We're a good bike town. Montreal is better.
It's always fascinating to go to Montreal -- where my son lives with his mother -- at least during the months that aren't winter. When my son was born in January 2004, there was a snowstorm every day, leaving about four feet of the white stuff on the ground. The temperatures hovered at 40 degrees below zero, a temperature so cold the liquid in your eyes freezes when you blink. I lost eyelashes that way.
But what's interesting is how much Montreal is like Philadelphia. Both were settled by Europeans in the 1600s. Both have similar housing stock -- lots of centuries-old two- and three-story brick townhouses. We also share many of the same social problems. Philadelphia has its issues surrounding race, while the battle between languages in Montreal still plays out with language police measuring the size of the letters on bilingual signs. Their homeless problem is as bad as ours, and maybe worse: a PSA I saw while passing the Old Brewery Mission said as many as 30 percent of Canada's homeless live in Montreal.
And both have extremely large public transit systems that still aren't all they could be: the Metro, while a lot cleaner than SEPTA (the stations are glorious), is known for being unreliable. And like most of SEPTA's subteranean transit, the Metro shuts down way before the bars close. Another parallel: while both were streetcar cities, the car has not been the best fit for Montreal. The highways are easily as decrepit and obsolete as the Schuylkill: the 15 may actually be worse. And the drivers make Philadelphians look like a model of sense and efficiency.
One area where Montreal leaves us in the dust is in its public bicycle system. Now, Philadelphia, I love our new bike lanes, and Imma let you finish, but Montreal has had a fully functional public bike system for the past year. I didn't have a chance to try one, but this is how it works: a $250 hold is put on your credit card as a security deposit, and you get 24 hours at an hourly rate. You can also rent by the week or month and save a couple of bucks. It seemed like every Metro stop, every major intersection, and every square had a rack of bikes. It sure looked to me like the things were popular: everyone was riding 'em, from college kids to office commuters to old people.
You have to understand, I am an avid biker. My last job took me on a nearly 14-mile round trip, spring through fall (and well into winter some years). I didn't even own a car from 1999 until late 2005, well after my son was born. When I read people like Stu Bykofsky or other bicycle haters spew their nonsense, I just laugh. You wanna pay $2 to ride SEPTA, or pay $2.67 a gallon for gas, be my guest. Anyone who's paying attention knows that when it comes to in-town travel, a bike is just as fast as a car, if not more so. Plus, bike riding is better not only for your health, but for your neighbors, because it's emission-free. If implemented properly, it could be a boon for the city's quality of life in terms of cleaner air, less noise, and perhaps even in fewer car-related injuries.
It could be in the cards here. The mayor's Office of Sustainability, announced a feasibility study in January 2009 for such a system. Indeed, a demonstration site borrowed from Montreal debuted this past winter in Center City and on Penn Campus. No word, yet, on the results.
One aspect of Montreal's system -- which I've also seen in Amsterdam -- is the segregation of bike lanes from automobile traffic via a cement median about three feet wide. In addition, the bike lane has its own dedicated traffic light system that's synchronized with the lights that guide car traffic. This not only helps prevent accidents caused when bikes and cars have to weave and bob around each other, it gives bikers a reason to stay off the sidewalks, making life easier for pedestrian traffic as well.
Sadly this isn't the case yet in Philadelphia, where even the best bike lanes amount to some white stripes painted on the pavement. Given that Philly has more bicycle commuters than any other big city in the US: surely we can afford something a little better. I can't count the number of times some brain-dead motorist has decided the bike lane is a place to double park, or a way to squeak around a traffic jam, or a way to make that quick right turn. It's frustrating and dangerous, even in a city like Philly that grows more bike-friendly by the day. I don't know if such a traffic like system or concrete barrier can be implemented in Philly's narrow streets, but I hope it's part of Bike Share's study.
A public bike system for Philadelphia is a no-brainer, so far as I'm concerned. And if it can work in a place like Montreal, where it's winter for 11 months of the year, think of how successful it could be in a place like Philly, where winter's practically disappeared?
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