16 June 2011

The Greatest Secret Bicycle City

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Or maybe a big one. In the race for reestablishing the bicycle as a feasible, accepted and respected form of transport, many cities are keen to bang their drums to show off their bicycle goodness. All of the noise is good noise - every bike lane, bike rack, lowered speed limit, et al are great news and important for the symbolism of cementing the bicycle on the urban landscape.

The secret is this. There is a city in North America that is steadily working towards planting bicycle seeds. I often see internet lists about the most bicycle friendly cities in North America and just as often this city isn't on them. Which is wrong.

The reason is a cultural one. English North America looks in the mirror when measuring itself. Europe is another planet and measuring yourself up against the bicycle boom in cities like Paris, Seville and Barcelona won't let you top any bicycle traffic lists. Fair enough. Compare yourself with other cities in your region and measure your progress. Nothing wrong with that.

This secret city, despite being firmly placed on the North American continent, still gets ignored and overlooked. (No, it's not Portland) It's in a region that doesn't speak an English dialect. (No, it's not Wisconsin) A region that has its own unique cultural heritage and identity. (No, it's not Alberta)

This city, and region, don't figure in the daily consciousness of most North Americans because they're just too damned "foreign". Ish.

But I was there very recently and I was amazed with what I saw. And I've seen stuff.

I saw the most impressive bicycle rush hour one afternoon. More impressive and with greater numbers than anywhere else in North America. By far.

I saw more separated bicycle infrastructure in this city than anywhere else in North America. One of the cycle tracks dates from 1986! Beat that. You can't. Sure, many of the cycle tracks are on-street bi-directional ones, which we threw out of our Best Practice in Denmark a couple of decades ago, but they area there and they are used and they are a good start.

I rode on a cycle track that features 9000 daily cyclists. And this is nothing new for them.

I stayed in a borough in the city - one of the highest-density areas in North America - that has one of the lowest car-ownership rates in North America and that can boast a modal split for bicycles of over 9%. City-wide it's at about 2.3%, just so you know.

This borough showed me that bicycle culture is alive and well and that focusing solely on bicycle commuting doesn't get you anywhere. The bicycle can get you to work and back, sure, but it about making the bicycle a part of your daily life. There are, after all, schools to drop off at, shops to shop at, cafés to sip at, cinemas to be entertained at, and so on.

This city is a role model for a continent. It can teach lessons worth learning if there were people from other cities willing to learn. It has the country's largest cyclist organisation who have been representing Citizen Cyclists for 40 years. I ate at their café, too! How cool is that.

I had lunch with the Mayor of the aforementioned borough and saw in his eyes the kind of visionary politician that every city should have. A man who dares to believe that his vision of his city's future can be achieved and who isn't afraid to suddenly change a busy street to one-way for cars and put in bicycle lanes in both directions on either side of said street. I felt his passion and was charged by it.

This is a city that can put on two bike rides / events in three days, organised by the aforementioned cyclists organisation. The first one drew 17,000 people on bicycles for an evening ride. The next one drew 25,000 for a 50 km tour of the city. Read those numbers again. 17,000 on a Friday evening. Then 25,000 on the Sunday.

This is a city that fascinates me. Not only for what it is doing for bicycle traffic and culture but for it's stunning liveable-ness. I live in what is regarded as one of the world's most liveable cities. I can go to other like-minded cities and feel at home. Then I land in this city and wonder how the hell they do it. How the hell it many neighbourhoods are lightyears ahead of Copenhagen, Amsterdam and anywhere else in the way the streets are used by people. For all the talk of Liveable Streets, this city lives the dream. Walking the walk and talking the talk.

I am simply obsessed by this. I simply need to find out, in detail, how it can be. I want the recipe. I'm willing to bust my ass to find it, write it down, absorb it. I want to be taught.

I'm still working on my love affair with their french fries served with gravy and cheese curds, but I have seen North America's promised land. I've been to the mountaintop (and rode up and down their mountain and hills on a three-speed upright bike... easy) and I've seen down the other side.

Every waking moment... okay, that's an exaggeration... I'm thinking about returning. To experience, to learn, to soak up their the city's vibe.


andrewlevitt said...

