Thursday, October 20, 2011

Montreal retrouvailles

Today, a guest post!
Fellow bicycle rider and former Montrealer, Peter comes back to his hometown with fresh eyes and gives a very interesting account of his take on the city's changes.
It has been 15 years or so...



First of all, visiting Montreal after a decade away was like running into your one true love after years apart and wondering what they have been doing all that time. All of the great things in the city are still there, minus a couple of derelict buildings that used to hold my fascination.

What is better is that Bixi has made the city more fun and enjoyable for the tourist and I am sure for fairweather and non-cyclists in the city. I couldn’t believe how well it interfaced with trips that would have involved looking into transit schedules and routes, or walking for blocks and blocks. After we purchased a 24 hr. subscription we had option after option to grab a bike and whizz to a new destination.

Bixi Report card

Ease of Use: A-/B+
Bike Quality/Ride/Usefulness: A

I only give it this low because on the 2nd morning, we tried to grab a bike at UQAM and the terminal wasn’t working. Luckily, the density of the system meant a working station was just 1 block away. These little niggling things might peeve a less determined tourist. The only other thing was a filled station at Duluth/St. Denis when we wanted to return. This meant I rode down to Roy and dropped mine off and walked back to where my wife was window shopping as she had managed to get the last spot in the Duluth station.

But oh, the convenience and speed of picking up a bike and dropping it off in seconds with no cumbersome lock to carry around with you. The bikes were well-maintained and easy-to adjust (although, I couldn’t get the seat high enough for my freakishly long legs!), you’re not going to win a race on Bixi but that clearly isn’t the point. They are so functional and built tough. I really like the rack with the bungee cord! I was invigorated by the whole experience. I think the thing that makes it all work is the density of the system Downtown and in the Plateau. Super easy to find a nearby station if there is a problem with the one you want to use.

We rode up the mountain on Sunday and it took us longer than the ½ hour which means I will have a little extra charge. I realize that putting a station up on the Mountain is futile as noone would ride up, and everyone would ride down leaving the station empty. What about this? There could be a check-in, where you could plug-in your code/credit card at the top that would give you an extra ½ hour to coast down to Parc. Put a check-in at the lookout and Lac aux castors. It would encourage tourists to take them all around the Mountain, one of Montreal's greatest assets. The ride up is easy but a little long with the gear selection and bike.

I find the perk of having Bixi is the spontaneity it inspires. It shows how bikes can conquer distances that tourists would have avoided conquering. Bixi encourages exploring and brings none of the negatives of cars into the confined urban streets of Montreal.

The city

Montreal as a Cycling City: B+

Montreal is set-up so well for bikes. Its relative size is so compact and dense. You can cover distances quickly, whereas Toronto will find it difficult to ever compete. They have dipped their toe in too lightly I think to give it a fair shake. It also costs a lot more in Toronto for the year membership. The only difference favouring Toronto is that it is flatter. That said, there were only a couple of challenging hills in 1st gear for my non-riding wife.

I was impresssed with the Claire Morrisette, and Rachel and Prince Arthur double lane thoroughfares. However, I found the route connectivity around Place Des Arts and St.Urbain/St.Laurent not very well marked and a little hard to navigate. I know the city quite well and found it hard to stay on dedicated cycling paths there and the lanes were blocked for work at Place Des Arts. Better on a Sunday than other times, but the detour was convolluted so we ignored it.

Otherwise, I am really impressed by how many people actually cycle and the city feels friendlier and more livelier for it. I wish I could give it an A, but there is still some distance to go, although it is light years ahead of anything I know of in North America (I don’t know Portland or Minneapolis!). I think those double lanes are the key. You need them running at regular intervals going North and South and East and West. I now see what you mean when you say biking lanes that are not separated are not bike lanes. The feeling of having 2-way cycle track with a buffer of curb and parked cars between you and traffic is truly liberating. This is from someone who wouldn’t have dreamed of using one of these 15 years ago. I used to like tangling with cabbies and STM drivers on Sherbrooke and Ste. Catherine. But now, as a visitor to an urban environment, I look at things through my wife’s eyes. She was totally comfortable in the 2 lane separated tracks and still quite leary elsewhere. Build more and link them well and the city will be untouchable in North America.

Overall Montreal is still my dream North American city. I loved hanging out across from Parc Lafontaine at Maison des Cyclistes. Every city needs a place like that. Unfortunately, Montrealers are the only ones living that dream in Canada. I can't wait to go back.

We live rurally, and are slowing developing a plan for my wife to start market gardening on our property. On my salary as a teacher, and our desire to live from our property, I doubt I will ever get a chance to "live" in Montreal again. I love travelling and commuting to work by bike. I know that bikes can change the world, I'm just happy in the knowledge that my old love, the city that I was born in and returned to for school clearly knows that too.



  1. I almost forgot. Riding in those lanes also made me realize that I didn't feel the need to wear a helmet. On my commute to work, I always wear a helmet. However, it was nice to feel normal not wearing it. Just another perk of more cyclists on the streets and great infrastructure. Not wearing helmets really normalized the cycling Montreal. Just one more reason to love cycling in MTL. Thanks for posting my comments.

  2. Indeed, Peter.

    Oddly, I got a patronising "you should be wearing a helmet" comment the other day, something that practically never happens here. Of course she was an anglophone! Woman about my age (boomer). I was mightily peeved as I had just bought a very pretty deep purple coloured béret, on sale at Simons (I was returning from working at a conference, downtown) and thought she was saying it was pretty and was going to ask me where I'd bought it.

    I don't blame anyone who feels that she or he has to wear one due to safety concerns, but they are a sign of a cycle-unfriendly environment.

  3. You're very welcome Peter!

    In any case you cannot have a helmet culture and a Bixi culture all at the same time.
    It is simply impossible.


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