Sustainable Transportation

Sustainable Transportation

Jim Hamilton
Published November 24, 2006

Case Summary 

The case study examines whether mass transit systems can be used as a tool to encourage the development of sustainable communities.  As a corollary, the case study also postulates that mass transit systems are a necessary adjunct to the effective creation of a sustainable community within a larger metropolitan conglomerate, especially with respect to providing a wider range of employment and cultural opportunities not normally available within smaller communities.  

The study centres on a 2002 infrastructure investment by the Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT) ( to extend the Montreal rail commuter service to Mont-Saint-Hilaire to support the development of a community incorporating many, if not most of the principles of sustainable development.  The Town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire (, 40 kilometers from downtown Montreal, is the first town in Quebec to use concepts of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) to further sustainability. 

AMT recently announced a $300 million infrastructure investment to put in a new rail commuter line along the north side of the Island of Montreal extending to the east off the island to the north shore of the St. Lawrence River.  AMT is actively consulting local groups, environmentalists and all levels of government in the development of this new rail link to downtown Montreal.  The new transit route will provide opportunities to other communities to follow the example of Mont-Saint-Hilaire to build new developments using TOD principles.  Nevertheless, individual communities will be responsible for creating their own development plans and zoning modifications as required to facilitate TOD along the rail corridor and at proposed stations.

Successful development of sustainable communities along mass transit systems would seem to require a concomitant introduction of sustainable development principles having some basis in law as evidenced in the municipal planning processes put in place in Mont-Saint-Hilaire.  Without such processes (or similar mechanisms) a danger exists that new transit-induced communities will most likely only mirror development typical of other segments within the region. 

Sustainable Development Characteristics 

Mass transit provides an opportunity to communities to consider the advantages of sustainability within the larger context of a metropolitan area.  The sustainable development characteristics of transit-induced communities begin when communities as a matter of policy introduce sustainability as an objective.  To the degree that this is done, most, if not all, sustainable development characteristics may be present.

Critical Success Factors

Critical success factors in the use of mass transit as a tool to encourage sustainable communities are:  

  1. the ready availability of large-scale funding typical of any mass transit extension;

  2. consistent community adherence to sustainable development principles (such as TOD);

  3. a clear identification of the symbiosis between a sustainable-based bedroom community and the larger metropolitan area (what does each get out of the arrangement); and,

  4. the degree to which the mass transit authority is willing to encourage sustainable development or TOD.


Community Contact Information

Bernard Morel
Town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec

Emmanuel Le Colletter
Agence métropolitaine de transport
1-514-287-2464 (4499)

Financial Costs and Funding Sources


The Agence métropolitaine de transport defrays investment costs through commuter revenues and provincial transportation subsidies.  The initial estimates to construct the new north Montreal line are $300 million.

Research Analysis

Analysis leads to five key observations.

    1. The use of mass transit systems as a tool to encourage sustainable communities will always involve considerable upfront financing either to develop new transit lines to extend or upgrade older lines.

    2. Mass transit as an effective sustainability tool depends critically on the desire, or will, within the impacted community to implement sustainable development principles.

    3. Using existing mass transit systems to transform the urban environment of smaller communities within metropolitan areas appears viable; key to this sort of development will be how the greater metropolitan area interacts with the smaller communities.

    4. As experienced in Mont-Saint–Hilaire and the proposed development of the new line to the north and east of Montreal, detailed consultations with all interested groups are necessary before development can begin, especially given the need to incorporate sustainable development principles into official municipal plans.

    5. Ultimate control of TOD development lies with individual communities, and their desire to achieve sustainable development.

Detailed Background Case Description


North American cities have developed with an excessive reliance on the automobile leading to a host of problems not the least being problematic sustainability.  In response, cities have facilitated travel using mass transit.  This has evolved into principles of transit-oriented development or TOD to further sustainability (see below).  

Integral to this are the actions/investments of a mass transit system to provide the opportunities for communities to introduce sustainable development or TOD.  The Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT) has two initiatives, one of which has directly led to a TOD development and the other of which will provide ample opportunity.

Actions/Investments of the Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT)


In May 2000, AMT restored commuter rail service to communities along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River just east of Montreal.  Two years later, service was extended to Mont-Saint-Hilaire following the construction of a commuter-station.  In 2003, AMT extended the service further to Saint-Basile-le-Grand and Saint-Hubert.  The commuting time to Montreal’s Central Station is approximately 40 minutes. (Please see the following AMT route map.)

