MONTREAL – Along a downtown Montreal street, in sight of city hall, orange-and-white-striped traffic cones stand in a row on the sidewalk. A few metres away, more cones mark off construction sites, while a solitary cone is perched atop a blue bollard separating the street from a bike lane.
Montreal’s ubiquitous traffic cones have become an unofficial symbol of the city: miniature versions are sold as souvenirs and toys, residents dress up as cones for Halloween, and a local artist has transformed one into a comic book hero.
But while some Montrealers have embraced the symbol, the city’s chamber of commerce says the cones – and the road closures that often, but not always, accompany them – are a source of frustration. The cones have become so common drivers no longer interpret them as a warning, Michel Leblanc, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, said in an interview recently.
“People are desensitized, drivers are desensitized, it creates a risk,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about reputation, it’s about the fact that we’ve become a city where cones are everywhere, and we don’t pay that much attention, unless we’re very frustrated because it’s blocking the way where we want to go.”
Leblanc said he’s pleased with recent announcements by the city and Quebec’s transport minister to make cones less visible.
On April 24, Transport Minister Genevieve Guilbault said her department would reduce the number of cones tied to roadwork managed by her department – an announcement that came less than two weeks after Montreal’s La Presse newspaper reported that a row of orange cones had sat along the on-ramp to a tunnel in the city’s downtown for at least 16 years.
Montreal, meanwhile, recently announced plans to limit the use of cones and traffic-detour signs.
Tania Mignacca sees the symbolism in the cones. Inspired by Japanese city mascots, and a desire to have people see the city in a different way, she created Ponto, an anthropomorphic cone mascot.
“I decided to take the orange cone, which is something everyone hates, and I thought, I’m going to make it so cute, that people are going to be able to love the city,” she said in an interview. “The orange cone is perfect for Montreal because it’s everywhere, it’s kind of emblematic.”
Since Mignacca created Ponto around a decade ago as the subject of an online comic, her character has been made into plush toys, graced the cover of Christmas cards and turned into fridge magnets.
Mignacca said she thinks traffic cones are a symbol of Montreal, similarly to how the raccoon has become Toronto’s emblematic nuisance. And she isn’t the only one who has turned the cones into souvenirs: the gift shop of the iconic Saint Joseph’s Oratory sells a keychain with a cone bearing the city’s logo.
Speaking at a Montreal chamber of commerce event, Guilbault promised that cones would be collected within 72 hours after work is finished. She said the province would also look for ways to reduce the number and size of cones needed on city streets.
Leblanc’s organization released a report in January that said 27 per cent of traffic cones in downtown Montreal weren’t being used on active construction projects.
While other cities undergo infrastructure repairs, Leblanc said there are other factors that make the situation worse in Montreal, including the fact that lanes on downtown streets are often blocked by construction companies using them for parking or equipment storage.
“It doesn’t make sense. In other cities, this is very, very tightly regulated, this is very expensive, so private companies use the city streets for a much shorter period of time and only when it’s absolutely needed,” he said.
Public works in Quebec tend to be done by smaller companies than in other parts of Canada, he said, which leads to contracts being divided into smaller jobs, which he said can increase the length of projects.
“These are good decisions,” Leblanc said about the cone-reducing strategies. “I’m not saying that we could not have made them before, but right now, they’re moving, they’re making those decisions. And things should improve, that’s my belief.”
Mignacca said she thinks reducing the number of cones on downtown streets is a good idea and that she’s not worried the cones will disappear, making Ponto less relevant. The character has grown beyond its origins, she said, adding that she’s heard before that the cones’ days were numbered.
When she first launched the character, she said people told her, “’You’re going to see next year, someone promised us we’re not going to have orange cones, so you’re going to be out of work.’ But it just kept growing.”
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