete”)

    When I was in Montreal, I had a difficult time navigating because of the “discreet” road fixtures. I found that I was spending most of my time looking around for road signs. It slowed me down, but this didn’t translate to paying more attention to other traffic (i.e. pedestrians/cyclists).

    I agree that power lines not buried are visual clutter that is better suited to underground (it’s much worse in downtown Toronto than here, with their streetcar wires), but the traffic lights are only at intersections; if you want an uninterrupted view of the sky, all you need to do is look up.

    While they’re not ubiquitous, Montreal does have street lights in the middle of intersections. See here, on Berri (not sure the cross street, because of the ‘discreet’ road signs!), and here, in Côte-Vertu, from my trip to Montréal in May.

    As Sterling’s comment suggests, Montréal isn’t exactly renowned for its drivers’ excellent treatment of pedestrians.

  4. Interesting piece. I was struck by the same thing when in France. You really have to pay attention to signals, since there’s only one, and it’s off to the side. Ditto for Washington, DC. I’m a hobbyist photographer, and you really notice how much visual pollution there is as a result of the patronizing attitude of traffic engineers in this city. Why does virtually every lane of a roadway need its own light? Are we that myopic? Furthermore, do we really need a sign that indicates the location for the stop line on roads? What’s the point of painting a strip of white paint a foot wide on black ashphalt, then?

  5. As one born and raised in Montreal, I’ll let out the heresy that Ottawa drivers are much, much worse than those in my hometown. Ottawa drivers never stop when going right on a red, but rather coast halfway into the intersection regardless of pedestrians. They race yellows far more aggressively, and generally pay little to no attention to pedestrians and cyclists.

    I’ve even adopted a colour-coded method for pedestrian safety: Look out for Red plates and Blue Line.

  6. Erinn – stop line paint often fades, or is covered in snow/slush/ice. When the road is salty or the day is dark, most white lines are hard to see on asphalt. Also, I don’t think anybody ever told most Ottawa drivers what the thing means. The signs are generally added where the drivers’ failure to obey the stop line causes a hazard.

    David P – no argument that Ottawa drivers suck. But that doesn’t mean it’s directly correlated to the signals.

  7. We pedestrians – AKA “people travelling around on foot” for those of us not aware of that word’s definition(and as I age, I worry more and more about that possibility) – are definitely seen as a threat to “efficiency” as defined by too many of the car-drivers of Ottawa.

    There used to be a crosswalk clearly marked near where I live. When I crossed that last street after getting off the last bus connection in my travels, car-drivers would regularly disregard those signs and road markings and cut me – and whoever else was similarly travelling – off from finishing that last bit of walking. The city subsequently pulled most of the signage and discontinued repainting the road markings under the assumption of never passing a law that you know for a certainty will be militantly disobeyed.

    That I have survived the consequences of the disobedience of traffic laws and the city’s response to same so far is a small miracle.

    For me, anyway.

  8. What’s so offensive about streetcar wires?

    Every place I’ve ever been that has electrified transit with overhead wires, I’ve been taken aback at (A) how little I notice them, and (B) how they actually add energy (ha!) to the visual landscape. Heck, look at archival photos of Ottawa from the streetcar era, compared to the same bland, boring, dead streetscapes now.

    I will never get why Shoddywa is so anti-wire. Bizarre.

  9. I’ve even adopted a colour-coded method for pedestrian safety: Look out for Red plates and Blue Line.

    I have another rule: Look Both Ways. Yes, Even On One-Way Streets And Ramps.

  10. WJM: I do look both ways. Twice. But then I sometimes make foolish assumptions that drivers will obey the law.

    There’s nothing wrong with Ottawa that a little enforcement wouldn’t solve. But Ottawa Police don’t seem to want to do traffic enforcement – hence the cars parked in intersections at rush hour, the racing through lights, the failure to yield, the failure to stop before turning on a red…

    However, they do have time for annual pedestrian harassment campaigns.

  11. I love Montreal’s clean streetscapes thanks to buried overhead wires and those compact black traffic signals. It makes a huge difference! In terms of traffic signals, the issues Ottawa faces are the same as Toronto, two Canadian cities with international significance. The Ontario standard of traffic signal is ugly and adds so much clutter to streetscapes. I hate seeing those ugly yellow signals in front of Parliament Hill: http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&ie=UTF8&q=parliament+hill,+ottawa&fb=1&hq=parliament+hill,+ottawa&hnear=parliament+hill,+ottawa&cid=0,0,174432363114307438&ll=45.423488,-75.698123&spn=0.012726,0.033023&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=45.423488,-75.698123&panoid=PIDgWZH8atdpUnMq2JKOqg&cbp=12,32.7,,0,-7.92

    At least in historic downtown areas, the compact black Quebec style should be used. Yellow casings should be reserved for high speed roads, like two lane rural highways.

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