The recent local elections in MontrÃ©al might spark some ideas for attendees of the COP11 summit: a pro-urban, “red-green” political party has surfaced in City Hall.
The new Projet MontrÃ©al party secured a city council seat in the dense, diverse Plateau neighborhood, winning 12% of all votes cast citywide in a three-way election against two established parties. Its platform brings the spirit of the red-green (social-democrat and environmentalist) urban coalition — the governing majority in major European cities like London, Paris, and Berlin — to North America.
Unlike most stateside Green political parties, which take a skeptical stance towards urban growth, Projet MontrÃ©al embraces population and housing growth as a way to curb car use and suburban sprawl. Its leader, Richard Bergeron, is a transit-agency technocrat whose political heroes (link in French) include mayors Ken Livingstone in London and Bertrand DelanoÃ« in Paris. In London, a wildly successful downtown toll has cut traffic by nearly 20% even while a crop of new, environmentally friendly high-rise office towers rises. In Paris, city officials heckle SUV drivers, close roads to cars for weekly “Paris Breathes” days, and will soon convert a riverfront highway into a beach. The “red” in the coalition comes from a strong appeal to working-class voters with new public-works projects and affordable housing.
Projet MontrÃ©al’s ambitious platform promises “Montrealers a unique opportunity to gather around a sustainable urban development project,” with planks that call for a 2.5% annual reduction in traffic, doubling transit ridership, converting 250 km of bus routes to light rail, narrowing streets to calm traffic, and developing housing on parking lots.
Its call for setting a performance standard to actually reduce traffic has few peers: Slowing traffic growth, much less reducing existing travel, seems well-nigh impossible at times. Politicians understandably prefer laundry-list prescriptive solutions to performance measures, which introduce a higher standard of accountability but won’t necessarily move votes. Yet with enough shove, cutting traffic is possible: Cambridge, Mass. requires that new developments use “Transportation Demand Management” (TDM) to keep parking and traffic demand at existing levels. Even in MontrÃ©al, which boasts per-capita transit ridership 57% higher than New York City, driving has increased by 35% over the past ten years. Reversing that trend will require every trick in the book, plus many more — but at least someone’s willing to try.
Similar platforms focused on housing and transit, albeit often with more vague proposals, hve elected Democratic mayors like Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, Jerry Brown in Oakland, Will Wynn in Austin, and Dave Cieslewicz in Madison, Wis. In 2003, San Francisco mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez campaigned for better transit and infill housing on the Green ticket; he lost 53-47 to Gavin Newsom, who has moved forward with initiatives like busways and high-rise housing downtown. One challenge facing American cities is that higher car ownership rates make it hard to explicitly attack overdependence on cars; Projet MontrÃ©al received its highest margins in high-density, working-class neighborhoods (like the Plateau and Park Extension) with very few car owners and voters hungry for a renewed commitment to transit.
Another challenge comes from Americans’ greater skepticism of planning and stronger notions of property rights — sentiments that manifest themselves in local NIMBY movements that can undermine fragile local political coalitions. On the other hand, Canada’s habit of consolidating cities into grand regional councils, and electing council seats disproportionately, probably hurts local minor parties by diluting their support amidst a sea of suburban votes.