Friday 29 August 2014


I had the opportunity for a few days in Montreal, seeing my daughter off on her new adventure as an university student there, so I had a bit of an explore to see how claims made on behalf of the city to be North America’s most cycle-friendly city stand up to scrutiny.

I should firstly say that  I have only visited four  US cities, none of them particularly recently – I suppose it is just that I don’t really view the solution to the USA’s major problem with firearms deaths being yet more guns as an inviting or welcoming message, especially after the most recent fiasco – and Portland is not one of them.  So I have little to go on in assessing Montreal’s American credentials.  These are just some anecdotal impressions.

Modal share & culture

The city’s cycling modal share doesn’t actually strike me as all that impressive.  This visit was last weekend, ie end of August, so it is in the summer – important because evidently winter conditions make cycling distinctly unattractive – but just prior to the mass return of university students for the start of the Fall Semester on 3rd September.  Possibly it improves next week.  Comparing central Montreal (Downtown, Vieux Port, Latin Quarter) with an equivalent part of London I would say the mode share is really quite low, although it does seem to be more consistent throughout the day, ie probably more routine utility journeys if fewer commutes.  The better infrastructure is definitely busier than the lower-quality or no-infrastructure streets around it – no shit, Sherlock – but even top facilities like the MaisonNeuve segregated path seem to carry fewer cyclists than an equivalent, though inferior, facility in Torrington place etc in Camden.  Others have commented that Montreal’s reputation for cycling might rest on the Plateau Mont Royal quarter, which is just to the west of McGill University where we were staying.  The Plateau resembles Hackney, in more ways than one, but even here I wouldn’t say that modal share was at Hackney levels.

The great majority of private bikes that I saw were low-budget models, ranging from complete junkheaps through to the lower-middle of the Halfords range in quality.  This may reflect the user population – I recall in my student days that few of us had expensive bikes if only for the risk of them being “borrowed” by students anxious to make their next lecture on time.  Certainly I don’t think I saw a single Pinarello, or indeed a Pashley, or any brand of Dutch bike, most models being derailleur-geared hybrids, without lights, mudguards or panniers.  Hub gears seemed to be non-existent, which surprised me considering the unquestionable superiority of the hub for stop-start conditions with frequent traffic lights – and almost no red-light-jumping whatsoever – and lack of maintenance requirements.  I similarly saw very few decent locks, or much evidence of savviness in locking a bike securely, to a decent parking facility – of which more below.

The vast majority of people I saw on their own bikes were conventionally dressed – shorts and tees, summer dresses etc – with almost nil evidence of lycra.  Similarly, few helmets and then mainly of the urban Bern styles rather than chiselled-whippet Giros. This was even more the case with the Bixi hire-bikes, as you might expect.

Cycling etiquette was pretty good.  It was hot, this was not London or New York, and the European influence (French almost universally spoken around you) was evident, but people generally rode at a fairly sedate pace, and I almost never witnessed anyone jump a red light.  In fact, it did seem to me that Montreal showed that it is quite possible for all road users to behave quite courteously and sensibly towards each other – not that this would justify not providing the right infrastructure – and obey the law.  Sure, cars occasionally amber-gamble, but I never saw one pass a light at red, bar one case I saw on a bus tour, which the tour guide put down to the fact that the car had US plates, and the driver might not have been aware that the common US concession to turn right at a red light does not apply in Montreal.  In general where vehicles were turning right at lights, the implication would be that the cross-traffic was held at red and pedestrians would have a walking-man.  Unlike London, where motorists would simply hoot and bully the pedestrians to hurry up and get the f*ck out of the way, motorists simply waited patiently until pedestrians had crossed.  Perhaps that goes some way to explaining why traffic congestion there is what it is – not many cars get to make a right turn on any one green light.  Pedestrians, too, stuck to the rules, often to the point of absurdity, waiting patiently on an empty street while the lights changed.

