By Austin MacDonald
In late 1999, Montréal was crowned North America’s most bike-friendly city by Bike Magazine. Yet, for Montréal’s commuter cyclists, something didn’t add up. Their daily journeys were harrowing experiences – punctuated by extreme weather conditions, race-crazed drivers, parked-car “door prizes,” careless pedestrians, rim-rending potholes, and poorly plotted paths. At the time, Montréal was surrounded by kilometres of regional bike routes for leisure and touring but lacked downtown bike paths, and most notably, an east-west artery through the heart of the city.
Two years later, Peter Gibson took matters into his own hands. Under cover of night, he stencilled bike path icons down the middle of several streets in the Plateau and Mile End neighbourhoods, creating an ad hoc network of guerrilla bike paths on Saint-Urbain, Saint-Viateur, Jeanne Mance, and Clark streets as well as on Laurier Avenue.
“The first bicycle stencils I did were pretty crude. They were very simple, I imitated the functional language the city uses,” he explains of the hits that launched his career as Roadsworth – now an internationally renowned street artist. (His nom de plume is a nod to the influence of British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy.)
Since then, his illegal ornamenting of cities’ road signalling has flummoxed many municipal officials and earned him high-profile sanctioned commissions. In 2007, he painted flocks of flying doves on London’s asphalt along the route of the Tour de France’s first stage. He was the subject of a recent National Film Board of Canada documentary, Roadsworth: Crossing the Line, that was a surprise hit at South by Southwest 2009. The film tells the story of how he beat a rap sheet of 85 mischief charges by the city of Montréal, a feat that cemented his notoriety and street cred.
“It seemed strange that there’s a dedicated space for pedestrians, there’s a dedicated space for cars, yet cyclists were forced to operate somewhere in between,” Gibson says. “I think how you move about in the city determines your relationship to it. Your mode of transportation puts you into a certain camp. So as a cyclist, I felt that we were somehow second-class citizens,” adds the bilingual, out-of-province, Montréal expat, chuckling at his dated allusion.
Indeed, Montréal has always been a fragile experiment in coexistence. Historic linguistic tensions have largely subsided between franco-, anglo-, and allophones [in Quebec, an allophone is a resident, usually an immigrant, whose mother tongue or home language is neither English nor French]. Modern day, multilingual Montréal’s most politicized battle takes place on the city roads between users of the different modes of transportation; cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians jockey for position in traffic as well as in the hearts and minds of municipal officials.
Solidarity among Montréal’s cyclists is strong; numbering around 800,000, they represent a highly visible and mature urban subculture with do-it-yourself community bike shops; municipal pressure groups; a cyclist’s café; the Canal Lachine, Canada’s busiest bike path; well- attended Critical Mass rides, and even a provincial QANGO [quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization], Vélo Québec. This government-funded non-profit hosts an annual calendar of pro-bike events, the high point being the Féria du vélo, a bike week in early June. The 2009 edition marked the 25th anniversary of the Tour de l’Ile – a 52 kilometre metaphoric lap of the island by bike – drawing over 30,000 cyclists.
“In the late 1970s, during the oil crisis, bikes became fashionable among adults in Québec as a mode of transportation, but the first Tour de L’Ile really put cycling on the map,” explains Vélo Québec’s president, Suzanne Lareau.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Montréal’s bike riders is the matter-of-fact, low-tech, and utilitarian way the majority of them go about their business, incorporating commuting by bike into their daily lives – weather permitting. As in any urban centre, there are many species of cyclists, ranging from the self-conscious tie-wearing hipsters wobbling by on antique bicycles to courier-inspired Grrl riders with dreadlocks and army-surplus cargo shorts zipping around on fixies. However, as a survey of the few existing downtown bike racks will reveal, the second-hand special or “beater” is the bike of choice for most Montrealers. A stolen plastic milk crate from the dépanneur bungeed to a seat-stay rack is the ultimate statement in bike vanity. Often regarded as a fashion-conscious bunch, they’re street smart too; many Montrealers shun gear and fancy rides in reaction to rampant bike theft. For this reason, a low profile unremarkable bike is every season’s new black.
There has never been a better time to bike in Montréal than in 2009. Legions of cyclists are out in visibly greater numbers than ever before, filling the air with the clicking sounds of shifters, and with whispers of “BIXI” on everyone’s lips. Launched in mid-May, mayor Gerald Tremblay’s bike-sharing system (3,000 bikes at 300 downtown racks, eventually) and the resulting international media hoopla reconfirmed cycling as a chic mode of transportation, placing it front and centre in the city’s collective imagination. Whether this will buy cyclists more room on the road and more patience from honk-happy drivers remains to be seen.
Cynical armchair city councillors are quick to comment that Mayor Tremblay timed his BIXI coup for a municipal election year, adding that the second-term mayor won his first re-election in part through a last-minute fit of public works, shamelessly repaving many downtown thoroughfares. It’s possible that the slam-dunk success of the new bike-sharing program may make him a hands-down favourite in November.
It’s also now apparent that BIXI is only one facet of Mayor Tremblay’s wide-ranging, multi-modal transportation plan, which also includes a new branch of the Métro north to Laval, and the demolition and reconstruction of the Turcot Interchange, an expansive basket weave of concrete highways seemingly in a state of imminent collapse. An express rail link to the airport from downtown and rapid bus lanes are also planned.
Truth be told, there is a severe lack of bonhomie between the city’s cyclists, who slash through busy crosswalks; pedestrians, who jaywalk blindly; and drivers, who may not be able to turn right on reds, but occasionally go straight through them. Chalk up the generalized disregard for traffic signalling to the city’s bohemian mindset. In the spirit of good fences making good neighbours, more downtown bike paths are the way forward to soothe Montréal’s road rage; reduce rush hour congestion; and encourage alternate transportation, greener living, and greater civility between all three groups sharing the road.