Well said. But also check it out in the winter.

Lucas Jerzy Portela said...

and wich city is it?

(you didn't mention...)

Superstantial said...

I love Montreal. But to say they don't speak 'an English dialect' overstates it. They're not Quebec!

BikeBike said...

Montreal is indeed incredible, perhaps the nicest city in North America? It'd be hard to argue with that.

We were there about a year ago Bixi-ing everywhere and cannot wait for our next opportunity to visit.

To be clear, the Plateau/Mile End is indeed a little bicycle paradise - however, did you go riding of "the island"?

(fyi calgary has a bicycle mode split of 2%, just saying)

Anonymous said...

The tag says montreal. However did you try biking outside the small area of mile end/plateau? You might find that it's the exception, not the rule.

James D. Schwartz said...

Montreal is indeed an amazing city. In a lot of ways it's my favourite city in North America (in the summer anyway).

Unfortunately it was raining when I was in Montreal in April, so I wasn't able to properly experience the Montreal rush hour.

But I took a video of Toronto's rush hour last week. Despite Toronto's shitty infrastructure, there's still a fair number of people out there: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAkJdIAENYE

Simon Chauvette said...

I grew up near Québec City and studied 4ish years in Montréal. Although not a big fan of cities in general I really love Montréal and its vibrancy. It's one of those places that breed creativity and innovation because there's so much edge between young&old, french&english, etc.

I live in the Plateau area for a year and it's a great microcosm indeed. However I'm very surprised that the city-wide mode share isn't higher than 2,3%! When was it last measured? I had a feeling BIXI had had more positive influence than that.

Of course the winter is harsh (less and less though) but as a year-round cyclist I know solutions are available and pretty simple. I much prefer 15cm of snow than 15mm of rain. Above -20 it's really not that bad to cycle and the temperature rarely gets lower in Montreal.

Anonymous said...

My family lives across the border in New York and often enjoy bicycling in Montreal. Montreal is 'our' city across the border. We, and many of our neighbors, attend the annual Tour each year as do I suspect thousands from Vermont and New Hampshire.

Erik Sandblom said...

Oh but it's too hilly and it snows too much. Cycling will never be popular in Montreal ;-)

Anonymous said...

Yeah many many bike lanes, many people biking, but still, you cannot access the metro system with your bike between 7am and 7pm... so, if it rains or injured a leg or whatever you're doomed.
Also, in summer with all those festivals downtown, the bike lanes are cut and even if there's no one looking around, you cannot cross it.
Not to mention winter...
Not everything is pink for cyclists in Montreal. As a regular cyclist I expect so much more from this city.

Zvi Leve (Montreal, QC, Canada) said...

Hey Mikael,

Glad that you were so positively impressed by our little paradise here. I think that the secret may be getting out a bit too much now!

If you want to learn more about what makes the city tick, some good references are the Montreal entries on the UrbanPhoto blog:

And of course Spacing Montreal:

And Winter is wonderful here! Yes it can get cold, but that doesn't stop people from getting out and enjoying themselves. We even have some great winter festivals here! Here are some of my pix of Montreal in the winter (note the many bicycles which are still apparent): http://www.flickr.com/photos/zvileve/sets/72157619009078036/show/

andré said...

Welcome in Montréal anytime, everybiker ;-)

Anonymous said...

The problem with the modal share calculation is they include stuff like Longueil and Laval which technically are not Montreal.
However, these are what morning traffic jams are made of. People coming from the south shore and north shore.
I do not think these people will ever take on the bicycle the way we do it in Montreal. However, they should be steered toward trains and metros, with foldies maybe?
However, there is still more work to be done on the Island: people are waiting for segregated bike lanes! Every time one is built it gets saturated within the year. Brébeuf and Maisonneuve are soooo saturated now that people have started avoiding these lanes!!
The city is currently run by people who do not have the political balls to impose those lanes... Look at the controversy with the Laurier changes, when the entire Plateau population supports it!!

Anyways, next election, let's rebelotte with we did at the Federal elections: let's broom out the loosing morons, and vote-in those who actually have a plan and a vision for this city!!!
Too bad for the suburbans but our interests first, these are our taxes after all...

