Other cities can learn a whole lot from the elegant design of Montreal’s separated bike lanes. In 2015 Montreal was ranked 20th in the world for bike friendly cities by the respected Copenhagenize Index. The only North American city that did better was Minneapolis at no. 18. Although it has slipped a bit in the rankings, Montreal remains a stellar city to cycle in. What has Montreal got that almost no other city in North America has got? Well, for a start, separated bike lanes so that people can ride bikes in relative safety. You can see that in this video:
Pretty stunning! I must say that I felt entirely safe biking without a bike helmet in Montreal. This was partly because I found Montreal’s motorists and pedestrians to be universally respectful, intelligent and bike-savvy (maybe I just got lucky?). I think perhaps the motorists feel less anger towards cyclists because cyclists are not constantly “in their way.” (Which is motorist-speak for “on MY public roads.”)
So, why aren’t cyclists “in the way”?
Montreal’s brilliant system of physically separated bike lanes
Montreal has a simply brilliant system of physically separated bike lanes. (Click here to learn about the surprising benefits of separated bike lanes.) In Montreal, cyclists can get almost anywhere in the city on separated bike lanes, laid out in an elegant, intelligent grid system.
Note: This is part of a series of posts about Montreal cycling:
And when I say “separated” I don’t mean separated by a painted line which any absent-minded truck driver can drift across; I mean separated by a physical barrier that cannot be crossed by a vehicle. Physical barriers may be concrete barriers, rows of parked cars, concrete plant pots, or whatever – the point is, it is physically impossible for motorists to drive across them. Moreover, they tend to be more respected, and people cannot park in them! Watch this very clever, gutsy video that shows the problems with painted bike lanes in a VERY interesting way! This video has had almost 19 MILLION views!
Separated Bike Lanes mean Montreal Cycling is Safe
Separated bike lanes work for everyone: for cyclists, the lanes mean they can cycle without being in constant fear of having their lives snuffed out by a motorist driving an SUV with one hand, while the cell phone in his other hand blocks out the sight of cyclists (even if they are clad in reflective bright yellow). Also, separated bike lanes are healthier for cyclists in surprising ways, as I reported in this post.
Cycling is so safe in Montreal that many thousands of people cycle commute. At rush hour, it’s literally fender-to-fender cyclists.
Fully half of these cyclists are commuters, and commuters of all ages: we saw children of 8 and seniors of 80, all cycling together in a wonderful tidal wave of safe, happy cyclists. It was like being in heaven. (Or in the Netherlands, where it is even safer to cycle.)
The Activists who Made Cycling Safe in Montreal
The great cycling infrastructure in Montreal did not happen by accident. In the 1970s, a whole lot of Montrealers got together and campaigned for decent bike lanes. La Monde à Bicyclette was a collective that staged die-ins and other dramatic actions. For example, Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman dressed up in a Moses costume and tried to part the waters of the St. Lawrence River, to make the point that there needed to be bike paths on the bridges! Nowadays, Montreal has wonderful cycling infrastructure on its bridges, thanks to brave stunts such as that one.
There was also Vélo Quebec, an organization that lobbied politicians. Vélo Quebec is still going strong, and now presents an annual weekend of cycling events in Montreal – one of the most fun cycling events in all of North America.
Separated Bike Lanes mean Less Traffic Jams for Montreal Cars
For motorists, separated bike lanes mean that they can drive without being slowed down by slower moving vehicles (people on bikes). And let’s face it, without the aggravation of that tiny minority of cyclists who dart around the streets like wasps at a barbecue, ignoring all laws and both alarming and enraging other road users. (They scare and enrage me too, at times.)
We never saw a single traffic jam in Montreal, not even at rush hour – in startling contrast to Vancouver, where gridlock at 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon is common. That had to be because so many thousands of people were cycling instead of driving.
Surely even the most fervent opponents of cycling would like to see streets without traffic jams? Separated bike lanes are a win-win for both cyclists and motorists! It is not a zero-sum situation.
But Wait! There’s More! Montreal has Great Traffic Lights Too!
