Urban living (2/3): Montreal

Posted by Patrick Lam on Sunday, December 26, 2021

Table Of Contents

So we have some sort of idyllic vision of Montreal as a good urban city to live in, and there are some objective facts to support that. (Transit! Bicycle infrastructure!). But realistically, we haven’t lived in Montreal since 2007, and that was a long time ago now. What’s it really like to live in Montreal these days?

We were planning to be in Montreal for the second half of 2020, but no plans survived contact with 2020.

Instead, I was in Montreal for about a week in December 2021, pre-Omicron. I don’t think I can ever really be a tourist in Montreal. I grew up there! That week in Montreal was some sort of approximation of normal life, though of course there’s still a pandemic going on. Certainly I have a lot of family in Montreal, and still some friends.

The situation is that N. kindly offered me a spare room in Outremont near Mile-End, and I used that as a home base. But Montreal is a big city; most of my life, and certainly none of my relatives, is not near Outremont. (Ironically, my aunt did run a restaurant, still with her name, 600m from that place, though they sold out long ago.)

Capsule summary

In principle, many places in Montreal definitely qualify as a 15-minute cities, including where I was staying. My parents' place might? It is more suburban and definitely has fewer amenities.

But, looking at the actual records, I drove every day in Montreal. That’s disappointing! I did also take the metro preferentially to driving, also every day. Biking would have been possible sometimes, though it still would be somewhat complicated due to the itinerary. I could have had some car-free days, and if I was staying longer, there probably would have been more. Also, not being winter would have helped. Of course, I bike in winter too. It’s just harder.

Introduction: Montreal

Let’s pretend I was living in Outremont. It was an older apartment building; I think the unit is a 6 1/2. Works well enough, though not modern. Has the old-style anti-flu-pandemic radiators and everything. What can we do from there?

Daily amenities

  • Bagels: 800m away from St. Viateur bagels. For an arbitrary place in Montreal, hard to beat that. I am not going to take a position on St. Viateur vs Fairmount, but I will point out that Fairmount is almost twice as far away.
  • Groceries: Quite a few small markets; closest large supermarket is a Provigo 1.6km away I think. Because of the Hasidic Jewish community, lots of kosher available too. Pharmacy close by.
  • Libraries: Looks like the Mordecai-Richler and Robert-Bourassa branch libraries are nearby; I never went to them.
  • Culture: I know that there’s a small art gallery. Since Montreal is a bigger city, the A-list draws are going to be more centralized.
  • Restaurants and other retail: Tons.
  • Climbing gym: Turns out that the Shakti Rock Gym (never been there) is less than 20 minutes away.
  • Judo club: There are decent judo clubs within 3km, though not my judo club.

There’s definitely much more available within 15 minutes of this area, though it’s perhaps one of the peak-Walkscore neighbourhoods of Montreal.

Bagels and poutine, what more could I want?

Work

Montréal is bigger. The closest possible university would be the Université de Montréal; they have the new MILA campus, which happens to be closer, but the main campus is 2.5km away, which is actually the same distance as from my place to the University of Waterloo. McGill would be 3.5km away (45min walk, 26min bus, 17min bike).

There’s also the bus and the métro for getting around Montréal of course. I heard it had been getting crowded at rush hour, but then pandemic happened. Combining the métro and the bike is not allowed during rush hour, but OK otherwise.

Bike infrastructure

Tons. “Montréal est une ville de vélo (Montréal is a bicycle city),” including a network of segregated bike lanes that are cleared in winter ("Reseau cyclable 4 saisons").

Lots of bikes of all sizes.

Car

If I were actually living in Outremont and had a 15-minute life, it seems like I wouldn’t have to have a car. Indeed, having a car would be annoying: when it’s not winter, you have to move the car a couple of times a week for street cleaning.

Getting out of town

So the deal is that I was also refereeing in Répentigny on the weekend. That definitely requires a car (or a ride with someone who has a car). Maybe I would store a car at my parents' place. Anyway, it’s super annoying to get to Repentigny, and not recommended in December without winter tires when there is a snowstorm (but legal for non-Québec-plated cars).

The highway is sort of close to Outremont, but takes surprisingly long to get to.

Ground Transport

My main complaint about Kitchener/Waterloo is the lack of mountains. Montreal doesn’t actually do that much better. It’s more urban, but I’m not so sure about access to nature. When there’s no pandemic, Adirondack Loj is 2.5 hours away, which is not terrible. Those mountains are small but numerous and reasonably scenic.

Where else can you go? People drive to the Eastern Townships and the Laurentians, which both have some extremely modest topography. I think it’s actually pretty feasible to bike to the Laurentians on good infrastructure; I’ve done it before there was good infrastructure. It’s about 100km. There isn’t good public transit; I think there’s a daily bus to the Eastern Townships. The climbing is, really, not that close.

Tournoi Répentigny, a pain to get to.

Air/Train

There are also the connections you would expect to see in a major city. The airport is 23min away by car, 1h away by transit.

The train station is 30 minutes away. There’s a fairly developed commuter network; the REM is coming; and you could go anywhere from Vancouver to Halifax by train, if you had the time and money. Ottawa and Toronto aren’t too far.

Even once one is at the airport, getting to mountains is not quick. It’s 5 hours flying time to Calgary, 4 back. Canada’s big. OK, so the Torngats are closer, but they are super remote, and I wouldn’t just hop out there.

Gratuitous Torngats picture.

Reality

So this is perhaps the most epistemically-sketchy evaluation of the three. There’s a possible 15-minute life, but it wouldn’t be my life in Montreal, since my actual connections in Montreal are generally not 15-minute connections.

MP used to live right by Pie-IX métro, which isn’t bad, at least for métro connections everywhere. That neighbourhood also qualifies as a 15-minute city, and I could probably still make it work by stashing a bicycle at strategic points. But then I guess the issue is that one might have friends who are not conveniently placed in a larger city. Then what?

Conclusions

Would I prefer living in Montreal to Kitchener/Waterloo? Dunno. Have to try again sometime I guess. Hopefully for more than a week. When there is no pandemic. (I can hope!) There are more amenities for sure. Does it make a difference in my life? Can’t say. Is that inconclusive or what?

Spotted in Istanbul‽