Moving Cities: Montreal

Many people know that Montreal is a commercial, cultural, transportation, financial, and technology center in the Francophone province of Quebec, Canada. The city proper resides on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. Montreal was the most populous city in Canada until the end of last century. Currently, it is the second largest city in Canada with 1.7 million people in 2021; if we include suburban communities and satellite cities that are located on adjacent islands or that sprawl from the Riverbanks, the total population could reach 4.2 million. With this in mind, Montreal has an extensive multimodal public transportation network with a few new routes under construction. 

Existing Public Transit Network 

Montreal has a multimodal public transportation network with multiple public transit operators. Société de transport de Montréal (STM) operates regular bus, metro, and BRT (bus rapid transit) services in the city of Montreal; there are also suburban transit authorities of Laval (RTL), Longueuil (STL), and exo. All operators are supervised by the regional transit authority Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain (ARTM) created by the Quebec government. ARTM is also responsible for the transit planning and pricing of the Montreal Metro Region. In addition to farebox revenue, the financing of ARTM comes from the fuel tax and other types of government-source funding.

Many people don’t realize that Montreal Metro – not Toronto or Vancouver – is actually the busiest rapid transit system in Canada, and the third busiest in North America after New York City and Mexico City. It currently has 4 lines and 68 stations interconnecting neighborhoods within the city, plus 5 stations outside the city boundary. Most parts of the network were massively planned, constructed, and inaugurated between 1960 and 1980 for the 1976 Olympic Games. The engineering was done by a French company, SOFRETU, a subsidiary of Paris Metro. Thus, the Montreal Metro shares a lot of similarities with Paris Metro in terms of station decoration, system engineering, and rolling stock, etc. – especially the adoption of rubber tires. However, the economic recession and governments’ deficit in the 1990s stagnated the expansion of the metro for decades, except for a short extension of the Orange Line which opened in 2007.

Montreal has a commuter rail network operated by exo. It has 5 routes to the suburban communities on tracks owned by freight rail companies like Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP). The fleets are entirely diesel.


Since the late 1980s, the public transit network in Montreal remained almost unchanged until the planning, financing, and construction of the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) project. REM is an electrified light-rail service throughout Greater Montreal using the automated light trains manufactured by Alstom. It initially kicked off in 2015 and Phase I began service on July 31, 2023.

The routing of the REM more or less utilizes the existing infrastructure: the southern section from Gare Centrale to the Brossard south of the St. Lawrence River was newly constructed mostly along the Quebec Autoroute 10. The northern section, currently under construction, has a main line and three branches to the suburban communities of Deux Montagnes, Anse-à-l’Orme, and the Trudeau International Airport (where there are no rail links to the city yet). It renovates the existing tracks and station infrastructure on exo’s existing Duex Montagnes Line and constructs two branches to Anse-à-l’Orme and the airport.

The feeder transportation around the REM station varies. For stations located in more suburbanized areas, park + ride lots were created. Some municipalities planned Transit-Oriented Developments (TOD) to promote sustainable, new-urbanist agenda: for stations located in relatively dense areas, the rapid transit systematization could greatly increase a neighborhood’s transit mobility while mitigating negative environmental impacts with cleaner and quieter rolling stocks.

The funding for the REM is also unique. The total initial projected construction cost for REM is about $6.3 billion (CAD), later increased to $7.95B (CAD) as of September 2023. Among the individual mechanisms: 

  • $2.95B (CAD) equity (70% shares) from the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ Infra/Caisse), the public pension fund of Quebec. 
  • CDBQ Infra commits to support an extra $1.65B (CAD) for the overbudget. 
  • $1.28B (CAD) equity (30% shares) from the Government of Quebec (Provincial). 
  • $1.28B (CAD) 15-year loan from Canada Infrastructure Bank (Crown corporation) 
  • $295M (CAD) investment from Hydro-Québec (Crown corporation) – mostly dedicated to the renovation of Deux Montagnes Line infrastructure. 
  • $512M (CAD) payment from ARTM (agency under Quebec Government) 
  • In 2018, Quebec’s National Assembly passes the LQ 2017, c. 17 that requires municipalities to collect transportation dues for certain properties located within 1 km buffer (some are 0.5 km buffer) around the REM stations to ARTM on the financing of the REM until it’s being paid off. 
  • Upon operation, ARTM is also responsible to pay CDBQ Infra a “fare indexation” of $0.75 (CAD) (as of September 2023) for each kilometer travelled by each passenger in the system. 

CDBQ Infra proposed a new light rail line REM de l’Est that connects communities in Montreal East, QC to Gare Centrale in Downtown. However, there was pushback from the local community and CDBQ phased out from the project, leaving the project management role to Montreal Government and ARTM.

Key Takeaways 

The development of Montreal’s public transportation system has takeaways for both visitors and practitioners in transportation and public policy field. The French influence in planning, design, engineering, and operation make the Montreal public transportation system unique for daily users and visitors compared to other cities in North America. The newly constructed REM is a great way to utilize the existing infrastructure and mitigate road congestion to promote green mobility and sustainable urban growth, even if the station surroundings are highly suburbanized.

Financing is always a huge issue for any public transit project. Currently Canada does not have a dedicated federal-level funding program for public transportation yet – which means policymakers at local or provincial-levels and other stakeholders need to negotiate with stakeholders and form a financing plan for every transit capital project. However, there are alternative shareholders like development financial institutions and pension funds that participate and invest in a project to a form public-private partnership. In addition, the economic benefits generated by public transportation, especially from the TODs, would greatly relieve the capital and operations burden. Thus, integrating comprehensive policymaking and land-use planning are always indispensable when planning for public transportation. 

Lechuan Huang | [email protected]

Lechuan Huang is an analyst at ESI. He has an educational background in urban planning, having received his Bachelor of Arts in Public and Urban Affairs from Virginia Tech, and his Master of Urban Spatial Analytics from the University of Pennsylvania.


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