Friday, August 30, 2013

Inspiration City: Montreal

From Saturday until Tuesday, my husband and I traveled to Montreal, Quebec. I was surprised, given Canada's reputation for long winters, and what I would assume would be substantial lake/river-effect snows, to find a remarkably bike-friendly city. So, while I suffer back in the Midwest with near-100° temps, I'll share what I saw, and photos, too.

Montreal has a bike-share program (exactly like the Divvy Bike program in Chicago, or the CitiBike program in NYC). They are grey bikes with red logos and are called "Bixi Bikes". There are stations all over town, so that you can rent a bike in one part of town and drop it off in another with little difficulty. Trucks come around periodically to relocated extra bikes to empty stations as needed. (The one below had just been "restocked".)

Bixi Station by Day
Bixi Station by night.
The Bixi bikes were equipped for all riding conditions in the same manner as other bike-share-style bikes, and featuring many things that consumers have to pay extra for on entry-level city bikes or when outfitting nontraditional city bikes (mountain bikes, road bikes) for regular city/commuter/transportation use (whatever your bike means for you, insert here - we all use our bicycles in different ways). They featured pedal-powered, blinking, front and rear lights (to make you visible; the light was inadequate to help you see anything, so you had to rely on adequate street lighting, which was plentiful in downtown Montreal). The bikes had front racks for bags or purses, and covered chains and skirt-guards to keep your apparel clean. 
Riders on Bixi Bikes
Rows of Riders in Montreal
Rentable bikes near the river in Montreal
Tandem riders in Montreal
Parked bicycles
Parked Bikes in Old Montreal

We saw a fair number of people riding the Bixis, and a lot of people had their own bikes, too. Drivers accepted the bicycles, and even in our scramble to find the tiny road names and decipher new (to us) direction signs, we were easily able to drive and watch for bikes. This was largely due to the fact that there were so many bikes. Volume increases safety for everyone by increasing awareness to the presence of and visibility for all bicyclists. 

Even when folks weren't riding their bikes, there was abundant evidence of their presence, as bikes were parked all over town. There are those electric parking meters for on-street parking, and they have loops added to the posts that show your space identifier (e.g., M031), so riders can lock up there, too. Bike racks were plentiful, and people locked to fences, sign posts, etc., too. There was not too evidence of theft, but we did come across a sad blue bike that was rusting out because its back wheel (the more expensive wheel, with the gearing) had been stolen. I tried to snap a photo, but it didn't turn out. Still, most of the bikes locked up appeared to be in pretty good condition, well-maintained, and probably used on a regular basis. 

Montreal makes gracious accommodations for bicyclists in the form of dedicated, distinct, well-marked - and sometimes - protected bike lanes. You can easily see some of them at work in the top and second photos of riders (protected lane). There are huge bicycles painted in the lanes to make them easy to see (especially as compared to the small road signage). The protected bike lanes are two-way, so that the bikers are completely separated from traffic. This made for some interesting intersection set-ups, but they clearly mark the way for bicyclists, and it all seems to work.  

I would love to see lanes and really obvious intersection markings like this on Manchester, Brentwood, Hanley, and Clayton roads, where bikes are less common, the roads are not very safe for riding due to lack of bike lanes and shoulders, and cars travel at pretty high speeds (35mph is a terrifying prospect in the age of distracted driving). The great thing about the protected lanes (as opposed to "sharing the road" model that we often use here in St. Louis) is that people on slow bikes (Bixis, uprights, Dutch-style, cruiser, or due to the physical limitations or desires of the rider) don't have to try to keep up with traffic. When I ride to work, I'm terribly aware of my few minutes on McKnight Road and Clayton Road, where traffic averages 30-40mph. In both cases, the morning commute is preferable (and really feels fine), because traffic is staggered, people seem more relaxed, and they can easily go around me in the second lane in each direction. At 5:00pm or so, everyone is leaving at once and between the rush to get home and the dense traffic,  I feel (as I'm wheezing up Clayton Road for a couple blocks at 5mph) like I'm an inconvenience and at a higher risk of getting hit because someone doesn't leave me enough room. (Seriously; I'm only on the road for a few blocks and I am probably going to switch to the sidewalk for those few blocks for the commute home because it's so unpleasant; I hop up onto the sidewalk for the crosswalks to cross Clayton anyway, since neither crossing point is a major intersection.)

Speaking of hills, Montreal is relatively flat near the river, but this region of Qu├ębec has these random little "mounts" (big hills out of nowhere), which often serve as the name of the town: Mont Royal = Montreal, Mont Ste. Hilaire = the town of same name, etc. As you approached Mont Royal, you rapidly had very steep hills, and we saw about half a dozen people hop of their bicycles and walk up the hills. No shame in that - I have to walk up one of the hills on my way home, especially when it's hot. And my hill was smaller.

As we were in the city for less than 24 hours each time, with a pretty strict agenda each day, I did not have the opportunity to rent and ride a Bixi myself, but one of my traveling companions, who went up a few days early, did ride one, and we bumped into him next to the Bixi station in the top photo. I took the opportunity to ask him about his riding experience. He confirmed that the roads become very hilly very quickly as you move toward Mont Royal, and that underneath the plastic Bixi covers, the bikes feel pretty stiff and failed to offer a particularly-smooth riding experience (in other words, it's no Pashley or Workcycles Oma), which isn't terribly surprising (cost control). Still, he offered that it was an amazing way to see the city, get out and about for a bit, and get a little exercise in the process. No one can argue with that.

Anecdotally, helmet use among Bixi riders was rare; use among other city-type bicycles (bikes clearly used for transportation) was about 50/50, and close to 100% on road bikes where folks were kitted out in lycra outfits and clearly going for speed.

We're back in St. Louis, and the temperatures have been holding steady this week in the high nineties, which is pairing with some leftover crud I developed due to a severe seasonal allergy attack while I was in Canada (much more foliage, and much closer to autumn), but rumors speak of a break from the high temperatures by Monday, and I am crossing fingers for the opportunity to spend some time on the bike again soon. 

Happy riding!

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