Montrealers have no problem walking the walk

MONTREAL, Canada — At various intersections along Sainte Catherine Street, which courses through the heart of downtown Montreal, jaywalking crowds are sometimes so thick they immobilize cars.

Pedestrians often don't even bother to pick up the pace when crossing illegally. And instead of honking their discontent, drivers accustomed to the routine simply wait their turn, simmering in their seats.

It sounds like an exaggeration, but it isn't. Montrealers are known for their jaywalking, particularly in comparison to their counterparts in other large North American cities. Despite a campaign started in 2006 by police to curb the jaywalking masses, they stubbornly persist in their irreverence.

Round, green stickers pepper the sidewalks along busy Peel Street and De Maisonneuve Boulevard, reminding pedestrians to “cross at the right place and the right time.” Yet many simply strut their stuff right on through, ignoring the authorities' message as they traverse the street in defiance of traffic signals, seemingly unaware that such a concept even exists.

“There is a lot of delinquent behavior in Montreal by pedestrians,” said Jacques Bergeron, a retired psychology professor at Universite de Montreal, who in 2002 co-authored a study comparing the behavior of pedestrians and drivers here to those of other cities such as Toronto or Ottawa in Ontario. “People judge when to cross the street not according to whether the light is green or red, but whether it appears personally safe.” One conclusion of his work in 2002 was that 33 percent of Montreal pedestrians tended not to traverse the street at proper crosswalks, whereas in Toronto, that number was 14 percent.

Over the course of the anti-jaywalking campaign, which began in 2006 and carries with it $37 CDN fines for being caught in the act, Montreal police have doled out more and more jaywalking tickets. In 2006, 1,066 pedestrians were ticketed. Last year, the number nearly tripled, reaching 3,155, according to Montreal police officer Sophia Provost.

Since the campaign started, Provost also said that traffic accidents due to jaywalking have greatly decreased. In 2007, 50 percent of pedestrians involved in fatal accidents were found to have been jaywalking. Last year, that number went down to 22 percent.

But does this indicate a proportional decrease in the number of jaywalkers?

Bergeron questions whether the fines act as true deterrents. “Those 3,000 tickets issued last year, how does one tell what percentage of people breaking the law they covered?” he asked.

It's hard to tell, Provost admitted, though she added that the campaign hasn't been entirely ignored, either.

“The fines certainly have an effect,” opined Provost. As an adviser on road safety and traffic signals, she has seen injury and death statistics among pedestrians fall in the last three years, after police began their five-year plan to curb jaywalking. In 2006, there were 27 pedestrian deaths. Last year, the number was down to 18.

Still, while a fine may dissuade some, many Montrealers think jaywalking is simply a part of the culture.

Cara Chen, a student at Montreal's Concordia University and a self-proclaimed jaywalker, explained her mental checklist before she commits the act: “I make sure there’s quite a distance between me and where the car is,” she said. “I make sure that I will be able to get to the other side within the given time.”

“I don’t do it when there are any police cars around,” she added with a coy smile.

Concordia University student Mohammed Al Muhaidib admits he isn’t above a jaywalk or two. “When I’m driving, a lot of people do it and it pisses me off because they think they own the road. So when I’m walking, I say ‘fine, I own the road.’”

For Chen, the relatively small size of Montreal streets is a reason why pedestrians here are more brazen than in New York or Toronto. “Places like that, I don’t dare to jaywalk,” she said.

Al Muhaidib agrees. “Here, to cross a road, it’s just two-three steps,” he said, whereas the larger roads in other cities, along with the presence of more cars, can be a significant deterrent.

“I guess people in Montreal have a more relaxed and laid-back attitude,” Chen added.

Cyprien Lavoie, a retired Montreal resident, said disregard for traffic laws isn't limited to pedestrians. He notices that cyclists and drivers similarly extend themselves the privilege. “What is it with the Montreal mentality? Who knows?” he asked.

Bergeron said it remains a mystery why Montrealers appear to have a predilection for jaywalking. Though, he added that his study showed there weren't necessarily any more pedestrian deaths in Montreal than in Toronto, with population differences taken into account.

For 2008, official Toronto Police Service statistics pin down pedestrian deaths at 27, a number that is indeed negligibly higher than in Montreal, given the Ontario city and surrounding area’s larger population of more than 5.1 million. (The greater metropolitan Montreal area accounts for 3.6 million people.)

For Bergeron, pedestrians and drivers in Montreal seem to have developed a unique relationship. “I wouldn’t say it happens nowhere else in the world. There are some places that are worse,” he admitted.

“[But in Montreal], there seems to be a modus vivendi, or a sort of co-existence, where everyone learns to live with each other’s behavior.”

That tacit understanding was decidedly absent in a place like Toronto, at least according to Marrisa Smart, a lifelong Montrealer who moved there over two years ago, but wasn’t able to leave her jaywalking habit behind.

“I won’t cut cars off,” she qualified, claiming not to jaywalk on large boulevards. However, waiting at small street corners, with no vehicular traffic in sight, is more than she can stomach.

Smart has never gotten into trouble for crossing illegally, and cannot even recall being given a hairy eyebrow by others in Toronto, but it is a lonely city for jaywalkers.

“I tend to be the only person that will walk on the red hand,” she said. “Sometimes, I think: why are they waiting? There are no cars.”

“Can I get arrested for this?” she asked with a laugh.