Downtown bike paths will play a crucial role in the city’s $8.1-billion, 20-year master plan. Adopted in 2004, it pledges in part, “a continuous, efficient bikeway network designed to improve access to the city’s main activity areas.” In addition to bike paths, the $134 million earmarked for cycling infrastructure will also build showers and change rooms for cyclists in municipal workplaces and public institutions, and provide secure indoor parking facilities or bike lockers at subway and commuter rail stations.
In 2007, the city’s Cycling Action Plan began to yield some actual results. In May, the city announced it would spend $50 million in seven years for new and existing bike paths, doubling the total kilometres from 400 to 800. And in November, the city inaugurated a curbed, two-way, east-west, four kilometre downtown bike path on De Maisonneuve Boulevard.
“The city opted for a bidirectional path and eliminated parking all along it. Otherwise the cars don’t see the cyclists, causing conflicts to arise at intersections,” explains Ms. Lareau. It’s a hot topic of conversation among Montréal’s most nitpicky cyclists, endlessly mulling over other, better alternatives, which usually spiral into cries to eliminate cars altogether. “Listen, we can debate whether it’s good or not. Bike paths aren’t an exact science. I’m of the mind that we now finally have a great east-west axis for getting around. It legitimizes the presence of cyclists downtown,” Lareau responds.
“The politicians and city planners needed to put their money where their mouths were,” says Roadsworth. “I think it’s changing.” Perhaps the city’s most tangible commitment to championing cyclists at the expense of cars has been eliminating many downtown parking spots, whether for bike paths or for BIXI bike racks. Montréal’s parking authority operates BIXI in large part because it has the curbside real estate to install the solar-powered stands. In the meantime, forever-circling drivers looking for parking continue to fume.
It’s suddenly a new golden age for biking in Montréal and the future looks bright. Michel Labrecque, founder of Vélo Québec, is now head of the Société de Transport de Montréal. What? The former head of a provincial bike lobby at the head of the city’s transit commission? Why, that’s unheard of in North American, big city municipal politics.
It wasn’t always this way and it didn’t come without a fight. “The popularity of cycling isn’t something spontaneous, it didn’t emerge on its own,” says Ms. Lareau about Montréal’s longstanding bike activism.
In addition to Vélo Québec’s activities between 1976 and 1997, Claire Morisette was another voice of the movement, co-founding Le Monde à Bicyclette – a militant citizens group of 300 to 400 members. They excelled at direct action and guerrilla theatre. Circa 1987, MAB members stormed the Métro system carrying all sorts of improbable sports equipment, skis, toboggans, ladders, and giant cardboard elephants onto the subway to protest the absurdity of its rule banning bicycles. Since then, cyclists are able to transport their bikes on Montréal’s Métro and commuter trains except during peak hours.
Ms. Morissette’s legacy includes an annual “Die-In” (September 22), a direct action where bicycle activists delight in sprawling and playing dead at a major intersection. She didn’t bear the company of cars gladly and was a leading lobbyist for more bike paths and for opening the South Shore to cyclists via the bridges.
Often referred to as “Joan of Arc on a bicycle,” Ms. Morissette died in 2007 due to illness. The following summer, Montréal’s city council voted unanimously to name the new downtown cyclist artery along De Maisonneuve Boulevard: Piste Cyclable Claire Morissette.
Montréal’s extreme winters of ice, snow, and freezing temperatures mean that BIXI, or biking in general, can’t be a year-round, sustainable transportation option for all. Only the bravest cyclists commute through the winter. It’s a testament to Ms. Morissette’s vision, that in the late 1990s the devout cyclist started Communauto, Montréal’s commercial car-sharing service (called “Communist-auto” by its suburban detractors).
It’s just one more ingredient in Montréal’s “transportation cocktail” that city officials and alternate transportation advocates will be promoting in the future – anything but single-occupant individually-owned cars in the downtown core. Clever commuters could combine various modes of transportation on one journey: Home-Walk-Métro-Bixi-Work. And an increasing number of Montrealers are drinking the intermodal Kool-Aid.
“We use Communauto, it’s very square in a sense; you plan it ahead, you have to bring it back at a certain time, and you can’t be spontaneous. When we want to keep our options open we look at public transit,” says Celine Bianchi, film festival coordinator, mother of three (including a newborn), and matriarch of a cycling family. Location is key. “The difference between us and a suburban family is that we have services and ways to get to them that don’t require a car,” she says from her backyard deck in Pointe-St-Charles, an up-and-coming neighbourhood near the downtown core. “Within the city, cycling’s quicker – there’s no two ways about it.”
“I’m set up for two,” she says as she ponders how she and her partner will now configure their bikes as a family of five. “We have a double buggy, where I can put the three-year-old and the five-year-old but then there’s nowhere to put the baby. The buggy actually rigs to the seat of the bicycle, so you can’t use the baby seat as well. So, yeah, it’s a bit of a puzzle.”
“We both like to take bike paths with the kids. People are insane on the road,” Ms. Bianchi continues, “Something happens, you’re not quite the same person you are when you’re cycling. I’d like to think that if everyone were a bit more of a cyclist it would help.”
Roadsworth’s bike lane stencils are long gone, washed away by weather and tire friction. “I had imagined a cinematic fantasy in my head that people would take to the streets on their bikes,” he recalls. “In the end [the stencils] were a playful suggestion.”
Yet the artist remains adamant. “If we really are interested in promoting alternative transportation, then the infrastructure needs to be there. Montréal needs dedicated lanes for cycling.”