1 of 4
Photo by Ashley Gasperino
Bikes Locked to the RailsA classic scene in Montreal, the spiral staircases of these walk-up residences are often seen with bikes locked to their rails.
2 of 4
Photo by Sheldon Regular
Summer in MontrealPeople out and about on a hot summer’s night in Old Montreal.
3 of 4
Photo by Alfred Ng
4 of 4
Photo by Terri Saul
Rue DuluthExploring the neighborhood near Montreal’s Rue Duluth by bicycle.
"Bienvenue cyclistes!” These are familiar words for people traveling through Montreal, QC. The English translation, “Welcome Cyclists,” headlines a sign that’s proudly displayed at every metro/ light rail entrance, along with a list of rules that cyclists bringing their bikes onto the metro should follow. In the city with the highest number of cyclists per capita in North America, and the most extensive network of cycling infrastructure of any city in Canada, “Welcome Cyclists!” is an apt greeting for visitors to this bike mecca.
Montreal was not always the bicycle-friendly city that it is today. It is a little-known fact that the “Welcome Cyclists!” sign was not written by the Montreal transit commission (STM), but by a lively band of brazen activists called Le Monde à Bicyclette. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the group used street theater, press conferences and civil disobedience to improve conditions for cyclists and mitigate the “cycle frustration” felt by many.
Times have changed. Michel Labrecque, who protested with Le Monde à Bicyclette, is now the chairman of the STM, and the late Claire Morrisette – who illegally snuck into the metro with her bike, sparking a court case that resulted in the overthrow of the ban on bikes in metro stations – is commemorated in a newly built bike path that runs straight through downtown on the Maisonneuve Boulevard. In the 1970s, when Le Monde à Bicyclette proposed a citywide bike share program, city counselors laughed, but now the joke is on them. In 2009, Montreal launched the BIXI bike share program. The first season alone saw over 10,000 riders, and now that number has tripled. In fact, the initiative was so wildly successful that BIXI had to move to stage two earlier than expected.
Whether you rent a BIXI bike or bring your own bike, the city has many places to explore. The island of Montreal is home to 310 miles (500 kilometers) of bicycle paths. Many paths lead to quiet green spaces where the only traffic you’ll have to contend with is of the two-wheeled variety. One of Montreal’s favorite bike paths runs along the historic Lachine canal. The rustic nine-mile-long (14-kilometer-long) canal was built in the 17th century. At the time, geographically-challenged visionaries thought they could build a passage all the way to China, hence the name that sounds like “La Chine,” which means China. Another popular trail leads from Old Montreal to Ile Ste.-Hélène, where cyclists can do laps around the Formula 1 track, as well as take in the island’s many attractions, such as Parc Jean-Drapeau and the Biosphere, an enormous geodesic dome built for Expo ’67. But for many cyclists, nothing beats the beauty of Mount Royal Park, the site of the geographical feature that gives Montreal its name. Mount Royal Park comprises 600-some square acres and is Montreal’s Central Park.
With such a thriving bicycle community, you can expect to spot coteries of cyclists both on and off the bike path. One favorite stop is the Wheel Club in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG). The bar’s name probably has something to do with its popularity among cyclists.
People often complain about the aggressive, laissez-faire attitude of Montreal drivers, but the streets are still unusually safe for a city of its size. “There’s a statistical certitude that you see time and time again: The more cyclists you see on the road, the safer it is for cyclists, and Montreal is no exception,” said Robin Black, the project manager of active transport at Vélo Québec, Quebec’s main bike advocacy group. From 1987 to 2010, the number of cyclists in Quebec increased by 50 percent and the number of accidents decreased by almost the same amount.
The words “North American Copenhagen” have practically become a cliché among Montreal cyclists. And with Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s plan to expand cycling infrastructure in Montreal, the bicycle – and its popularity – will continue to be on a roll.
Bettina Grassmann is a veteran of the bicycle scene in Montreal. She has worked as a bike mechanic, a bike courier and a community bicycle workshop coordinator. She volunteered at Right to Move/ La voie libre for eight years, organized Montreal’s first bike co-op conference, Vélo! Vélo!, and cofounded Le Petit Vélo Rouge. She holds a Master of Arts in English Literature and Creative Writing from Concordia University and writes professionally for websites, magazines and anthologies.