Driving in Montreal


Dynamic systems are a challenge for anthropology. This is the way contemporary culture invents itself and anthropology hasn’t had very much exposure to this kind of thing. So I have been trying to think about how to think about these systems. As a novice, I suck at it.

I’ve been thinking about traffic in Montreal. There are two kinds of drivers: very good and very bad.

The good drivers go like the wind. They are quick, nimble, fearless and very calm.

I have good data here. I walk a lot, and sometimes it’s tedious. I relieve the tedium by sprinting to get the last of a green light or to cross the street in mid stream. In this second case, I time my passage so that I hit the stream of traffic just as a gap appears. (This is stupid and dangerous, but it is fun. But if the posts suddenly stop, you’ll know what happened.)

In Toronto, this sort of thing provokes howls of unhappiness and lots of horn work. Toronto drivers scare easily and they like to take umbrage at unruly pedestrian behavior. In Montreal, there is never an objection. They don’t object, I think, because I am walking the way they are driving: quick and nimble.

The bad drivers are amazingly bad. They appear to be oblivious to everyone and everything around them. They are inclined to draw the ire of the good drivers who punish them with lots of honking. And in this case, some of them seem to give up and just sit there. Bad drivers have become worse drivers.

So I fell to thinking: why such good drivers and such bad ones. Presumably, the Montreal driving “experiment” began with a normal distribution and a graduated continuum of skill. At some point, the continuum gave way to something bi-modal.

Maybe, I thought, these drivers created one another.

I believe (and this is where culture comes in) Montreal drivers subscribe to a European model of driving. They don’t care about right of way and rules of the road so much as they do seizing the opportunity exactly when it presents itself. The good ones create a highly dynamic traffic system. You have to be on your toes to avoid nimble drivers and on your toes to act like one.

But anyone who occupies the “far half” of the continuum, the “not so good” half, now has a problem. They are surrounded by people driving like the wind. I am guessing that this group now splits in half as well. The medial half “gets with the program” and begins to drive with forced enthusiasm. But the far half (last quartile) is now living in an environment that constantly overwhelms them. Tested to their limit, they get worse. And then they get punished. And so they get worse.

The readers of this blog are, I know, smarter at thinking about systems like this and I am curious to see what they have to say. After all, and as I have just demonstrated, I suck at this.

17 thoughts on “Driving in Montreal

  1. Tom

    Oh, I like this post, Grant. A New Yorker born and bred (who wandered to the provinces of Ohio and Western Pennsylvania to study the human psyche), driving behavior has always been a fascination to me. It is the pinnacle of adaptive, contextual behavior (“nimble[ness],” as you put it); dancing in rolling steel shells. I love to drive in cities and use speed variation as a key adaptive tool: to fill space/time slots that allow me more flexibility than the one I’m in, to escape uncomfortable quarters (i.e., elude jerks), and so on.

    So, what about those who are “not so good,” and who don’t, “get with the program”? They’ve always been a mysterious species to me…how could they not appreciate the subtleties of their environment?

    Whether your “European mindset” hypothesis applies or not is something to think about, but, just yesterday, I read this post about “them” that had me laughing out loud. Enjoy.


  2. Grant

    Tom, great post, thanks!, “dancing in rollng steel shells” is a nice image. We are tin men on the dance floor (to borrow Levinson’s phrase). Thanks for the link. Checking it out now. Best, Grant

  3. LK

    hi…i had one of the most terrifying experiences driving into montreal last summer, arriving from ottawa, and though warned about the “crazy montreal drivers” had no way of knowing what to expect. apart from all signs suddenly going french on me (not the cereal box model that gives you both “flocons de mais” *and* “corn flakes”, the choreography of almost collisions was unreal. and all happening while people inside their cars smoked,, talked on their cell phones, and generally looked damn good. being a west coast girl where life just isn’t like this it struck me that there was an artistry to this chosen recklessness…kind of like the renaissance idea of “sprezzatura”, defined by castiglione in his book of the courtier as:

    “It is an art which does not seem to be an art. One must avoid affectation and practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, disdain or carelessness, so as to conceal art, and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it….obvious effort is the antithesis of grace.”

    i bounce this back to montreal resident grant…it seems to me this notion may explain a fair bit about the good drivers in montreal. the bad ones…i’m guessing they don’t get the game, floudering instead of doing the dance.

    it also brings to mind bad pedestrian syndrome…always worst in skid row parts of the city…where people with nothing to lose mindlessly bound off the curb whenever they want to or exercise what little power they have in the universe by mindfully stepping in front of your car while it’s in the middle of the intersection. talk about messing with “the man”.

