Two mayors share thoughts
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante visits with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens during 2023 LINK trip to Montreal. (Special: City of Montreal.)

Transit. Bicycles. Pedestrian streets. Public art displays. A festive spirit. Awareness of climate change. 

Those were just some of the themes metro Atlanta leaders expressed upon their return from Montreal during the 26th LINK trip that took place from Aug. 15 to Aug. 19.

In conversations with more than a dozen people from the Atlanta region who were on the LINK trip, the comments were nearly unanimous. Montreal is a fabulous city — at least for six months out of the year.

Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett was so enthusiastic upon her return that David Nifong, Decatur’s energy and sustainability manager, asked her if the Montreal tourism bureau had offered her a job.

Members of metro Atlanta’s LINK delegation in Montreal. (Special: Atlanta Regional Commission.)

“Clearly, I was impressed,” Garrett wrote in an email. “Art, innovation and sustainability are three themes that are interwoven into life in Montreal. Public art, whether in the form of murals, creative lighting, buildings, sculptures or sidewalks contributes to what Yves Lalumiere, president and CEO of Tourisme Montreal, describes as Montreal being ‘made for humanity.’”

The Atlanta Regional Commission, which organizes the annual LINK trips, invited nearly 130 people from the Atlanta region to experience Montreal. The metro Atlanta LINK delegation included most of the county commission chairs in the region, business and civic leaders, as well as mayors from several of metro municipalities, among others.

“It’s a walking-friendly city,” said Robb Pitts, chair of the Fulton County Commission. “They seem to be a lot further along than we are in the financing of their public transit. That came across loud and clear — state and federal support is critical. “

Montreal is investing significant dollars to expand its transit system — namely a new $4.8 billion light rail system that is being financed through a public-private partnership headed by the Province of Quebec’s pension fund. That is in addition to its heavy rail system as well as a modest investment in bus rapid transit (BRT).

“Montreal has so much. It has density, walkability and a great transit system,” said Matt Westmoreland, Atlanta City Councilmember who serves on ARC’s board. “They receive so much financial support from the province and the federal government. It is just a reality that there’s just so much more funding for quality-of-life, infrastructure — everything from bike lanes to public art. It was refreshing to see how much good can come when the local, provincial and federal governments are all aligned and moving in the same direction.”

LINK delegation members enjoy a bike ride in Montreal. (Photo courtesy of Michael Halicki of Park Pride.)

By comparison, the Atlanta region is investing primarily in BRT transit lines. In fact, the only rail transit project moving forward in the region is the Atlanta Streetcar extension to and along the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail.

“There’s a continued appetite for transit in Montreal,” Collie Greenwood, MARTA’s general manager, said in a phone interview. “The number of people who take transit, depend on transit and believe in transit is relatively high compared to Atlanta. It gives us the understanding that this is possible and is something to aim for. They are further along in the continuum.”

On the trip, Montreal transit officials expressed disappointment that transit represents “only” 25 percent of the modal share in the region because their goal is 35 percent. By comparison, Greenwood said that in the Atlanta region, transit represents about 7 percent of the modal transportation share. A major part of Montreal’s success is that there’s a great deal of partnership between the city, the region, the province and the federal government.

Greenwood, who is from Canada, often served as a translator during the trip, explaining and comparing differences and similarities between Atlanta and Montreal.

“What we’re doing now is right for the time. It’s not one and done,” Greenwood said. “Every city is where it is. Let’s go see what others are doing. That’s healthy. When we come across a city that inspires us, that’s a great thing.” 

Greenwood also expressed a desire for more rail in MARTA’s future.

“I would be very sad to say we will never build rail again,” Greenwood said. “It is still absolutely part of our overall desire for expansion.”

Riding with smiles
Michael Halicki of Park Pride takes a selfie of Atlanta leaders on a bike ride in Montreal that included Doug Shipman, Matt Westmoreland and Debra Lam. (Photo by Michael Halicki.)

The State of Georgia has not been a big investor in MARTA or transit, compared to Montreal and other states in the country. A study done by the ATL shows that the national average for states providing operating funds for transit is 21 percent of revenues. In Georgia, it’s 1 percent. As for capital investments, the national average is 16 percent, but in Georgia, the state’s investment in transit is only 3 percent.

“We are forging relationships with the state,” Greenwood said. “I would love to have lots of partners with lots of money. While we are trying to attract our funding partners, we also need to mobilize the people of Atlanta by providing safe, clean, reliable and effective transportation.”

Kevin Abel, a former chair of the Georgia Board of Transportation and now executive director of Mobility Atlanta, said the state could do more when it comes to transit investment. While in Montreal (his third LINK trip), Abel was able to experience the city’s heavy rail, light rail and BRT systems. Montreal’s metropolitan planning organization (their version of ARC) actually has control of land use, and it has been able to foster transit-oriented development around the new light rail stations.

