Artists and architects in Montreal are upcycling old subway cars

An older generation MR-63 train is in the Beaugrand Garage. Image: Wikipedia.

Montreal’s Metro system celebrated its fiftieth birthday this October. And for a limited time its first-generation “MR-63” cars were available to buy for the bargain price of C$C750–1,000 (£445-£593), along with a C$4000 (£2,370) shipping fee. The two-ton, baby-blue cars make up the oldest fleet in North America. They are gradually being decommissioned.

Out of 30 submissions, the Société de transport de Montreal (STM) has picked seven projects that will receive cars. These include a high-rise community centre built from multiple cars stacked on each other; a 13-story building that will encase over one hundred cars; a car plonked in a botanic garden in remote northern Quebec; and an art-installation made of 16 sets of sliding doors. Submissions were evaluated by the STM on criteria that included optics, heritage value, feasibility and sustainability.

“We wanted to do something crazy, but not too “in-your-face” crazy,” said Frédéric Morin-Bordeleau, co-founder of Projet MR-63, one of the lucky finalist projects. “So we thought, let’s get eight metro trains, create a building out of it, make it self-sustaining and generate revenue, and showcase the culture of Montreal.” He expects the sculpture, which will house a café, bar, gallery and community space, to be complete in 2020.

Artist’s impression. Image: Project MR-63.

Morin-Bordeleau acknowledged that his love of the metro carriages, like many Montrealers’, is steeped in nostalgia for the “glorious era” of the sixties, when Montreal hosted Expo ’67, the world fair that marked Canada’s centennial and attracted fifty million visitors to the city.

On top of the metro system, which was hurriedly built to accommodate Expo crowds, remnants of this era include Moshe Safdie’s iconic Habitat 67 complex, the Montreal Biosphere (capped by a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller) and two large man-made islands in the St-Lawrence river, created and reshaped using rubble dug out by the subway construction.

While he was not alive in the sixties, Morin-Bordeleau’s mother was a photographer for Expo ’67 and “would talk about [it] with stars in her eyes,” he said. He sees the project, which he founded with his brother, as an homage to this period. “We want to make Montreal proud and the metro trains were exactly the symbol we needed. It’s a mix between the glory of the past and visions for the future,” he said.

The brothers were initially inspired by the Village Underground arts centre in Shoreditch, London, which rents out studio space in four upcycled tube carriages to artists and designers.

Parts of MR-63 cars will travel internationally in the form of a travelling art installation. Another finalist of the STM’s call for proposals is interactive art piece Thresholds, a corridor of 16 opening and closing subway doors that people can walk through. Created by Montreal artist Michel de Broin, it was exhibited in Montreal’s this summer and he plans on taking it abroad.

While he acknowledged that the “distinctive” doors of the metro were likely to have a particular effect on a Montrealer, he believes the experience of the piece “will work anywhere”. His website describes the experience as “recalling the digestive tract’s ingestion process as the installation breathes and swells”.

MR-63 cars that are not being upcycled are slowly being retired, a process that is anticipated to finish in mid-2018. Montreal-based metal recycling firm American Iron and Metal is recycling the cars at the rate of one a day, with a new car ferried each morning to their headquarters on a specifically-designed trailer.

The invitable metro map. Image: STM.

The question of what to do with old subway cars has been approached in a variety of ways by different cities. In England, tube cars shuttle passengers down the east coast of the Isle of Wight, while a 1967 Victoria Line tube carriage hosts a monthly supper club in Walthamstow.

In 2015, over 2,500 New York subway cars were dropped into the Atlantic to create an artificial underwater reef for fish and crustaceans. Two of Buenos Aires’ iconic 1913 wooden cars have been converted into diesel-electric buses, and Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore wants to transform his city’s old metro cars into one-bedroom prefab apartments for the homeless.

Back in Montreal, the subway is receiving a new generation of trains – but like their predecessors, the city’s new underground cars will arrive at stations accompanied by the faint smell of burning wood. That’s because designers have opted to continue making the tyre brake pads out of yellow birch sourced from Quebec’s forests. According to the STM, wooden brake pads are quieter than steel or graphite disc pads, and environmentally safer, given that they do not release of carbon dust into the atmosphere. To prevent friction or burning, the wood is saturated in hot peanut oil, left to drip-dry for 30 days, and soaked in salt water.

Montreal commuters have come off lightly with their subway’s trademark fragrance. Washington DC’s subway cars organic brake pads are often blamed for a lingering fishy smell.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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