Montreal, perhaps North America’s most bike-friendly big city, is finally looking at ways of making it easier for people to ride a bike through the winter. Here’s what we learned on a recent trip.
Tag: Bike Infrastructure
Less than three months ago, everyone sounded ready to give up on making the Canadian city of Edmonton more friendly to cyclists. Even the city’s bike loving mayor.
In July, Don Iveson, who was elected in 2013 as a young, forward-thinking, bike-riding urbanite, gave an interview to the Globe and Mail in which he basically joined the chorus of frustrated cyclists lamenting the sorry state of cycling in the capital city of Alberta. “Of all the things we’re doing, this is the one where I have the most disappointment,” Iveson told the Globe. “I agree with the folks who say that the city is way behind.”
That’s an understatement. Not only had Edmonton sat idly by while cities all over the continent built accommodations for bikes, it was getting worse. Painted lanes were being scrubbed, and the best bike route across the river was worsened by bridge modifications. If the mayor sounded like he was throwing up his hands, what hope did anybody else have?
So how it is that, just a few weeks later, this sprawling northern city, famous for long winters and hockey, is on pace to build a forward-thinking and ambitious network of separated downtown bike lanes? Credit the power of frustration, and some creative thinking.
Iveson wasn’t the only one grinding his teeth over the city’s backsliding during the summer. The city’s bike advocates were seething. Among those was the group Paths for People, and its chairperson, Conrad Nobert.
After much discussion about how to remedy the situation, Nobert’s group and its allies came up with an idea to start planning for a downtown bike network themselves. They convinced engineering firm Stantec to donate planning time, and, satisfied with the results, they arranged a meeting with some top civic bureaucrats. They went into the meeting confidently, thinking they had completed all the hard work so it would be difficult to turn down the idea.
They turned down the idea. Instead, those city managers said they were going ahead with their own plan to consult the public about their appetite for bike lanes that would take at least two years.
“I was fuming,” Nobert told me. But they had one last idea. The group took the report to some bike-friendly city councillors, who came up with a creative idea: they would simply raise a motion to have the city pay for part of the Stantec report. That got the ball rolling and, within a matter of weeks, city council had approved, not just payment of the report, but implementation of the report’s plans itself — a $7.5-million grid of 7.1 kilometres of downtown separated bike lanes.
An entire network of separated downtown lanes, built all at once: It was a stunning reversal for a city that was becoming famous for bungling the simplest of bike lanes.
It also has lessons for other cities struggling to get the bike-lane ball rolling. Nobert credits the idea to creative thinking outside of the usual confines of city hall. “We created a situation that seemed impossible or difficult to say no to,” he said. “I credit (a group of city councillors) with showing the leadership and take the political risk, but I believe that the creativity came from without.”
There’s something else unique about the project. Rather than a long public consultation process, in which a litany of public meetings allow people to air their theoretical grievances ahead of time, this project is being built as a pilot project that will be tweaked once in place. The idea is to get the lanes installed in the real world, and then adjust them based on public feedback, rather than the other way around.
It’s an interesting approach that comes with some risk — especially considering the bike lanes are going in all at once, rather than one at a time as in most cities — but it also has benefits, not least of which is that it will get people riding more quickly. In the end, the way city planners react to feedback may be as important as the feedback itself.
For Nobert, however, perhaps the most important thing that he learned from the experience is the power of people.
“Citizens need to get engaged,” he said. “Trust that centrally-located residents want to bike and walk places (they do), and use that fact to your advantage. Guerilla is great. Use injury collision data as leverage. Build social media networks, build real relationships. Meet with everyone.
“Citizen groups can make change.”
A few weeks ago, I criticized cities for failing to build sensible connections between existing bike lanes.
Then I rolled over a relatively new piece of bike infrastructure in my city, and had a bit of a moment. “There,” I thought. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Here’s that new piece of infrastructure.
(Just a little shout out to the dude in the video driving that black pickup truck who hogs the intersection and then accelerates needlessly fast — thanks for re-asserting your dominance of the roads in such a subtle way).
This may not look like much, but this intersection has some history. Back in 2011, the addition of a painted bike lane on one of the streets of this intersection prompted one of the city’s first bike boxes.
The problem was, it was a weird-ass bike box. It was oddly placed, few people understood how to use it, and fewer still actually used it. For several years, city workers gamely tried to “educate” people on proper use of the bike box, but even after watching the video and practicing, I was still a little baffled.
Eventually, the city threw in the towel, and sent some poor road worker to scrape the green paint off the road.
Now, a few years later, a new bike lane on the intersecting road prompted another attempt. This time, a new tactic has been tried, whereby cyclists are directed from the street onto a short shared pathway before being returned to the road.