Anonymous said...

The reason the rest of North America ignores us is not a language issue. It's a bike culture issue.
We, in Montreal do have a real bike culture, that is thriving in spite of sub-standard infrastructure.
In the rest of North America, people are into vehicular stuff, gear, commuting etc.
I regularly jump on my bike just to go and get ice cream, go to the theatre, visit friend etc.
Our bike love affair is not centered around work...

Louis M said...

I'm glad you appreciate Montreal that much! I would be pleased to help you trying to decipher the secrets that make this city so amazing!

Anonymous said...

Yes, Montreal is a city you can fall deeply, deeply in love with. And, unlike other cities, it returns the favour every day. Glad you liked it. Come back!

Pierre Phaneuf said...

Glad to hear you liked our city!

For life in the street, though, I'm not sure we have something to the equal of your Indre By! Not that much of a cycling area, but a stroll down Strøget is certainly full of life! And at the ends, have a beer. :-)

Zvi Leve (Montreal, QC, Canada) said...

And concerning the bicycle congestion. The city is a victim of it's own success. They have been actively putting down bike lanes over the past few years, particularly since the launch of Bixi, but the city's traffic engineers still does not understand how cyclists navigate intersections. And intersections are where the vast majority of problems occur (and also the congestion).

Louis said...

Yes, intersections are a problem. Even Denmark recognizes that despite all its positive advances in bike culture, intersections are actually becoming more dangerous as bikes are removed from the auto lanes.

Marie said...

Glad you appreciated cycling in Montreal. I was in Copenhague in May 2010 and thougth it was the greatest city EVER to bike in. Waht did it for me? the absence of car noise + smell in the city, even in rush hour.
I think Montreal has made a lot of progress to develop bike paths, but less so to reduce cars coming in and out of the city. I think bikers are in fact converted bus/metro goers.
I live in the east of Montreal, and I have been biking every summer day to go to work for the last 5 years. The number of cars just continues to increase, so much that I am thinking of 'quitting' biking because the air has become just simply unbreathable in the afternoon.
So... good, perhaps, but just not enough and not quickly enough! We need to be more ambitious!

Kiwehtin said...

Nice to know you scaled our Formidable Peak! ;-)

Of course, Montreal (especially Plateau and Mile End) may seem a wonderful example, but when you live here, you see the other side of the coin as well. I don't have much to add to what others have said here or what I've said in other posts; suffice it to say that the part of the city you stayed in is really the beating heart of vacuum cleaner bike culture in Montreal, something that doesn't extend quite so far elsewhere in the city let alone the western, "eastern" or off-island suburbs. Nothing like the CPH bike path to IKEA, for example.

Oh, and by the way, yes, Montreal *does* have its own dialect of English. There's a special accent you only hear here, among people who have grown up in Montreal and especially kids of immigrant families. And many Montrealers have funny ways of wording things because of bilingualism. But glad you liked it! Be nice, but be like us: believe there are many things that need to be improved on. Like dealing with winter, among other things.

shuichi said...


Jean said...

"Yeah many many bike lanes, many people biking, but still, you cannot access the metro system with your bike between 7am and 7pm... so, if it rains or injured a leg or whatever you're doomed."

I'm sorry to hear that there is no block of time for bikes on the Metro during off-peak hours?

I've always enjoyed Montreal on and off bike. We have done several bike trips between Quebec City and Montreal by using the Route Verte network. And also from Ottawa eastward to Montreal. My partner has done more extensive cycle-touring in the Eastern Townships area and into the Gaspe Penisuala.

I agree that part of non-promotion of Montreal to get it onto the list of North America's friendliest cycling cities, IS cultural because of the French language and sorry, lack of awareness by Americans what Montreal truly offers. But also over promotion/over-exposure of Portland and some other places.. as most cycling oriented, etc...

We were amazed..over 15 years ago that Velo Quebec had their own little shop, bike cafe in the downtown area and their cycling touring arm with trips overseas. I mean really, folks..what other North American cycling advocacy organization is this ahead of the game for so long???

During that year we also joined the thousands that Mikail did a few days ago, for the Tour d'Ile. (I need my French dictionary.)

