Cyclists race as part of Montreal's 1976 Olympic Games.
Montreal burst onto the cycling scene in the 1970s, thanks to the provocations of a few eccentric bike advocates. Here, cyclists ride in Montreal's 1976 Summer Olympic Games. AP Photo

As bikes boom in Canada’s second largest city, advocates warn the city might not be taking safety seriously enough.

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.

Bush says the unprotected lanes fail to seriously prioritize bike rider safety, or nudge new riders onto the streets, as separated lanes are proven to do. As of 2015, the share of local commutes made on bikes was just shy of three percent—heads and shoulders above most North American cities. But it falls short of Montreal’s potential, given how many people are riding occasionally, according to Valérie Plante, a city councillor and chief of Projet Montréal, the official party of opposition to Mayor Denis Coderre’s. (One of the many quirks of Montreal governance is the formalized influence of local political parties; Projet Montréal has offices in city hall.)

“It’s a matter of policy catching up with behavior,” says Plante. “The city says it wants to get more cyclists on the road, but right now there are only certain types, in certain neighborhoods, who can really use it.”

By way of example, Plante points to one of the busier north-south routes in the city, Rue Saint-Urbain. A painted bike lane appears and disappears in patches along the corridor, and it nuzzles close to parked cars. The risk of doorings make it daunting route for tourists, new cyclists, and children. “I tell my kids they have to ride on the sidewalk there, while I go in the street,” Plante says. “I don’t think it’s right to make pedestrians and cyclists fight for such small space, while drivers get so much.”

Cyclists cruise, lane-free, down Rue Masson on a recent May evening. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

The city has recently filled in some of the gaps in lane markings on the southbound side of Saint-Urbain, but it still lacks a physical barrier. Plante also points to the lack of bike links in recent plans to renovate several major arteries as further evidence of blurred vision on the administration’s part.

Fully protected lanes, reduced car speeds, specially built signals for cyclists, and most of all, a connected bike lane network that’s not merely confined to certain neighborhoods would amount to true cycling leadership, Plante says. “We need to convene around a global plan,” she says. “It takes courage, and that’s what is missing.”

Montreal, she points out, recently slipped on a global ranking of the top 20 cycling cities by the urban design firm Copenhagenize. Once the only North American city to crack the list, Montreal now squeezes in last place behind Minneapolis, which is admired for its emphasis on protected lanes as it expands its bike infrastructure. In Montreal, “best practice is often ignored,” writes Copenhagenize founder Mikael Colville-Andersen in a report accompanying the ranking. He advises Montreal to take a hint from its own Plateau Mont-Royal borough, where progressive leaders are engineering streets that give top priority to bikes. The neighborhood enjoys a 9 percent bike commute mode share, one of the highest in North America.

Gadoury, the city’s bike czar, acknowledges that there are still major holes in the network, and says his office is trying to treat each street with the best, most cost-effective measures for that location. Mayor Coderre fulfilled his promise to install more than 50 kilometers of bike lanes last year, and the city is on track to add at least 50 more by the end of 2017. (Resistance to bike lanes among parking-spot-guarding shopkeepers and homeowners isn’t as quite as ferocious as elsewhere in North America, thanks to cycling’s critical mass here.) He notes that Montreal officially adopted a Vision Zero platform in 2016, and that Coderre plans to announce a fleshed-out bike master plan to combat injuries later this summer.

It’s probably a sign of Montreal’s success that bike infrastructure is this much a part of the local political debate. Complaints about insufficient bike lanes might astonish embattled cyclists in American cities where “Vision Zero” hasn’t yet entered the lexicon of local lawmakers, let alone fellow commuters. But if North America’s original great cycling city doesn’t keep pushing the envelope on what “bike friendly” looks like, what hope is there for others?

Plante will run for mayor this November, with active transit at the heart of her campaign. “I think we can fight for our title again,” she says.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified Geoffrey Bush’s affiliation.

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