Montréal is North America’s bicycle city

April 27, 2014 at 10:25 am

I had always heard Montréal was North America’s most bicycle-friendly city, but I believed that like other “best-of” bicycle achievements, reality would reveal something a bit subpar. I was wrong.

Two-way protected bike lane on Rue University near McGill.

There are miles upon miles (kilometres upon kilometres?) of curb-protected bicycle lanes. Apparently the city has over 40 miles of them (that’s actual protected bicycle lanes, with curbs or bollards). Many of these lanes were installed just before Bixi’s launch in 2009. Many of them are on street, and some are adjacent to parks.

These lanes continued on and on. They didn’t form a perfect grid – some detours were required to stay in a ‘protected network’ – but the network was such that when one ended, it seemed to connect with another one, indicated with signs and paint on the ground. I’m convinced curb separation is a great way to go: Not once in 4 days did I experience any cars, delivery trucks, or taxis blocking the lanes, and I rode around a lot. In Chicago yesterday, I encountered no fewer than ten vehicles parked in our ‘protected’ buffered bike lanes; in Montréal, the only time I saw a vehicle parked in a bike lane was on a street with the basic “two white stripes” lanes.

The curbs also provided a great place to rest your foot when waiting at a red light. This is something small but it makes a great difference in comfort when waiting, because you don’t have to get off your bike to place your feet on the ground or lean your bike over.

The lanes were wide enough for two people to ride alongside each other while still allowing room for others to pass. But what I really think sets them apart was the number of children I saw using them:

If parents feel safe enough to allow their children to use their own bike on the street, I think that’s a great sign your city is doing “8-80” bicycle infrastructure successfully. Bravo, Montréal.

Aside from the busier streets with protected bicycle lanes, there were a few other streets in the Plateau, Mile-End, and Little Italy neighborhoods where the lanes were on residential streets.

This lane, on Rue Clark, ran down a mostly residential street.

So how did Montréal get this great bike infrastructure in? A recent post from People for Bikes says that Montréal planners were able to get over the “autoparkolypse,” or the fear of losing precious street parking spaces, by merely showing that the number of street spaces being removed was a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of spaces in the surrounding neighborhood. In the case of Boulevard de Maisonneuve in the central business district, this meant removing 300 spaces in an area with 11,000 – or just 2.7% of spaces.

Credit: Green Lane Project/People for Bikes.

Credit: Green Lane Project/People for Bikes.

Pictured above is the bike lane on Boulevard de Maisonneuve.

All this bike infrastructure is well and good, but it snows a lot in Montréal too, so how do they handle it? Sadly, it seems many of the protected lanes are closed in the winter – from Nov 15 until Apr 1. On streets where the protection from moving vehicles is by parked vehicles and bollards, this is to allow cars to park on wider streets for snow removal. This is indicated with signs:

While this makes a little bit of sense given the long, cold, and snowy winters which prevent plowed snow from melting between snowfalls, Cycle Montréal blogger David Beitel made a good point that bicycle users need this protected infrastructure the most when there’s snow on the ground. Imagine if a driver’s expressway or a transit line went out of service for nearly half the year. When some of these lanes get thousands of daily users, it really is parallel to shutting down certain bus lines or streets for the winter – and we in Chicago remember the media hullabaloo from last winter when residents of a single block complained their street hadn’t been plowed. Since Montréal’s investments in bicycle infrastructure have paid dividends in the form of more bicycle riders (and therefore perhaps fewer car trips), it would make sense to find a solution to the snow problem and become a leading example that snow and bicycles can coexist in North America.

There are a few more things I wanted to point out concerning the bicycle infrastructure:

When there is a bus stop, the bike lane raises to meet the sidewalk and two crosswalks are put down to allow passengers to get to the stop.

When there is construction (at least in this case), both the bike lane and sidewalk are compensated for.

On Avenue Laurier, there is a bicycle counter! While the screen says only 8 or 9 bicyclists had used it, I believe the number was much higher and my iPhone didn’t take the photo right. There is even a website linked to the counter so you can see how many people have biked past it today and in the past.

There are also bike boxes and contraflow bike lanes on one-way streets.

The parking meter space posts also feature rings on which you can lock your bike. This one, close to a wall, could lock only one bike; others further from walls could safely lock two bikes.

I used AirBNB to rent a room in Montréal and could not have been luckier that there was a Bixi bike-sharing station just a block away.

You may have heard Bixi in the news lately after it went bankrupt. Years of financial mismanagement did no service to the popular program. However, the bikes and their stations were being installed the week I arrived, and many people were already out on them. Bixi is one of those bike share systems, like Boston and Minneapolis, that removes their stations in the winter (this past winter, Boston-area Hubway piloted a program that left stations in Cambridge in place for the winter). In my opinion, bike share makes a city much easier to visit and explore. Instead of taking the Métro everywhere, I got on a bike and discovered neighborhoods by riding around them (as opposed to under them). After hours of walking, hopping on a bike can be more relaxing than sitting down at a café.

Just as with many other North American bike sharing systems, using Bixi was easy and straightforward. When it comes to being a visitor and having to use the kiosk each time, though, efficiency counts. The difference with Bixi (and Hubway, in my experience) is that there are fewer steps to renting a bike than with Divvy in Chicago, and the screen is more responsive. When you have a line of people waiting to use the stations, time matters. Within ten seconds of walking up to a kiosk, I had a code to unlock a bike.

I paid $15 for 72 hours of unlimited 30-minute trips. It more than paid for itself! I did have one problem: a bike did not properly dock at a station (despite the green light illuminating) and I was unable to rent any bikes for the afternoon until a technician could come fix the problem, identified after I called the toll-free number. Because these docks are not perfect I really recommend keeping the receipt you receive when you first purchase a pass. The membership number on the receipt came in handy when I was on the phone with customer support.

As far as bicycle and driver behavior goes, I have a few remarks. One is that about half of bicyclists were wearing a helmet. I believe whether or not people are wearing a helmet is an indicator of how safe people perceive the streets to be.

As far as driving goes, Montrealers seem to be just as nuts as any other east coast driver. The difference is that the ubiquitous protected bike lanes helped in keeping them far away, if just mentally. Where the bike lanes crossed paths with turning drivers, I felt like I made more eye contact with drivers that were turning – i.e., they were actually looking for bicyclists. Like I mentioned before, they also stayed out of the protected lanes.

I noticed that in Canada, street signs generally tend to tell road users what they can do and not what they can’t. The sign above with a green circle and two arrows tells drivers they can either go straight, or right. There is no “no left turns” sign. On my bike I found this to be much easier than being told what not to do. I’m not sure to what degree this has an effect on driving and bicycle behavior, but I appreciated it.

In numbers: In 2010, about 2.2% of people got to work via bicycle in Montréal. However, like other North American bicycle mode share figures, this counts only trips to work, and not trips around the neighborhood to get groceries, meet friends, or go to school, so the actual number of trips could be higher.

Finally, Montréal has some neat public spaces that I just have to share:

Place Jacque Cartier in Vieux-Montréal.

The verdict? Montréal’s place on the 2013 Copenhagenize index of bicycle-friendly cities is well-deserved. There could be more connecting bicycle paths to round out the network and put the grid system to good use, but the system still gets you around many neighborhoods. The biggest deficiency is the lack of a complete network in the winter. Nonetheless, Montréal is a great place to see how the bicycle can be integrated into a typical North American city where the car has long been the sole road user. It provides a great example of how we can change street space to accommodate more people.