Cycle paths, cycle lanes

Much of Montreal’s positive reputation rests on schemes such as the Boulevard de MaisonNeuve cycle path, image below. (I have used embedded Streetviews, for interactive viewing): 

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This runs along several miles of one of the principal downtown thoroughfares (thought of in Montreal terms as being east-west, although in reality it runs a lot closer to north-south).  It is similar in a way to the Torrington Place path in Camden, only a lot longer and also quite a decent width.  Also, encouragingly, not only is it largely immune to illegal parking blockages, as it is protected by quite a high kerb and median, during our stay it was closed in places to accommodate builders’ machinery, but in compensation a motor traffic lane had been coned off and provided exclusively for cyclists’ use.

The curse of the UK cycle path, the give-way to side streets, doesn’t appear to be an issue here, although that may simply be because, in the north American grid system, virtually every junction is a cross-roads, and they are all light-controlled anyway.

MaisonNeuve has an interesting history, related here:  the local government’s strategy to gain buy-in for the project, which would entail the loss of on-street car parking spaces, was to focus not on the number of spaces to be lost, but on the proportion of all available spaces within two blocks (about 5 minutes’ walk) which would be lost – about 3%.

There are a few other instances of similar paths, such as this, in University Street, which heads “north-south” in Montreal-speak.

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This one starts on the corner with MaisonNeuve, and ends at the entrance to the McGill Campus about 600 metres away.

Beyond this, the on-street infrastructure isn’t really much to write home about.  Lots of paint on the tarmac, slightly better respected by motorists than their UK equivalents, but that is all.  Some examples seem quite perverse.  Take Prince Arthur Street “West”, for example:  here you can see a quiet, largely residential street, lightly used and with a 30kph speed limit, one-way but well wide enough to accommodate a cycle contraflow.  So what do they do?  They paint a useless pair of solid white lines for cyclists to follow, in the permitted one-way direction, in the dooring zone, that is all.


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(As an aside, we stayed during our visit at the University B&B, which is visible to the left of frame in the shade of that tree.  I can recommend it – clean, comfortable, unpretentious and by Montreal standards reasonably priced.  They have a website if you are interested)

Or take a look at this parallel road, Milton Street.  Here the cycle lane is more sensibly a contraflow, although the road environment is no better or worse than in Prince Arthur St.  You can see in the Google image that the paint would be precious little use to protect an oncoming cyclist, and that is exactly what I saw more than once during our stay.  I suppose judging by general behaviour  motorists would not stray across the line if a cyclist was actually coming the other way, and at least the dooring zone faces the parked motorists so they can see you coming,  but it is hardly perfect.

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These two streets are right on the “western” edge of Plateau Mont Royal, the largely flat area beside the steeply sloping Parc Mont Royal.  The quarter proper starts at Avenue du Parc – not an attractive proposition for a cyclist but the grid of streets behind it is rather reminiscent of Hackney, in more ways than one.  More cyclists, more facilities for cyclists such as parking stands, more “hip”, a slightly down-at-heel area which nevertheless is popular with younger middle class folks, and has attracted a wide variety of independent shops and cafes.  Like Hackney, its attraction as a cycling area has little to do with specific infrastructure, relying instead on traffic calming and permeability measures.  It is popular with McGill students, as it is a short, flat walk from the campus, and that is extremely important in winter, when snowfalls are heavy and daytime temperatures can be low enough for the local met office to advise people to spend no more than 5-10 minutes out of doors.  One of our last purchases for my daughter before heading home was a “Canada Goose” down jacket with fur hood, and Sobel snow boots.  Watching anyone cycling in such garb would be an amusing sight – Michelin Man on a bicycle.

