Luc Ferrandez’s last bicycle was a Kona, a sturdy model with thick tires, ideal for hauling heavy loads. During his 2009 campaign as the Projet Montréal candidate for the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, he would hook it to a trailer piled with a laptop, a projector, a collapsible screen, and (this being Montreal) a couple of bottles of rosé. After setting up his equipment next to a café terrace, he would distribute paper cups and launch a PowerPoint slide show of streets and squares in Copenhagen, Paris, and Madrid, as well as historical photos of local boulevards, all unencumbered by traffic. He figures it was these partys de trottoir, or sidewalk parties—during which he made the case that Montreal could be as clean, green, and safe as any place in Europe—that won him the mayoralty of the city’s most populous district. His mountain bike, alas, didn’t survive the campaign.
“I was having a discussion with a citizen,” recalls Ferrandez. “I left my bike against a wall, unlocked. When I came back an hour later, it was gone.” These days, his main mode of transportation is an Opus, which has the upright handlebars and broad saddle of a bike you would expect to find leaning against a canal-side railing in Amsterdam.
One afternoon last fall, the mayor of the Plateau pedaled his new bike down avenue Laurier, whose bistros and bocce pitches make it feel like one of North America’s most European promenades. In the shadow of the verdigrised spire of the Catholic church, a woman in high heels returned a Bixi, one of Montreal’s fleet of 5,000 loaner bikes, to a stand outside the Laurier metro station. The brisk bicycle traffic in the recently broadened curb lanes moved smoothly. Between the bikes, cars idled, backed up for blocks. A few months earlier, Ferrandez’s party had restricted automobile traffic on Laurier to one eastbound lane.
“This is just the beginning,” said Ferrandez, pausing outside an elementary school to put a foot down. “On this block, we are going to plant 60 trees and add a little market. We are also going to expand the sidewalks by six metres, which will protect the school and make it easier for parents to fetch their kids.”
For fans of contemporary urbanism, Luc Ferrandez has been heaven sent to resurrect the Plateau, Montreal’s most emblematic neighborhood. Despite a real estate boom approximately three-quarters of its residents remain renters. The Plateau averages just 0.6 cars per household, versus 1.5 in the rest of Canada. Even so, its narrow streets are especially congested because of commuter traffic between the office towers of downtown and such automobile-dependent suburbs as Laval. Some 80 percent of the cars using the borough’s streets come from outside it. During a spate of construction in the summer of 2011, much of the borough was reduced to gridlock. As Bixi riders wove around immobilized cars, talk radio callers lambasted Montreal’s most visible opponent of the automobile as a dictator, a Nazi, and even Satan.
“I accept that some people think I’m the devil!” Ferrandez shouted over his shoulder, making a right onto rue de Brébeuf. “For them, the Plateau doesn’t exist. It is just a place to be driven through. I don’t give a shit about these people. They’ve abandoned the idea that humans can live together.”
Ferrandez’s vision of what the borough is, and could be, seems almost exalted. “The Plateau is an Italian cathedral. It’s a forest. It’s something to protect, something sacred. I don’t want it to become a place where people come to live in a condo with triple-glazed windows for a couple of years. This has to be a place where people can be comfortable walking to the bakery, walking to school, walking to the park—where they want to stay to raise a family.”
“With everything I’m doing,” he said, leaning his Opus against a tree, “I may lose the next election. That’s why I have a real sense of urgency. If I only have two years left, I want to get as much done as I can.” He hadn’t bothered to lock his bike, but this time it was still waiting for him when he returned.
Taras Grescoe writes essays, articles, and books. He is something of a nonfiction specialist. His latest book, Straphanger, is out now. Read more of his work at Taras Grescoe. Excerpted from The Walrus, a general interest magazine about Canada and its place in the world.