It is not surpristing that Montreal hosted the lst Velo-city Global Cycling Conference outside of Europe at that time. (over 10 yrs. ago)

kfg said...

Did I tell you Montreal for New Year's Eve, did I, huh, huh? Not everybody in the US is ignorant of the place, especially those in places that used to be part of New France themselves (in NY that extends as far south as Fort William Henry).

Although for real non-USian in the north, as has been mentioned, you have to go to QC.

Kiwehtin said...

About the hours when bikes are allowed on the metro, here is what the Montreal Transportation Corporation (Société des Transports de Montréal) says on their site:


"10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and after 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, and all day Saturday, Sunday and legal holidays"

So basically the times you can't take a bike on the metro are restricted to before 10 am weekdays, between 3 pm and 7 pm weekdays, and during occasional special events like the jazz festival and so on when you can expect a particularly strong press of people going to and coming back from downtown.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I think Danes and other Europeans have a different definition of "North America" than North Americans, who come from Canada, the USA... and Mexico (and some islands).

Anonymous said...

I guess you are talking about Montréal. I was there the last 3 weeks and I didn't expect that amount of bikes and separate lanes either. The province of Québec feels so different from the English ones, you feel like you are in Europe but with a different taste which is characteristic of America...

I have a friend living there and that has tried to convince me for 9 years that I should move there, that I'd love it. Now that i've seen it with my eyes and that I've checked that the most important thing for me to live somewhere (which is a liveable city, and preferably where i'm not the only weirdo to ride a bike for everything) they have and also I see a better "integration" or whatever you want to call it of different cultures, which I haven't seen in cities in Europe that are in my top 5 of liveable cities.

So thumbs up Montréal!!


Anonymous said...

The problem with Bixi is that it tends to cannibalize ridership.
Seriously, how many Bixi passholders don't already own a 2-wheeler?

Zvi Leve (Montreal, QC, Canada) said...

What do you mean that Bixi tends to 'cannibalize ridership"? Are you implying that fewer people ride their own bikes due to Bixi? I would say the opposite: I own a bike (two in fact), and yet I still use Bixi quite a few times a week for certain types of trips. The number of 'individual' bicycle trips that I make has without a doubt increased quite a bit due to Bixi.

kfg said...

I believe what he is referring to is the great North American problem. Although if you look around the blogoshpere you might get the impression that cycling here is on the upswing. Portland, SF, Davis, Boulder; even NYC.

But the fact is that while in these cities the modal share is going up, the actual number of American cyclists has been on a steady decline for at least 20 years.

The people who ride are making more cycle trips, but the absolute number of people who ride is in decline and has been for about 20 years. The choir, although perhaps more devout, were already among the converted and the bass has wandered away somewhere. Modal share is a deceptive metric if taken by itself.

Thus, in a way, you are supporting his argument. Your added cycling trips aren't adding to the number of people making cycle trips.

I must note, however, this is still better than the NA situation, where public transportation and cycling cannibalize each other, instead of lending support.

Zvi Leve (Montreal, QC, Canada) said...

@kfg, you are quite correct that "Modal share is a deceptive metric if taken by itself." And this is where Bixi is particularly 'transformative'. Bixi is very much a *complementary* mode of transportation - it facilitates the use of other modes (particularly public transportation, but even walking). I do not know what percentage of Bixi trips are combined with some other mode, but I expect that it is significant. From my own personal experience, Bixi has significantly expanded my range of possibilities. And 'access to destinations' is what transportation is really all about!

Eric G. said...


Ottawa is not bad either. You came here, so you know. We have tones of bike paths, and separate path are now blooming downtown, on Laurier Avenue. Now, the National Capital Commission is trying to bring more initiatives. Now, if they could only remove the snow on the path in winter, that would be great.


Bike sheds said...

Always interesting to read about how other countries treat cyclists.

Just seems to me that the UK is really lagging behind, unfortunately.

Kevin said...

Count me in when it comes to being a big fan of Montreal and Le Plateau in particular. I was sad to read however that the mayor is now getting some resistance from local merchants, claiming that his "war on the car" is hurting business.