Apart from the separated bike lanes, Montreal also has other intelligent refinements that make cycling a pleasure rather than a death-defying act of courage. For example, their traffic lights feature little bike icons that go green, orange and red, just like regular lights for cars. This enables vehicular and bike traffic to be controlled effectively at intersections such as this one:
No Right Turns on Red Lights – Yes!
Also, there are no right turns on red lights anywhere on the Island of Montreal – which makes both cyclists and pedestrians way safer. Right turns on reds are one of the most motorist-friendly, human being-unfriendly ideas in all the world – right there behind cars. I spent the first 30 years of my life in a country where right turn on red was simply unheard of – and I can tell you that it is way, way safer for pedestrians to cross the road.
Finally, Montreal cycling is safer because most busy corners feature bike corrals in which cyclists can wait in groups to cross the road. While these are only demarcated by painted lines, at rush hour so many cyclists congregate in them that they constitute their own defence. In any event, as I mentioned: the drivers were universally respectful of the cyclists.
Unlike in Vancouver, where one would likely find a delivery truck parked in a bike corral (while its owner was taking care of a Starbucks emergency). Has anyone else noticed that the businesses on Still Creek appear to think that the Central Valley Greenway Bike Route is actually parking for their trucks to idle in for hours while they are loaded up?
All in all, I’d go and live in Montreal in a heartbeat, and enjoy Montreal cycling all year round … if it wasn’t for pesky details like my kids, my wife, my mom, my grandkids, my home, my job – oh, and of course that famous Montreal winter. Pity …
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Alex P says
Last time I was in Montréal was 2007. Kinda want to go for another visit to try out Bixi and the new lanes that have been built since then.
You should, it’s totally worth it. Plus there’s lots of other cool biking too, which I will talk about in my next post. We are thinking of going on a vacation in either London England or Melbourne Australia, JUST BECAUSE they have Bix …
John Foster says
Great writing Joe. I like the wasps at a bbq. Montreal has certainly changed since I lived there. The Mtl I knew was full of cyclists – weaving everywhere, usually dressed all in black, never looking back, no lights at night. The cars had the same attitude, giving just enough room for other cars or bikes, if they dared the roads. Peds crossed anywhere, midblock and against light. Glance quickly both ways (for bikes riding the wrong way, and cars driving in reverse for several blocks.) then stride boldly forth. Anarchy at its best. I loved it.
There were a few nice bike lanes, and many bad ones. The worst was Rachel St, with parking on the outside. Turning cars couldn’t see cyclists behind the parked cars. Several cyclists were killed on that one little path. I worked at a bike shop on the corner of Rachel & DeBullion, and heard squealing brakes from accidents and near misses at least once a day. I wonder what the actual statistics are now with Bixi?
Thanks John! Interestingly, Dave Moulton is also complaining about badly behaved cyclists today.
Hard to even imagine the Montreal cycling scene being so different! When were you last there?
One picture I ntoiced in this post showed bikes parked and locked in a stair way. Please don’t do this. At least 2 reasons. First some one how is physically impaired might need the hand rails that now are completely useless. The second is if these stairs are needed for emergency egress you have cut down the traffic volume for people exiting the building or area by 12 feet, 4 metres.
Petition for better bike parking but please don’t lock up in exit ways from buidlings.
That’s two really good points. I hadn’t thought of them. I’ll take it down when I am back at my PC (can’t edit my posts on my IPhone.)
lagatta à montréal says
We still dress all in black or other dark colours (not just cyclists, most people) but I’m happy to report that since Bixi has appeared, use of LIGHTS fore and aft has increased significantly.
And I actually saw a kind of high-visibility vest I’d actually wear at cycles Dumoulin – all-black mesh, with a diagonal silver-reflective cross covering the back. I don’t usually cycle late at night though (I’m a boomer and early riser and early to bed type) but we need to carry lights around now, in the late autumn, as the sun goes down around 4:30 so many people would get caught in the dark returning home from work.
The Rachel path has been widened and made safer in other ways, this summer.
Average Joe Cyclist says
Sounds like a great idea – a high-vis vest that is NOT embarrassing to wear … I need one of those 🙂