“I’m encouraged that there are ways in which we can improve mobility and expand transit in metro Atlanta. What we learned in Montreal was creative financing,” Abel said. “It’s no simple task. We are not Quebec. We are not Montreal. So, we can’t do what they did. But we can be creative.”

It’s not just transit. Montreal has been investing in a multi-layered network of bicycle lanes and bike highways, spending about $30 million a year on bicycle infrastructure. It also has turned nine major streets into pedestrian and bicycle corridors 24/7 during the summer months. Rebecca Serna of Propel ATL shared her thoughts about Montreal in a blog post.

“The bike ride we did was the highlight of the trip,” said Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, who was also impressed with the parks and public spaces in Montreal. He co-authored a SaportaReport column with Jim Durrett of the Buckhead Coalition. “I thought it was a beautiful city.” 

A city of joy
A view of Montreal and its public spaces. (Photo by Michael Halicki.)

Frank Fernandez, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, was impressed by Montreal’s walkable and bikeable environment.

“The partnership between Quebec and Montreal is striking,” said Fernandez, who sees a “huge opportunity [in metro Atlanta] because of all these federal infrastructure dollars. How do we align all these governmental investments to develop our region in a more equitable and forward-looking way.”

A common theme mentioned by almost every speaker in Montreal was climate change.

“It was fascinating to see a city that has put mitigation of climate change at the center of their agenda,” said Doug Shipman, president of the Atlanta City Council. “So many of their policies come back to addressing climate change.”

Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante, Montreal’s first female mayor, brought her own water bottle to the stage after being introduced by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens.

Public art in downtown Montreal
Public art is everywhere in Montreal. (Photo by Patti Garrett.)

“[She] described climate change and the impact now and on future generations as a major focus of her administration, emphasizing that we cannot keep re-creating the same systems and expecting different results,” Garrett said. “Addressing heat islands with ‘sponge parks and sponge streets,’ Bike highways, pedestrian malls, more public transit, trees, trees and more trees, getting business on board with strategies — are all a part of the process.”

Garrett said members of the Atlanta delegation were “encouraged to calculate our carbon footprints for the visit” by using a link offered by the city of Montreal.

“In calculating my carbon footprint, I need to plant three trees with a donation of $14.84 to offset my impact,” Garrett said. “Enjoying Montreal mostly on foot significantly lessened my impact.”

Nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned Montreal’s festive feel — especially investing in a public plaza with government-supported lighting infrastructure — an idea several wanted to bring to Atlanta.

Shipman said several people from Atlanta already are asking where that could be located in Atlanta.

“Apparently, they all live outside going to festivals during the warmer months,” said Ariel Fristoe, founder of Out of Hand Theater. “My impression was that our entire delegation was taken with the idea of whether we could have this fantastic transit system and all the festival.”

Fristoe said the first speaker spoke of free healthcare, free education and no guns. “What’s not to like?” she asked.

Fabiola Charles Stokes, Google’s head of global sites strategy for North America, who is of Haitian descent, has spent time growing up in Montreal visiting family. Compared to Atlanta, Montreal has a much smaller Black population — and the panels in Montreal were largely white. But she said it was, “Refreshing. That women were well represented.”

Montreal lights up its buildings to create a festive feel to the city. (Photo by Patti Garrett.)

Montreal is a top North American city for festivals. Stokes said Atlanta can learn from Montreal by exploring how we can celebrate “what makes our city great and what makes living here so attractive.” She also would like to explore how Atlanta can leverage technology to activate public spaces.

“In Montreal, there are a lot of shared values and understanding on what makes a great city and a great region. It does seem like an incredible place from May to November,” Westmoreland said. “There are definitely significant differences in governmental structure and governmental funding that make the realities in our two regions very different.”

Westmoreland also reacted to social media accounts asking what the Atlanta region gets from these annual LINK pilgrimages. 

“It is a fair question,” Westmoreland said. “How are we going to turn what we saw into something that residents of Atlanta can see and feel?”

Pitts agreed.

“These trips are worthwhile,” he said. “The questions now are: What did we learn, and what are we going to implement?”

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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  1. This is absurd. Don’t get me wrong. Montreal is a great city with great restaurants, walkable communities, and effective public transport. I’m totally game for more of that in Atlanta. But this just screams “taxpayer funded junket to Montreal.” Here’s a question for each of the people in public office who went: what concrete steps will you implement in the next 6 months based on your trip? If you are merely coming up with excuses (we need federal and state funding is a good one), I suggest we should stop wasting everyone’s time and stop going to these in the future.

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