- LAURA BLISS
- May 22, 2017
That Montreal ever gained a reputation as a haven for bicyclists is somewhat improbable. There is a forested mountain in the middle of town. The weather dips below freezing nearly half the year. The streets are often covered in snow and ice. When they’re not, they’re in horrendous condition, thanks to the freeze-thaw cycle.
But bike lovers know Canada’s second-largest city as one of North America’s best cycling spots. Its roots in two-wheeled innovation run deep: Montreal built the continent’s first protected, on-street bike lane back in the early 1980s, and all but invented modern bike-sharing when Bixi came on the scene eight years ago.
Today, cycling is booming. The city possesses nearly 750 kilometers of bike paths and cycle tracks, up from 400 in 2009. Over the past eight years, the number of Montrealers who pedal as their main mode of transportation is up by 50 percent. A 2016 report by the provincial bike advocacy group Vélo Quebec put it into even more staggering terms: In a city just shy of two million souls, roughly one million Montrealers ride bikes at least once per week.
“The bike culture is really rich here,” says Marc-André Gadoury, a city councillor and Montreal’s cycling policy point-person. “That is a big mark in our favor.”
But as more Montrealers embrace the vélo, local cyclists still see trouble. The city isn’t adapting its infrastructure quickly enough, they say: Many of the new bike lanes the city like to boast about run through recreation areas and aren’t very useful for regular commuters. And the majority of those built for bike-dependent locals are merely painted stripes on the road.
“I think Montreal was first out of the gate on the continent in terms of infrastructure, but I feel we’ve been resting on our laurels too long,” says Geoffrey Bush, a longtime member of the consulting committee for the Coalition Vélo Montréal Bike Coalition, a local advocacy group.* “We’ve been quickly leapfrogged by other cities with administrations that are more proactive.”
By many accounts, there is safety in numbers: Montreal drivers are accustomed to navigating their way through the mass of riders, and the rate of serious accidents has long been in decline, according to Vélo Quebec. But a rash of fatal incidents in summer 2016 forced a public conversation about how serious the city is about making cycling a great commute choice.