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Evelyn Reid

Montreal's Car-Free Day Week: The Target Market, The Image, the Underground Heat

By September 21, 2010

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montreal car free day montreal car free weekMontreal's car-free day in 2010 is a little shorter and a wee smaller. The above perimeter is officially closed to cars on Wednesday, September 22 from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Montreal's annual car-free day underwent an event marketing upgrade in 2010 and is now christened Montreal's car-free week.

Not that you'd notice. The term "week" is justified by a series of alternative transportation conferences and activities offered during business hours at Complexe Desjardins (map), now through Friday, September 24. Yet apart from some potential action in the car-free zone at lunch time and in the indoor kiosks, the only two events realistically accessible to downtown 9-to-5ers are a Tai Chi demo, scheduled today at 5:30 p.m. and an alcohol-free 5-à-7 (Montreal-speak for "happy hour") scheduled on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 5 p.m., a bizarre strategy for an event aiming to convince the working public to leave cars at home and use public transportation.

Car-free week or not, there is, as always, but one car-free day, and it's ironically been downgraded in 2010. The perimeter and time frame both shrunk: unlike in 2009, the stretch of Ste. Catherine in front of Place des Arts will remain open in 2010. Last year's closure hours on that stretch of the perimeter were 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. With that section scrapped, the car-free perimeter is closed off from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., in effect Wednesday, September 22, 2010.

On topic, I do believe Projet Montréal's brand new clip on the subject of public transit overheat sums up the feelings of some, if not many car dwellers who for several valid reasons, simply won't switch to public transit*, no matter how many taxpayer-funded "car-free" events are held. Can't say I blame them. I feel the same way about the excessive heat on the metro and crowded buses. Except, contrary to Projet Montréal's clip, I'm not smiling. Sometimes my hair frizzes up beyond repair from sweating. Works wonders when I'm networking. On some days, I have visible sweat marks under my arms, another point that really impresses acquaintances. I'm sweltering in the metro in the summer, sometimes sweating more heavily underground than when I'm outside. And I'm too hot in the winter. Yet these sweat marks don't appear when I grab a cab or get a lift.

"So you sweat a little on the metro," you say. What's the big deal, right? Wrong. I'll get to that in a moment. Now back to convincing car owners to jump on a bus.

Reality check#1: mobility is power. You can't have nearly as many face-to-faces with potential clients hopping on buses all day (reality check #1.1: not everyone is an office-bound employee). You can't cover as much territory either. You can't even apply for some jobs without a car. Unless serious overhauls are made to render public transit as physically comfortable and convenient as personal car ownership, or unless we change the way we do business, build relationships, judge appearances and measure success, how can anyone possibly expect a quantum leap in public transit adoption? Or even a moderate one?

FYI, I don't actually have a car, and you know what? I used to be proud of that. But in the last couple of years, I've seriously pondered if not having one is hurting my career, all the while wondering if Montreal public transit is simultaneously killing my image.

I chatted about this with a successful career woman a few months back while we were enjoying an exclusive lunch with a Harvard business prof who was guest speaking. As I struggled to find a place under the round table to put my umbrella, camera pouch, notebook, books and purse (I had another rendez-vous that afternoon), I asked my lunch neighbor, who specializes in environmental issues and who came to the event by car, what kind of message not owning a vehicle sends out to peers and decision-makers about one's success as a professional.

Despite my credentials, skills and psychological aptitude, could I risk being passed up for executive or leadership roles over image? Once again, I don't have a car so my hair inevitably gets ruffled from Metro door wind tunnels (ever seen a female CEO with heavy flyaways? me neither), I can't bring a change of shirts if something gets stained, and I usually have two bags with me, sometimes three because I often have more than one place to go, require different notes/equipment and can't leave anything behind in a car. In the winter, I come off as even more gauche hauling my parka around with the rest of my "day luggage."

Sounds superficial?

Reality check #2: image is everything. With roughly identical credentials, who would you hire/award a contract? The slightly disheveled (or completely frizzed up) bag lady who goes out of her way to reduce her carbon footprint by using public transit and wearing timeless looks that don't require constant fashion updates (i.e., constant consumption), someone who handles pressure and high stakes like a cool cucumber but you'd never know it because she has a bead of sweat trickling down her brow as she holds her boxy down-filled puffer to the side? Or would you hover toward the fresh-looking, matte-faced competitor who changed into a clean pair of leather heels while leaving her salt-stained winter boots in the trunk, who swapped her bulky but warm ski jacket for a thin wool coat that's useless in subzero weather but matches her in-season-now-out-season-next suit, and did a last-minute makeup, hair and lint check in the rear view mirror courtesy of her in-car makeup kit, haircare products and lint collector?

My lunch mate paused, looked at me emphatically as I lunged for my cumbersome umbrella as it collapsed on the floor -- I would have left that in the car. Then she looked down at her plate. But she didn't answer my question. And frankly, I didn't want to either.

*According to Projet Montréal, getting one car off the street justifies the air conditioning of 12 buses. I wanted to get more details on how those numbers were obtained but was unable to get the answers from Projet Montréal in time for publication.

AUGUST 22, 2011 UPDATE: Some Montreal buses, including the heavily used Bus 24, have been outfitted with air conditioning, an apparent test run. No word yet on if/when air conditioning will be integrated across the bus and underground network.

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