The STM and the illusion of participation

December 3rd, 2010 by ant6n

The STM, Montreal’s public transportation agency, presents itself as fresh and new and user-oriented, with a recently revamped corporate design (which is admittedly pretty nifty) and a public campaign involving tv spots and a new blog. They try to project an image of user focus.

Just now the STM offered a new set of exciting choices to its users: the color scheme of the new metro cars. The choices are: blue and white, white and blue, and… blue and white. Really…

If the only choice they allow Montrealers to make is the color of the cars, why not at least have an open competition allowing the submission of actual designs – rather than this top-down approach?

This is not the first time the agency has invited Montrealers to vote: back in March, users could choose a new seating configuration in the metro cars (which needed more standing room for the rush hour crush). This was a two-step process with somewhat narrow choices. The STM probably should have gotten somebody to explain that maybe putting benches all along the sides is the best compromise to keep the most seats while providing much more standing space, even if it doesn’t look like it on paper and gets rid of those precious individual seats.

Back then the vote seemed like a ruse, an attempt to conceal the fact that the metro was at capacity, and the new contract still in the courts.

Now, the bitter aftertaste is the price of the cars – up to a billion dollars more to replace the whole fleet, because nobody seemed to have a problem with foregoing the open bidding process and awarding the contract directly to a Bombardier-Alstom cartell, despite a cheaper offer from a foreign builder. Nobody, except some opposition in the city council, and of course many users – but they don’t have much say.

We don’t get all that much say, whether it is about awarding an expensive contract to put GPS units into buses and build a new communication center (the suburb of Laval paid much less), or about selling station and metro line names to the highest bidder (particularly ironic: the color scheme of the metros car is part of our identity and heritage, but the system itself apparently is not).

I also don’t remember any public hearings regarding their recent fare hike, either. They simply get announced. Unlike in New York, where the recent fare hike was part of a long and angsty debate (the conclusion of which was to make the unlimited ride card more expensive, rather than cap it).

There was a debate this summer about putting air conditioning into buses and new metro cars, but right away the STM decided top-down that it would cost too much money. It was not deemed a priority, and the funds would be better spent on service improvements.

Yet just recently, the agency introduced new sharp, but dysfunctional bus shelters, that are slated to replace existing ones. The new ones have exactly the same geometry; they are simply more expensive. Admittedly, the STM did ask their users for their opinion. But just like when asking us our opinion regarding the “bus of the future” line 467 upgrades (which are actually pretty nifty), our participation is more like a foot note. A survey that feels a bit as if it is mostly in place to reaffirm the usefulness of the investment.

My problem is not that their service is bad, or that the organization is going in the wrong direction. In fact most of the initiatives are good – the frequent service network, the ‘bus service of the future’, the new corporate design. And I don’t disagree that the metro cars should follow the heritage colors, and are part of the Montreal’s identity. And that most of the times, transport planners probably make better choices than the crowds.

I simply don’t like how they interact with their users. Why pretend that the users have some sort of say? And why take already decided issues (e.g. the removal of seats from the metro), and let people ratify them via mundane votes that attempt to hide the underlying decision?

Participation should not be a marketing-tool, but a way for a public institution to be accountable to the public. And trying to give people a sense that they are being listened to should not come through a giant campaign to illicit votes on mundane choices, but, well, listening.

Trying to talk to them can be a bit difficult. On car-free day earlier this year, where some local transportation agencies each had a stand, I spoke to STM representatives (some hired PR people, really) and tried to point out a small mistake on their 10-minute max map. They weren’t really interested. I also emailed the STM. They didn’t respond, and the mistake is still there online. In fact they never answered any of my emails.

At the same event I had a lengthy discuission with a representative from the RTL (the transit agency of the South Shore suburbs) about the merits of fixed interval schedules and timed transfers; leaving a much more positive impression without all the spark.

The silly thing is that Montrealers will choose the traditional color scheme.

7 Responses to “The STM and the illusion of participation”

  1. emdx Says:

    There is no mistake there. The STM always has been patronizing. They are only sugar-coating under some pretense of superficial “openness” to the public. “THEY” know about transit, and we don’t; after all, we’re just the cattle they bounce around.

