Montreal: Better For Bikes

We're a good bike town. Montreal is better.

By Brendan Skwire
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 13 | Posted Oct. 4, 2009

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A Montreal public bike stand: Stick in your credit card and go.

Photo by amlibrarian

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.

Of course, both cities are plagued with bad government. Both are fantastic beer cities, however, home to brewpubs and production breweries.

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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Comments 1 - 13 of 13
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1. k said... on Oct 5, 2009 at 08:25AM

“My sister is in Philly and is married to her car. I live in Montreal and don't even have a car. But I'd like to point out, that the bike lanes you pointed out are relatively rare here. Most of the time, there are just bike symbols painted on the street and we ride right along with the cars. Often, the bike lane is the same as where the buses run, which is pretty darned scary - combining the lane for a vehicle that never wants to stop, along with a vehicle that stops frequently is terrifying, and buses here are always considered to have the right of way and act like it. I'm all for people using bikes, but I hope Philly drivers are safer than Montreal drivers. Running lights is a sport here and it's one that is downright deadly for cyclists.”

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2. brendancalling said... on Oct 5, 2009 at 10:04AM

“you guys still have more of those protected lanes than we do though. And Sherbrooke is damn terrifying.

But yeah, Philly and Montreal could (and should) have a running the red contest”

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3. bob said... on Oct 5, 2009 at 03:47PM

“because people in this city cant behave”

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4. Anonymous said... on Oct 5, 2009 at 04:56PM

“As usual, excellent post, great insight. We just became the #13th place in the world to live. Perhaps it will be lucky 13 and we will go back up the ladder. Todays republicianism is sooooooooo destructive.

Keep up the good work.


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5. Montreal Photo Chick said... on Oct 5, 2009 at 10:00PM

“I have been biking seriously in MTL a couple of years now and find that the best way is to pick roads no one is on, and I try to do my recreational riding late at night in the summer. I think the Rachel bikepath is too full of fast aggressive bikers and it scares me how they come flying down the hill. St Urbain is a disaster and needs to be totally avoided. I find cars to be more considerate than I do at my other home in Albany NY where the suburban layout makes biking totally impossible and deadly. And, to all of yopu, Albany MUST be the winner of the red light running contest, after driving in all three.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Oct 6, 2009 at 02:03AM

““As usual, excellent post, great insight."
Really? This "anonymous"must be a friend of the author. I think "K" could have written a more informative article on the topic. Anyway, I would like to see more philly bikers follow the laws. A few bikers have almost found themselves on the hood of my car due to not following bike laws (stop signs, red lights). Keep riding, I think its great, just follow the laws.

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7. brendancalling said... on Oct 6, 2009 at 08:34AM

“@montreal photo chick: next time i head up, i'm gonna remember to pack my bike so i can get the full experience. I've been to all three cities too, and i still say Philly wins the "running the red light contest". we have delayed greens here, which i believe is meant to give pedestrians who are mid-crosswalk time to get out of the way of cars. But what really happens is that drivers take advantage of that 2-5 second interval, hit the horn, jam the accelerator, and fly through the light.

@6: bicyclists DO need to be more careful: every year, some kid who's never been to a city before ends up flattened because they didn't bother to obey rules of the road. At the same time (and I'm certain a lot of people will disagree with me), I don't have a problem with rolling stops for bikes (i think this is called the "idaho stop"), especially when there's no oncoming traffic. It's more a matter of awareness and etiquette than entitlerment (IMO).”

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8. Kellie Murphy said... on Oct 7, 2009 at 10:01AM

“Nice piece Bren, a former boss of mine from Maryland always told me the "real" biking/hiking city up there is actually Ottawa, and I'm looking forward to traveling up there and getting to experience the "no car lifestyle."”

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9. kris said... on Oct 7, 2009 at 09:59PM

“i dunno how i feel about bike rental. you can get a way-decent complete bike for $200-400 and that's with a lot of trimmings. if you ride a bike more than once a month, just get yourself to a local bike shop and bite the bullet and JOIN US. it's a good time, and good for you.”

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10. Anne said... on Oct 8, 2009 at 03:36PM

“@ 7: "Oncoming traffic" has to include pedestrian traffic. Most bikers only look in the direction that vehicles are coming from, thus putting pedestrians in danger.

Your article fails to recognize walking when comparing ways of getting around the city. It's just as healthy and emission-free as cycling. Unfortunately, most bikers in this city have no regard for pedestrians' rights. Biking on sidewalks is illegal; no other "reason" to stay off the sidewalks is necessary.

You complain about "brain-dead motorists" with no regard for bicycles. Well, I can't count the number of times some brain-dead biker has blown through a light without looking for pedestrian traffic, blocked a crosswalk at a light, or rode on the sidewalk.”

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11. JohnWA said... on Oct 9, 2009 at 03:30PM

“Anne: You are wasting your breath calling out bicyclists bad behaviors. Stu Bykofsky was correct in his observations, bike riders need to look in the mirror. There is a very nice and clearly marked bike lane on the outer drives of the Parkway, yet bike riders still use the sidewalk. Bike riders, as we all have seen, think it is OK to run red lights even when there are pedestrians crossing in front of them on their green light. They do stop for a car about to hit them, but not for pedestrians. This is the case along Spring Garden Street where there is another very nice and clearly marked bike lane. Expect the same on Pine & Spruce Streets, where there even larger and better marked bike lanes. I love it when bicyclists quickly point out the merits of rolling stops, but they are illegal here. If you tried a rolling stop in a car you would get a very expensive ticket.”

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12. Jenna said... on Oct 13, 2009 at 09:11AM

“Maybe one day this will get off the ground:”

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13. Jason Meinzer said... on Oct 18, 2009 at 10:09PM

“Great post Brendan, we are glad to see you are on board. To all.. don't hesitate to reach out to CityRyde for any bike share needs, information, etc. - we've been in the game since 2007.

Jason Meinzer
COO & Co-Founder
CityRyde LLC
"Bike Share Experts"”


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