Quebec City Is Amazing. It Deserves a Tramway.

Quebec City Is Amazing. It Deserves a Tramway.

// A "National Capital" Worthy of the Name Deserves More than Buses—and One Funicular

I had the pleasure of spending three days in Quebec City last month. Years ago, it was one of the places that made me fall in love with the province of Quebec. I was mourning the break-up of a relationship with a woman from France, where I'd spent four years in the 1990s. A couple of sojourns in the "capitale nationale du Québec" (1) made me think I'd discovered a St. Malo-in-the-Snow, a 400-year-old city apparently airlifted—fortifications and cobblestones intact—to the Americas from provincial France. My first couple of times in the city, I stayed at the Maison Demers on Rue Ste-Ursule, a preserved-in-aspic hotel with steep, creaky staircases, a concierge's room, and a continental breakfast of croissants and drip coffee left for you on shelves in the hall; exactly like the kind of places I'd stayed at in France. (I checked: the Maison Demers is still there.)

The historic centre of Québec is in fact rather small, and the surrounding city is full of standard-issue strip malls and suburban sprawl. But the old city is beautifully preserved, and I always undergo strange moments of dépaysement, disorientation, when I'm there: a sense of being on another continent, even in another time. Until, of course, North America re-enters the frame, in the form of a keening police-car siren, or the appearance of a yellow school bus.

Another way Québec is not like France: its system of public transportation.

There are now over 20 cities in France, from Montpellier to Lille, that have their own light rail systems (or tramways, as they're known there). Québec's population has reached 550,000, with a metro population of 840,000, making it the 7th largest metro area in Canada. A lot of this area is dense and compact, especially compared to cities in North America like Calgary, or Phoenix, or Dallas. Yet its transit network depends solely on buses, none of which truly qualify as Bus Rapid Transit.

Arriving in Québec, which I almost always do by train, makes me hopeful that things have changed, or are about to change. This time I arrived by Via Rail—alas, in an LRC economy car dating from the 1980s. (I got to ride on a new Siemens trainset on the way back to Montreal, an experience I describe in this dispatch.) It's wonderful that Québec has a proper, city-centre train station, with verdigrised turrets outside, and atmospheric brickwork within. The Gare du Palais was erected in 1915, and then closed in 1976, when it was threatened with demolition (the city built a highway, and put in some atrocious Brutalist government buildings behind it; there's also an inter-city bus station, of gloomy aspect, right next to it). But it survived to re-open in 1985, and it feels like a fittingly dignified way to arrive in an historic city.

On the train, I checked to see if I could use a bikeshare system to get around. The good news: Québec has an equivalent of Bixi, Montreal's system of shared bikes, called àVélo. The bad news came after I'd downloaded the app. Not only is the system limited, with not very many stands, but it wouldn't start operating until May 1st, which wouldn't do me much good. (Starting this year, Montreal's Bixi operates year-round. Apparently àVélo is proving popular; they'll be expanding it this year.) So this time, I'd be relying on transit, or my feet.


There are two postcard-perfect forms of transit in Québec, which, taken together, might give outsiders and tourists the wrong idea about how transit-rich the city is. The first is the Funiculaire, which takes you up from the Basse-Ville (the Lower City) to the Terrace Dufferin, which skirts the Château-Frontenac, the palatial hotel that is the centerpiece of the Haute-Ville. It emerges from the Maison Louis Jolliet, built in 1683. (He was one of the “discoverers” of the Mississippi, according to the pamphlets in the shop. I suspect a few indigenous people might object to that.) The first funicular ran on steam, and the cost in 1879 was 3 sous. Now it's five bucks, cash only. It's a short ride, at a 45-degree angle, rising 195 feet. There have been fires and accidents in its 145-year history; the current funicular is made by Otis and Poma, the latter a French company known for their ski lifts.

The funicular offers beautiful views of the St. Lawrence river; in the video I made, you can see the ferries going from the old port to Lévis, on the south shore. There are two vessels, operated by the provincially-run Société des traversiers du Québec (traversier = ferry). They are brave little boats, capable of shouldering their way through the ice floes in the dead of winter, and carry both walk-on passengers and cars.

But apart from ferries and the funicular, transit in Québec means buses. Their farecard system is the Opus card, identical to the one used in Montreal. In some places, that would mean I could use the card in my wallet. Quebec definitely isn't there yet; nor can you pay by tapping a credit card, which is now the case in Vancouver, New York, and a lot of other cities. I had to go to a dépanneur, a convenience store, and buy a paper, 2-trip "Occasionelle" card, which cost $6.80, or $3.40 a ride. (It's more if you dare to use coins: $3.75).

