Thursday 27 August 2015


Well, my 19 year old daughter Harriet has just been converted to riding a bicycle.

She was brought up in a sub-rural setting, on the edge of a prosperous Surrey market town surrounded by kilohectares of National Trust common land, but the geography, topography and fast, winding rural roads would discourage all but the most committed on-road bicycle enthusiasts.  It is also the area with about the highest penetration of car use anywhere in the UK, at around 83% of households.  One of H's friends - admittedly a more than averagely indulged child of more than typically affluent parents for this area - received a brand new Mini for her 18th birthday.  Other less fortunate kids had to make do with second hand Polos as their coming-of-age gift.  To them, a bicycle is merely a toy, a mountain bike for playing on the many miles of bridle paths just on our doorsteps.

Small wonder that H's ambition was to start driving lessons at 17, and that she had no real interest in bikes despite her father's enthusiasm. I have been sticking my fingers in my ears and La-la-la-ing for quite a while as she coaxed and wheedled for me to pay for driving lessons.  Imagine then my relief when she asked me to buy her a bicycle.  Mrs M made faces at the cost of a quality Dutch-style bicycle (from Fitz & Folwell, kind of Montreal’s answer to Bobbin Bicycles), but driving lessons would have cost more, never mind the insurance cost of adding her to our policy.

Breezer Downtown, one of a clutch of "Dutch" bikes, such as Canadian makes Linus
and Simcoe, and the UK's own Bobbin and Pashley, stocked by
in Montreal.  They also offer great bikes for rentals
Then she went on to Uni.  Ever independent, she opted to go abroad, to Montreal to study.  Montreal is reputedly one of the leading North American cycling cities, and the university - McGill - is located just on the [south]* western boundary of the Plateau Mont Royal.  Her first year residence was on Avenue du Parc, just inside the Plateau.  This year she is sharing an apartment a little further east* into the Plateau, close to Rue Rachel/Boulevard St Denis.

Montreal's reputation as a cycling city shouldn't be overplayed.  You certainly see more cyclists than you do in London, especially outside commuting hours, and Montreal is a few years ahead of London in developing decent infrastructure - the equivalent of the East-West superhighway, on Maisonneuve, having been in operation for a few years now. 

However, Amsterdam it ain't.  Like London, a considerable portion of the bicycle use is in one part of the city. The Plateau has far higher bicycle use than the city as a whole, and reminds me quite a lot of Hackney/Shoreditch. Located just to the northeast* of the main commercial/financial district of Downtown, slightly dilapidated built environment but vibrant and full of life, quite young feeling.  They have much of the cycling infrastructure, but like our own Hackney not much of it is segregated!  It is easy to navigate downtown on infrastructure but it is far harder to navigate back uptown, with one-ways without contra flows or cycle lanes.

H will benefit from the best that they have, living close to Rue Rachel which provides a segregated two-way about 3.5m wide all the way over to Parc, where more segregated paths take you down to the University. 

Rue Rachel cycle track with, to right of frame, Bicycletterie JR, one of Montreal's numerous bike parts/repair/rental shops which doesn't sell bikes.

For wider travels, she will, from time to time, have to "man up" and ride the road which, entirely unlike London, is far less threatening as motorists do seem to be far less aggressive, far more patient, and almost universally law-abiding when it comes to traffic lights. In fact, in the 15 or so days I have spent in Montreal, I don't think I have ever seen a motor vehicle or a cyclist run a red light, and few pedestrians either.

But I don't think it is the infrastructure, such as it is, or the road environment, which has achieved this epiphany, or at least not directly.  What has made the real difference is the sheer normality of cycling here.  It really looks like everyone cycles.  Every row house (typically divided into two or three apartments in "Colonial" style) has a half-dozen bikes chained up outside, or on a balcony or staircase. Around metro stations, supermarkets, or Downtown you'll see dozens of them vying for any available lockable object.
I would hazard a guess that schemes like Maisonneuve and Rue Rachel, together with more leisure routes such as the Lachine Canal, have brought out more, younger and older, and more timid, cyclists, but that the real momentum has come from the normalising effect of this first wave of new riders, making a mass of potential cyclists feel that they won't be freaks if they join them.
That, I fervently hope, is what will happen, gradually, with London's East-West and North-South superhighways.

* Montrealers tend to twist their city map around so that the principal crosstown streets, Sherbrooke, Maisonneuve, Sainte Catherine, run across the page.  In fact they run slightly to the north of northwest, rather than East-west.

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