Mont-Saint-Hilaire map

Following AMT’s  Mont-Saint-Hilaire extension, the Town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire adopted a TOD approach in creating what became known as the Village de la Gare.  This development integrates high density residential, commercial and institutional within easy walking distance of the commuter station.  The village assumes many aspects of villages of yesteryear where all functions are grouped to reduce the use of automobiles, and to preserve the ambiance of the existing community, which hosts a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.  Details of the Mont-Saint-Hilaire development can be found in the Integrated Transportation Strategies, Mont-Saint-Hilaire case study.  

Extension to North End of Island and North Shore

Partially to replicate the Mont-Saint-Hilaire experience, AMT recently announced a $300 million new rail commuter line along the north side of the Island of Montreal extending to the east off the island to the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. 

The new route will extend to the Village of Mascouche situated on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, some 53.1 kilometers from Windsor station in downtown Montreal.  The initial expectation is that the new line will provide service to some 1,210,000 commuters, annually.  AMT is actively consulting local groups, environmentalists and all levels of government in the development of this new rail link to downtown Montreal.  The intention is to provide five trains per day along the route with construction to commence post 2006.   

Principles of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) 

The extension or use of existing mass transit systems offers the potential to introduce principles of sustainability within larger urban areas.  Successful introduction, however, requires concomitant and consistent implementation of sustainable development principles within affected communities.  If not, new transit-induced communities will most likely only mirror development typical of other segments within the region.  At Mont-Saint-Hilaire, the community implemented concepts of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) to further sustainability to the extent that these were introduced into municipal zoning and planning processes.  

According to H. Dittmar and G. Ohland in The New Transit Town, critical transit development principles leading to sustainability include: 

  1. location efficiency where homes are located in proximity to transit systems;
  2. a rich mix of choice, including community amenities and businesses, are within walking distance to remove the necessity of automobiles;
  3. the reality of meaningful value capture within the community, i.e. transit service must be rapid and of high quality, and community services must be meaningful;
  4. meaningful place-making in that the community must be attractive and mix with its natural environment; and,
  5. resolution of node/place tension in that the transit station has to blend into and be part of the community.

Mass Transit Alternatives

Mass transit within this context can include any combination of light rail (e.g. Calgary Light Rail Transit), heavy rail (e.g.Toronto Transit Commission), commuter trains (e.g.Go Transit in Toronto and AMT) and dedicated bus routes (e.g.Ottawa Transpo) and so forth. 

Strategic Questions

  1. Given that most mass transit extensions are heavily subsidized, should extensions be tied to a mandatory use of TOD principles? 

  2. Are mass transit extensions a prime example of the need for long-term planning to achieve sustainability? 

  3. Are linkages between satellite communities and greater metropolitan areas, exemplified with Mont-Saint-Hilaire and Montreal, key to defining livability within sustainable communities? 

Resources and References

Major references for this case study include:

Cerverro, R. (1998). The Transit Metropolis: a Global Inquiry. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Dittmar, H. and G. Ohland. (2004) The New Transit town: Best Practices in Transit-oriented Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Transport Canada: Urban Transportation showcase Program 

L'Agence métropolitaine de transport 

Town Of Mont-Saint-Hiaire


In order to attract commuters to utilize public transit services:
1) Delivery needs to be efficient - commuters will require scheduled, reliable public transport with commuter efficiency in mind before they begin to use public transit.
2) Delivery needs to be cost effective - the cost of using public transit has to meet or beat the costs of driving a personal vehicle - this includes access to workcenters, facilities (groceries, recreational areas etc...)
3) The use of public transit needs to be promoted and encouraged through government messaging.

There are many ways to achieve these principles. A few suggestions for consideration include:
1) creation of special lanes for buses, or efficient routes for rail service, that enables commuters to beat commute times that would be achieved by the use of personal vehicles.
2) Transit routes need to service residential areas efficiently to ensure users have close-access to bus routes.
3) Transit fares could be subsidized (perhaps through property taxes, gasoline taxes etc... to bring the user-cost down to a competitive rate
4) User friendly web sites that are current and provide 'easy-to-use' route, fare and scheduling information.

Any other thoughts???