    Elsewhere, the STM is still the ruthless, faceless Drapeau-era juggernaut, still full of Drapeau cronies that collect their paycheque for not giving a shit about transit and drive to their houses in Mascouche or St-Bruno and ram down “expert” decisions down the throats of user with the usual “take it or leave it” attitude that is so typical of unaccountable civil servants that are so full of their self-perceived competence. After all, Drapeau conceived transit (outside of the plus beau métro du monde) as something like a charity for those who were not lucky enough to afford a car.

    For example, take the typical average bus line service interval. Buses will run in 9, 12, 13, 18, 21, 27 or even 42 minutes intervals, to insure that schedules will be unrememberable in order to discourage ridership amongst those who can choose between the bus and something else. Elsewhere, buses run on intervals that make it that they go past at always the same minutes past the hour (10, 12, 15, 20, 30 minutes). Likewise, bus schedules superbly ignore train schedules; witness the 208 bus line at the Sunnybrooke station, where the bus passes there within 2 minutes of the train time.

    And you don’t need to look at train/bus transfers; bus/bus transfers suffer also. For example, the 202/211 transfer at St-Jean/2-20 highway, late at night, often sees one bus leaving seconds before the other arrives. This is not acceptable when the next bus is 28 minutes later.

    Of course, if one would ask them the reason of this zanyness, the answer (if given) would be about “maximum operating efficiency” or whatnot, all without regards towards maximum efficiency in having an attractive service.

    Likewise, the newest buses are a catastrophe. Never before so much floor space has been visible in a bus; seating is minimal, and almost as an afterthought, and mostly designed to prevent people from looking outside by being back to the wall. All to better ensardinate the maximum number of people inside. Otherwise, those new buses are technological marvels that were perfected following extensive never-done-before research by the STM (and not the bus suppliers) on hybrid buses; the results managed to boost the efficiency of diesel-only buses by as much as 10% (mostly a smarter radiator that keeps the engine temperature in a narrower temperature range, as well as a automatically programmable transmission whose gear ratio steps change according to the street profile the bus is travelling on). This proves that there is talent at the STM, but the only thing is that this talent is at the wrong place, because the departments that would specify comfortable buses and palatable service levels (and transfers) is woefully lacking in willingness to attract people.

    Oddly enough, when one sees the energy the STM has put in the 747 airport bus (I mean, they have attendants at the airport to help passengers buy tickets or board the bus), one clearly sees that it has grossly misplaced priorities.

    Having a member of the “clique du Plateau” who doesn’t have a drivers’ license at the head of the STM is just whitewashing; the juggernaut inside does not give a shit about offering quality service; and why would they? They’ve got their paycheque coming anyways.

    Lastly, stunts like the useless “new”, “improved” bus shelters are quite obviously examples of departments struggling to spend all their budgets to avoid see it decreased next year…

  2. BrisUrbane Says:

    Hi catbus,

    I was just wondering what the top speed/volumes of passengers or train capacity was for the Montreal rubber tyre metro was? I understand that the rubber tyres make the trains faster to stop and accelerate and also climb gradients really well.



  3. ant6n Says:

    According to wiki, 72km/h, 6.5%, 1.43m/s^2, 160 passengers x 9 cars per train

  4. NS Says:

    I am doing a paper on transit and I want to quote some of your thoughts from the blog so it would be greatly appreciated if you can provide me with some contact info just so I can properly credit the ideas. My email is photo1225 at gmail com

  5. Michael Says:


    I’m involved with the citizen’s group Montréal Ouvert. Some of us were recently talking on the Civic Access mailng list about the AMT’s new public consultation for it’s 2020 plan

    We missed the one downtown (last night), but it might be a good event for you to blog in case any of your readers are interested in attending.

    Hope to see you at one of our public meetings or hackfests.

  6. joselito pacia Says:

    the new bus shed is cool and classy. but for me it is quite too high (the ceiling)which we all know cost more of the materials they use to make. just a bit lower enough for a 7footer person could easily stand inside is better and a bit cheaper too to build. tnxs.

  7. Rosario Tapia Says:

    The double bus of STM is very Nice because it vives more espace for the passengers.

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