The Future of the Turcot: Where the rubber hits the road  

Opened in 1967 during an era when the future meant accommodating the car, Montreal’s Turcot Interchange is now crumbling.

By Russ Cooper

The Turcot landscape as it now exists. Scroll down to see a computer-generated video of the proposed covered/underground Côte St-Paul section of hwy 15. Magnifying glass

The Turcot landscape as it now exists. Scroll down to see a computer-generated video of the proposed covered/underground Côte St-Paul section of hwy 15.

It’s obvious why the title Montreal at the Crossroads was chosen. Beyond the self-evident traffic analogy, the contributors to the book examining the future of the Turcot Interchange (connecting highways 15, 20 and 720 and accommodating 280 000 automobiles daily) make no quips about the underlying duality.

“The fundamental message of the book is that this urban infrastructure that’s at the end of its lifecycle,” says Geography, Planning and Environment Professor and co-editor Pierre Gauthier. “We have to make huge decisions about our future right now.”

Since launching this summer, the Community University Research Alliance (CURA)-funded book has been gaining traction. Co-edited by Gauthier, his colleague Jochen Jaeger, and CURA Coordinator at the McGill School of Urban Planning, Jason Prince, the book counters a current Ministry of Transport Quebec proposal for the Turcot, saying it has not considered imperative environmental aspects; and, if the plan is implemented, it will have detrimental effects for years to come.

“As it is, the proposal will lead to further urban sprawl of low-density suburbs, increased pollution and more cars on the road,” says Gauthier.

According to the MTQ website, the government proposal (slated to begin construction in November), “involves […] reducing the number of raised structures and constructing as many sections as possible at ground level or on embankments.” The MTQ expects the total daily total automobile volume of automobiles to increase by nearly 24% by 2016. According to Gauthier, the MTQ’s proposal is strictly based on a traffic engineers’ perspective, aimed only at creating a more fluid system for the traffic. “They’re looking at it like plumbers,” he says.

The MTQ states that, by then, new cars will be more efficient and pollute less, essentially negating the pollution increase that would come with additional volume. Gauthier says one thing (among many) they don’t consider is the pollution added by cars travelling further distances will in turn negate any positive gain they predict.

Professor Craig Townsend, who co-authored a chapter addressing patterns in Montreal’s transport and development, believes the public has not been adequately included in the debate that will undoubtedly affect them.

“If we do the Turcot rebuilding on this scale, […] I don’t think the general population understands what’s at stake,” Townsend says. “This will determine the terms of the urban development and transportation of Montreal for generations.”

Their collective vision, which Gauthier presented to the Bureau d’audience publique sur l’environment (BAPE) hearings on June 16, is based on the idea of a ‘modal shift.’ In short, to lower greenhouse gas emissions and create a more sustainable future, we must change the Turcot approach towards: reducing reliance on the automobile; encouraging walking, biking and public transit; and funneling development into inner city neighbourhoods.

They propose such measures as expanding public transit east from Trudeau airport and Lachine and continuing west beyond downtown with both buses and rail lines, and reserved corridors for buses and carpooling. To support those measures, they propose actions such as reducing downtown parking to discourage car use.

Gauthier estimates 70% of Turcot users are single-occupancy vehicles—the exact population this team is targeting. “Good public transit can be less-stressful and even faster than the car if it’s well designed. It’s win-win for everybody.”

As well, in the Cabot and Côte St. Paul portions, they propose building a section of highway 15 underground, with some aboveground portions covered by a lightweight, transparent carbon-fibre shelter. By doing so, it would significantly reduce noise, pollution and dust. This would contribute to the revitalization of neighbourhoods adjacent to the throughways.

“We figure we could build 3 500 housing units, retail, community services, commercial buildings,” Gauthier says. “There’s half a billion dollars of real estate in the heart of the city there that can’t be developed using [the MTQ] project.

As a student in newly created graduate of the environmental assessment program, Jonathan Moorman worked with classmates Elham Ghamoushi-Ramandi, Erika Brown and M. Munaf Von Rudloff to develop a ‘strategic assessment’. Making up chapter seven of the book, is an evaluative analysis of different construction proposals and how they adhere to the current government policy or vision meant to guide a given city into future successes.

In this case, the team used noise, transport and socioeconomic environmental factors to compare both the MTQ and modal shift proposals to the Montreal Master Plan and Transport Plan 2008, the city’s comprehensive planning and development strategy, scoring each on a scale of -30 (extremely detrimental) to +30 (extremely compliant).

The MTQ’s proposal scored a -10.92 while the modal shift plan scored a +14.01.
“Something people tend to forget about quality of life when building traffic arteries,” says Moorman. “We know much more about the harmful effects of building highways through neighbourhoods now than we did in the 60s.”

Branching out to other disciplines, the department is also working with engineering on a number of corresponding projects. Gauthier is collaborating with CIISE professor and recently named Fulbright scholar Amin Hammad to build 3D computer-generated animated models of separate Turcot scenarios; how it exists now, how the MTQ proposal would function , and how theirs would work. As well, he’s had discussions with engineering students to calculate the construction and maintenance costs of both the MTQ and Gauthier’s proposals.

“Sometimes this debate is portrayed as a fight between idealistic environmentalists and the people with realistic economic experience,” he says. “In 2009, we have hard science telling us we need to change. We’re not idealistic anymore.”

Produced by the Advanced Urban Laboratory and Concordia's Institute for Information Systems Engineering, these (rough-cut) computer-generated simulations give a visual illustration of today's Côte St. Paul portion of the Turcot, and the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment's proposal.

As it is today:

Geography, Planning and Development's proposal:

Video credits: S. Aburihan, M. Cazabon, R. King, D. Stojic – Advanced Urban Laboratory


Concordia University