  4. Grant

    Talk about raising the tone! A quote from Castiglione! But I believe this book does more to explain the English (as in from England) than it does the French (as in from Montreal; it actually works pretty well to explain a Parisian). A small squabble, to be sure. I believe that the Montreal driver is, as you very nicely imply, conforms more to the wisdom of Billy Crystal: it is better to look good than to drive good. But even this is wrong. This is a city drenched in drama. Everyone is on stage all the time. This means, among other things, that the garbage man does not collect our garbage. He steals it with a great flourish as if now engaged in a Navy Seals mission of high international import. (And if you want quotes, the one that applies here is “bad poets borrow, good poets steal.”) This also explains why Montreal drivers never signal their intentions but simply turn corners all of a sudden. They too are on a mission and you the pedestrian do not have a security rating high enough to quality for “need to know” data. Personally, I like this, because the first time you trust a turn signal is, sometimes, the last time you are safe in the streets. But I am wandering a little, aren’t I. Hey, I just saw a gap in the discourse and went for it. Thanks!

  5. Jim

    When I moved from Toronto to Moncton I was in driver shock. They are all bad drivers … by my way of thinking. Because there are so few travelers and so few tie-ups people never anticipate, only react. You may think it everyone is turning right when there are 20 cars in the right hand lane and 2 in the left. Not so, they happened to be in that lane and stayed, it is a non-dynamic model. Those few dynamic drivers are not significant enough in number to penalize or change behaviour, my horn is offensive, and changes no behaviour, immediately or later. Dynamic drivers are penalized by “irrational” driving behaviour. We are largely unable to understand the non-dynamic behaviour and are constantly on the edge of an accident – at least this is exciting.

    Back to Montreal, the dynamic driver’s mecca, I think that the dynamic system significantly influenced the non-dynamic – either pulling n-d’s into the dynamic system or pushing them even more firmly into their stationary mode.

  6. Grant

    Jim, beauty, so in this case the dynamic works in the other direction, by the looks of things. Thanks! Grant

  7. sam

    ha! loved the post 🙂
    i’m not a montrealer (only by heart), i live about 90 minutes away from the city but i love driving there. lol 😛 seriously. it might seem like people are driving all over the place, but, like you said, if you get with the program, you’ll be fine. these crazy drivers actually know what they’re doing so they’re not the dangerous ones out there 🙂

    thanks for the post.

  8. priior

    great post Grant (nice to meet you:), seems like this page is making the “tour du web”… how i ended up here.

    could it be, that montreal policemen are more lax with enforcing street regulations (opposed to say *cough* toronto where you can get ticketed for jaywalking) thus creating a certain code of conduct, drivers who have transcended to a state of awareness of that code of conduct, and others who are still dormant. (literally?)

    thanks for the great read! nice to see others have spent time pondering such issues too 🙂

  9. Grant

    Priior, thanks for your interesting proposal (and forgive my belated reply!) Then the question becomes what makes the policemen more lax. And it might be that they see that traffic works just fine with less policing (or maybe they’re just lazy). If the former, this is top down dynamism of a kind, an interesting variation on the theme! Thanks. Grant

  10. xed

    What really angers me about Montreal drivers is the total disrspect for solid lines on the highways. You will see drivers cut across clearly marked median lines to jump into another lane.

    Another example of idiot driver mentality (only in Montreal that I have ever seen) is when a three lane highway (freeway) splits in two directions with a median in the middle. For example, highway 20 heading to Toronto splits at some point to the Mercier bridge. Instead of drivers getting in the appropriate lane early for them to continue west towards Dorval/Toronto, they will stick to the right side (toward Mercier) all the way to the median and run over the white lines or stop in their tracks at the front of the line until they can squeeze their ass into the left lane. This causes traffic to backup and get into rediculous stop & go for nothing, every day. And I see this kind of thing happen daily all over Montreal.

    Another one that gets me is on-ramps that drivers turn 1-line into 2-lane, jamming two vehicles at a time onto a ramp forcing each car passing through to merge at the last possible instant. I guess the mentality here is bud in front of as many cars as possible before you are either forced to ride a curb or face the reality of colliding with another lane of traffic.

    Blah to bad Montreal drivers (myself excluded)!

    I really hate Montreal drivers.

  11. Susan

    I read your blog with interest.

    I am working on a series for CBC radio on this very subject.

    If you are interested and willing – or even just slightly curious – e-mail me your co-ordinates.

  12. Urban Punk Princess

    Montreal Style

    Montreal “as a two cheek kiss” and I won’t specify which ones !

    Personally I am a Montrealaise at heart (and with a car). Its in my mind, body and soul to casually roam the streets in my vehicle abiding by the very careless yet cultured attitude towards driving.

    We locals only ask that you embrace our ways, indulge in the experience better yet stay outta our way and quit complaining ! lol

    On several occasions I have had many a comments from outsiders about my care free sprited driving techniques. Alive and well living it up in the big city !

    I have also had the pleasure of driving in other areas such as Ontario – love the right on red ! However I must defend the misconceptions I have read in this blog and provide some logistically sound advice to those intending to visit our lovely city :

    1) We care very much for the pedestrians, however the municipalities have not designed user-friendly equipment it currently allows the crossing of both cars and people at the same intersection – the art behind this science is that when its green its a go for all may the less intimidated get through first!

    2) To be a pedestrian in Montreal you must bodly but stylishly step into the pathway of oncoming vehicles thus execising your right of passage.

    3) Taxi drivers just stink. They never have the right away and should be cut-off, honked and craddled behind double-parked cars as often as possible.