Cycle parking

Provision for securing your bicycle on the street in most of Montreal is either non-existent, or extremely subtle.  There are some posts with small horizontal rings encircling them which appear to be intended to function like the CycleHoops we see clamped to lamp posts and street signs in parts of London.  For the most part people rely on the forest of signposts which seem to clutter sidewalks in any north American street.  This works, after a fashion, but it clearly doesn’t allow for the conflicts it can create between the bicycle and the ease or convenience of passing pedestrians or, indeed, parking motorists.

The position is much better in the Plateau area, although even there the facilities are inferior even to a typical London “Sheffield Stand”.  It is not just that north American cities don’t pursue the same aesthetic standards as, say, the City of London does – that is true about almost every aspect of the urban realm – but also the available stands don’t appear to be very securely fastened to the ground, or conducive to good cycle locking practices (around the frame and both wheels, through a closed loop on the stand).  Mind you, as the photo above suggests, owners might not regard their bikes as worth very much effort to protect, the quality and the condition most of them are in.

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Yes, this is a bike stand

Cycle hire

Montreal strikes me as an ideal city for tourists and visitors to get about by bicycle.  Unfortunately, Mrs M falls into that category of nervous cyclists for whom segregation is a sine qua non, so we wore out a lot of shoe leather and got blisters from all the walking we did, but where there is no protected infrastructure, I would say the road environment and driver behaviour  is civilised enough for most able-bodied adults.  The terrain is reasonably flat, and the distances manageable – if you think of central London as being bounded by the river, Euston Road, Kensington Church Street and Bank, the equivalent area of Montreal is only about half the dimensions of London.  Distances are increased if you want to progress diagonally as, like any American city designed on a grid system, that requires you to “tack” repeatedly to left and right of your desire line.  You also have to deal with the general lack of cycle contraflow on the one-way streets which make up a significant proportion of downtown.

The road surfaces are also pretty terrible.  I didn’t see any potholes, but subsidence and heave, and cracking of the surfaces, are rife.  This is probably inevitable, and not worth the cost of fighting, where winter temperatures can stay below -20C for days on end and metres of snow can be dumped in a single day.  It does however make for a pretty bum-numbing ride.  I had thought to lend my spare Brompton to my daughter to use there, but I doubt she would tolerate the bruising for long.
So, they have Bixi.

Bixi hire bike docking station outside McGill Campus on Rue University
If they look familiar, it is because they are:  they are just like the London cycle hire scheme (or rather, vice versa, as Bixi came first and both schemes are made by a Montreal company).  Except of course that Bixi doesn’t give free advertising to Barclays Bank.
I hadn’t ridden one of these before – no need back home as I have my Brompton – and I must say the experience was, well, interesting.  It rather felt like the effort required to be input, and resulting output, were comparable to riding a pedalo on the Serpentine.  The bikes also made all sorts of alarming clicking, whining and scraping noises, which would have worried me deeply had I not known that I could return it to a dock and forget about it at  my leisure.  But it was fairly comfortable, and rode through the awful road surfaces with less bruising and battering than I might have suffered on skimpier tyres.
The scheme is only open about seven months a year, with the stations being progressively stocked during April, and destocked during November.  Evidently cycling largely stops in mid winter, no doubt due to the abundance of snow and ice everywhere, and the difficulties in riding around dressed like Michelin Man in wellies.  Residents can buy an “annual” subscription for C$82 (£47) or  28 day pass for C$28.  For visitors, the scheme seems quite dear, at C$7 (£4) for 24 hours – twice the price of the London scheme – or C$15 for 72 hours.  For any combination of 1-7 days, whether buying a 24 hour pass or a 72 hour (in London 1 week) pass, the Montreal scheme would cost between 45% and 100% more than in London.  Considering that the general exchange rate for retail prices on coffee, meals etc  in Montreal is C$1 buys £1, ie 40% cheaper, this reversal is remarkable.  Otherwise, the conditions of use, first 30 minutes free etc, are substantially the same.

I figure I am going to be here a couple of visits a year for the next three years, so I imagine I’ll get plenty of chance to explore.