The RTC (Réseau de transport de la capitale) has three tiers of bus service: regular buses, express buses, which serve suburban hubs and educational/employment centres, and the Metrobus system. (Joining the "Metrobüs" of Istanbul, the Metrobús of Mexico City, etc., etc.—transit needs to work on its branding!) The Metrobuses are green, articulated buses, which come at higher frequencies than the regular buses. They do run in dedicated lanes in some places. But they certainly don't qualify as Bus Rapid Transit—and, with headways of as much as 15 minutes, they're more like a frequent bus network.

I have no complaints about my experiences getting around Québec. The buses were in good condition, clean, and came when they were supposed to. I used the Transit App, the Montreal-based trip-planning app I wrote about in this dispatch, and was a little surprised that it wasn't that accurate in Québec. That suggests that the transponder system, which is supposed to ping the location of buses, isn't up to speed. The only time it predicted the arrival of a bus accurately was when another Transit App user happened to be on the bus, and was using the "Go" feature. Not always the case.

Waiting for a bus on Boulevard Charest, I chatted with a young guy at the stop, and asked him about what was happening with the tramway project. "You might be able to ride it next time," he said, blowing out a cloud of cigarette smoke. "But only if next time is 2035."

I should mention another transport network, of sorts: the amazing public staircases of the city, many of them in wood and wrought-iron. The difference in elevation between the "low" city, on the riverbanks, and the "high" city, atop dramatic cliffs, makes them a necessity. Pittsburgh shares this feature. I was impressed by the number of sportifs and sportives in Lycra trotting up and down the steps at all hours of the day.

Proposed route of tramway, from

There has been talk about a tramway in Québec for years. A tramway in this city should be a "no-brainer," as the business types say. This is a prestigious, mid-sized capital city. Ottawa, Canada's other national capital, has light rail (as problem-prone as it's been). Québec has the density, and the demand. A route, along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, has been mapped out. There's an obsession in this city with a "third crossing" of the river, but that's not what the tramway is about—it doesn't cross any major bodies of water. Yet somehow the pricetag was set at $8 billion-plus; not surprisingly, there were no bidders for the project. Back in November 2023, the provincial government, dominated by the business-and-highway-friendly CAQ (Coalition Action Québec), announced that the project was dead in the water.

Here's the incredible thing: $527 million ($385 million US) has already been spent on the tramway project, without a yard—er, metre—of track being laid. The city of Québec alone spent $371 million on acquiring land and other preparatory work; the rest seems to have gone to paying for studies. (A great tradition in the world of Canadian transport: commissioning studies for rail projects that never get built.) I'll have more to say about this in future dispatches, but suffice it to say that, apart from the REM project in Montreal, which I've written about here, transportation planning and implementation under the CAQ and premier François Legault has been une blague, a sad joke.

This week (May 9, 2024), the provincial government announced the creation of a new coordinating body for major transportation infrastructure projects. Mobilité Infra Québec (MIQ) will have 50 employees—provided, of course, they can find that many experts in transit in this province. More coordination is definitely a good idea. With new transit projects in particular, there is a lack of integration with existing networks—I'm thinking of the REM light-rail system in Montreal, built by Quebec's huge public pension fund, but without enough connection to the services of existing public transport agencies in the metro area. Transport planning in this province has been aggravatingly haphazard for years, with projects like the Québec tramway and the REM de l'est (Montreal) studied, planned, and then scuttled, because of changing political winds. I'm not sure the MIQ is going to change the fundamental problem, which is the CAQ's lack of real commitment to transit. And this will do nothing to help with the real foundations of transit: frequency, coverage, reliability, span of service. We'll see if this agency has more to it than belles paroles.

The people of Québec are clearly frustrated by the situation. While I was eating my breakfast at the Buffet des Antiquaires (one of the best in Québec, but la Cochonne might kill you!), I picked up the Journal de Québec, the local tabloid. The main story was a multi-page portrait of the glories of the transport network of Korea. "ENOUGH TO MAKE US JEALOUS! While nothing happens in Quebec, our journalist went to Seoul, where they're building the transit network of the future!"

Rapid trains! Flying taxis! Dozens of metro lines! Yet somehow, in a capital city in one of the world's richest nations, people are asked to get by with buses. Oh yeah, and one sweet old funicular...

(1) That's what the signs on the highway say, which is funny, because while Quebec may style itself a pays, it has yet to join the ranks of the nation-states of the world.

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