'We are not welcome': wheelchair users demand space on Montreal's pedestrian streets

·5 min read
For those with reduced mobility who rely on wheelchairs or other vehicles, navigating pedestrian streets can be a challenge. (Laura Marchand/CBC - image credit)
For those with reduced mobility who rely on wheelchairs or other vehicles, navigating pedestrian streets can be a challenge. (Laura Marchand/CBC - image credit)

Linda Gauthier lives just a few blocks away from Mont-Royal Avenue. The street, one of 10 becoming fully pedestrian this summer, sees restaurants spilling out onto terrasses and the pavement crowded with colourful sidewalk sales.

But Gauthier said she can't take advantage of any of it — not on Mont-Royal, or in any of Montreal's pedestrian zones — because she uses a wheelchair.

"[People with limited mobility] would like to enjoy them as well, but we hate it, because of the frustration every time you go on one of the streets," Gauthier said.

"I come back and I cry almost every time ... I'm in the middle of it, I'm in the heart of the Plateau and I can't enjoy my borough."

As pedestrian streets prepare to launch across the central city, those who run them say they're committed to improving accessibility during the summer months.

But Gauthier, who is also the chairperson of the Regroupement des activistes pour l'inclusion au Québec (RAPLIQ), an accessibility rights group, said more needs to be done to make the pedestrian zones equal for everyone.

"We are not welcome. It feels like we are not welcome on the streets at all … we cannot enjoy the summer like everybody else," she said.

Just eating on terrasse can be difficult

One major problem, Gauthier said, has to do with terrasses, Montreal's iconic patios.

Only some of them have ramps, but even those aren't always truly accessible. Many of them lack the space to manoeuvre, or they opt to use bar stools and tall tables, which are too high for those using wheelchairs.

"So they will put you at a table on the sidewalk. You are all alone, lower than all the people on the terrasse," she said. "Again, you feel like you're under everybody."

Laura Marchand/CBC
Laura Marchand/CBC

When that happens, Gauthier said she chooses to go elsewhere, instead of settling for an uncomfortable or alienating experience.

It's a specific problem the borough of Plateau-Mont-Royal is aiming to fix.

Laurence Parent, the borough councillor for the De Lorimier district, says there are new rules for terrasses on the street this year.

Each one will have to have a ramp and enough space for a wheelchair to navigate. At least half of the seating on the terrasse also needs to be wheelchair-accessible, she said.

"It's a big change to make sure that, yes, it's accessible, that you will have the room to actually sit on the terrasse," said Parent, who also uses a wheelchair.

Every terrasse that has been approved by the borough so far meets that criteria, she said.

Navigating the street

Aside from the terrasses, Gauthier said just navigating the street itself can be a challenge. Some stores put displays or racks of clothing outside, without thinking about what they might be obstructing, she said.

Sometimes the ramps at the corners of sidewalks, known as curb cuts, end up getting blocked, meaning those who use wheelchairs can't get from the street level to the sidewalk, Gauthier said.

"[Store owners] say, 'but it's a pedestrian street.' Yeah, but I cannot go into the store," she said. "If they block the sidewalk, how can we get there?"

Gauthier says often those in wheelchairs need to go to the end of a block to get onto a sidewalk, and then double-back to their destination.

Laura Marchand/CBC
Laura Marchand/CBC

Coun. Parent says that shouldn't be happening.

"We don't want anything blocking the curb cuts," she said. "That's not in the plan at all. These are basic, very basic things — and if that happens, we need to know."

To that end, the borough has set up an accessibility liaison officer, who can be reached by phone or email. Residents are encouraged to reach out if they have questions or concerns, which the officer will address either this summer or the next.

Being in a wheelchair doesn't mean she'll catch every problem with accessibility, Parent said. "I'm not pretending to be able to see everything," which is where the liaison comes in.

It's one of many new initiatives that the borough is bringing in this year.

New plans for accessibility

Parent said there will also be more benches, so people with reduced mobility, including the elderly, have places to rest on the street.

There will also be a complimentary taxi service for those nearby, to take them to and from Mont-Royal up to twice a week. A bike rickshaw service will also be available to bring people up and down the street.

Parent noted that Mont-Royal Metro station has also completed its renovations to make it more accessible, and the borough will be working with Société Logique, a non-profit that focuses on accessible design, throughout the summer.

"We are not saying this will be perfect, that there will be no design flaws," she said. "[But we want] to have that conversation of: what can we do to make sure that the street is as accessible as possible for 2022?"

It's not just Mont-Royal, either. Promenade Wellington in Verdun, for example, said their street will also have bike rickshaws, adapted furniture and toilets, and extra ramps to get from the street level to the sidewalk without having to go to a corner.

But Linda Gauthier isn't holding her breath. "It's going to be probably the same damn thing again," she said.

"It's not a matter of life and death, I understand that," she said. "But it's always the same."

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