    4) Always peel out from a stop light as if you were a race with Jacques Villneuve. Mirrored sunglasses and good tunes blasting a must.

    5) When looking for parking in the downtown core you have no choice but to drive the middle line – therefore you have the ability to straddle either side of the road if you notice an open spot.

    6) Never ever pull up in front of an open spot attempting to back in with your flasher on, this indicates to all other drivers that your a dumbass for leaving it open – as another driver WILL take it while you attempt to manouver your way in.

    6A) If you do not follow these instructions thus loose your space its ok to double park with your flashers on while you get out and yell at the other driver.

    7) Flashers are not used here, they are merely decorations used for double parking only. If someone uses their flashers either they are from out of town or have flicked it on by mistake while changing a CD.

    8) Road rage is not uncommon here either. It is very important to give eye contact, the finger and speed up to cut off any driver that pisses you off. Imperative.

    9) Honking, hand waving and jeering is all part of the pedestrian experience. If your nice looking you will be entitled to a 25 second delay 🙂

    10) The best way to hang at a red light while going straight is to position your car slightly to block two lanes – this gives you a head start to jump in front of the other vehicles in case of double parked vehicles up ahead.

    11) If you are turning left or right at a light you MUST begin your turning action prior to the green light – slightly inching your car by releasing your foot from the break pedal – you must be almost around the corner before it turns green.

    12) If you manage to be the driver in the lead you may make any directional changes as you wish – as these arise the drivers behind will adjust accordingly.

    13) Highway driving has two speeds – super fast and ultra turbo boost. Pick one or the other but take the lakeshore if you are uncomfortable with this !

    14) Passing on the right is acceptable, not according to your ‘learn to drive’ manual but here in Montreal you are allowed to pass on either side as long as you pass with speed and style.

    15) Relax. Take a breather. The ratio of pedestrian to vehicle related accidents is fairly low. Due to our extended nightlife if your here to party your more likely to get hurt falling down drunk !

  13. Montreal man

    So this is what I have to look forward to when I get my car in June. Actually, I think that the City of Montreal is passing up a goldmine in traffic tickets… how come reckless driving is not seen as on a par with gun ownership? If I get mangled on this city’s streets, I’ll be suing a nice few city councillors, and maybe seeing if I can get them up on criminal negligence.. I lived in London, and there is no reason why Montreal has to turn a blind-eye to all these potential killers… not stopping at a cross-walk in London is, psychologically speaking, similar to running a red light… i.e., expect to get nailed if you do it! Check out my Blog at http://www.montreal-montreal-montreal-montreal.blogspot.com

  14. Louise M

    It is unbelievably disheartening to read the posts at this site about driving in Montreal, simply because this province has very high injuries and fatal casualties among both drivers and pedestrians, compared to places where there is simply more daily and ongoing respect for the driving “style” that allowed one to pass the road test and be licensed in the beginning…

    And to be proud that we drive so recklessly? This is anathema!

    Just ask anyone who has lost a son or daughter in a road accident, if driving rules should be treated so lightly! Then try to picture yourself as the grieving one, when the police arrive at your door, and having to deal for the rest of your life with the very real loss of someone you love more than you love yourself…

    What arrogance, to think “quick and nimble” is some sort of measure of “good vs bad”….

  15. Em

    I just got back to Montreal from a short trip to Toronto – where I used to live. I much prefer driving in Mtl; I am sure the drivers are paying attention here. In fact, they are anticipating…other cars, pedestrians, potholes, falling roadways, random erratic factors, whatever. In Toronto, I was never sure that a driver would be able to respond correctly – they seem a bit spacey, though fast.

    A few tips for out-of-towners driving in Mtl:

    – Montreal drivers do their lane/mind changing closer to the light than in other cities so that is when you need to be on High Alert eg: watch carefully, slow sooner, leave gaps.

    – Merge lanes on highways are shorter here than you would like so let the merging cars in sooner than you would elsewhere. They will hit a concrete wall otherwise – or you!

    – Signage on highways seems closer to the exits than in Ontario so drivers have less time to plan. Prepare for last minute exits by others.

    – There are evil left-lane exits on some of the highways (and people from the last merge trying to get to them….). Make a note of where they are and let people move around you. eg: Hwy 15N from the East-bound Hwy40…

    – Tailgating is the norm here – unfortunately. People want to be close!

    – Where lanes disappear or are blocked by construction (sigh), zipper-merges are automatic – almost an entitlement. Assume you are next and position the car accordingly. No need to wait to be waved in.

    – It is true sometimes, drivers trying to exit can’t get into the exit lane and they will sit in the next lane, blocking it for everyone behind them eg: getting onto Hwy 13, North and South from Hwy 40….

    – When it seems that other drivers are cutting you off, think again. Nimble driving is about flow – it makes things easier for everyone. ‘Cutting you off’ is about territoriality – that is for the stationary.

  16. Rohit

    I am slightly confused by what it means by no right on the red. I have been driving in alberta and BC and here on red, we can turn right if no vehicle is in the path of collision. How is it different in Montreal.

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