This thing isn’t perfect. It’s still a little odd, and putting cyclists onto what is basically the sidewalk is a little counter-intuitive, especially when there are a lot of pedestrians.
But if you take a broader look at this, there’s a lot to like. A few weeks ago, this was exactly the kind of missing connection I was ranting about. Now, it’s been fixed — a little creativity and a small amount of asphalt has filled this missing link.
That’s not the only one that has come together in recent weeks. Here’s another connection that has been a problem for years.
These are the kinds of small investments that can make a huge difference in the daily transportation needs of cyclists. They are cheap fixes, done quickly, but these connections do much for improving the reliability of the bike network. This is the kind of thing that improves overall bike friendliness in a city. This is the kind of thing all cities should be doing more of.
Even more fundamentally, these are examples of a city giving things a shot. The first idea didn’t work, so something new is being tried. Even if this one flops like the last one, this is the kind of experimentation that leads to a better city.
A few weeks ago, I participated in a radio call-in show about urban cycling during which a caller expressed her fear that her adult son was going to be killed on the roads. He is a bicycle commuter who had already been struck by cars twice while riding inside a painted bike lane.
I mumbled a rather lame response about how better infrastructure would help. But the caller’s rather terrifying story stuck in my mind. Especially over the past several weeks, when I’ve been watching this scene come together on two different roads that I ride a bike on regularly.
When public consultations over the idea of making these rather busy single-lane roads more bike- and pedestrian-friendly began more than a year ago, I was heartened. I’ve been riding them for years, and I welcomed anything that might make cyclists safer. I dutifully offered my feedback during the consultation process, emphasizing the need to protect cyclists from cars in order to encourage all people to ride, no matter their ability nor confidence.
Weeks later, the plan emerged. Sigh. Some stripes. Some painted stripes on the asphalt. As a cyclist, I’ve been conditioned to be grateful for any miserable old infrastructure crumb thrown my way, but you’ll please forgive my lack of enthusiasm for a painted line. Is this really going to protect cyclists, or encourage anyone to ride?
On some level, I understand why the decision was made to do nothing more here than lay down some paint. Budgets are tight. Not all residents in the area supported bike infrastructure. Building proper segregated bike lanes can be controversial. Business worried about losing too many parking spaces. The streets can be too narrow for anything else under traffic guidelines. Blah, blah, blah — it’s the same arguments in every city over and over again.
To be fair, these projects did offer some improvements to pedestrians and in slowing traffic (the latter done, mostly, by putting cyclists in the way of cars). But if the fundamental purpose of a bike lane is to make it safe enough for people of all type to ride in, no matter their skill, I thought I’d test the theory in the simplest way I knew how. I’d take my 11-year-old son onto one of the new lanes and see what he thought about it.
Before this project, he refused to ride on one of these roads because he felt unsafe. Now? He excitedly gave the bike lane a try (yes, he’s as nerdy about bike infrastructure as his dad). He cares little for the politics and compromise that goes into bike infrastructure. He just wants to ride without getting pancaked by an SUV. On this lane, it didn’t take long before he said he felt trapped between moving cars and the door zone. The verdict? “I don’t get it,” he said. “What’s better about this?”
Good question. Were there other options for these projects? Absolutely. The bike lane could have been segregated by a barrier. The bike lane could have been placed between the curb and parked cars, thereby using parked vehicles as a barrier, which was the winning suggestion last year when I asked readers to choose a better design. The bike lane could have been raised a few inches to create an easy barrier, as we’ve seen in other countries. Or, something wacky could have been done, like these others suggestions from readers.
I know how difficult it can be for city planners to get bike infrastructure of any kind built in our political environment. And I understand the argument of incrementalism — painted lanes are a more palatable baby step toward better infrastructure in the future. But let’s not pretend this is anything more than a compromise that doesn’t even meet the first standard of bike infrastructure: encouraging an enthusiastic kid to ride in them.
I understand why lanes like this are installed, but when my son takes his bike down this road, that’s all just noise. My thoughts will be on that worried mom from the call-in show.
What’s your feeling on painted bike lanes? Do you use them? Do you think more should be built? Or is it time to move past them into better, safer infrastructure? Use the comments below, or let the author know what you think on Twitter or Facebook.
Say you’re riding your bike in a nice and safe protected bike lane, and you come across something that looks like this.
So you dutifully follow the instructions on the asphalt, even if it requires you to do something weird and counter-intuitive like roll onto the sidewalk, cross the road, dismount your bike and re-position it to carry on riding on the same road that, suddenly, has no more bike lane, leaving you to inexplicably wrestle with car traffic for dear life.
It gets worse. Now say you encounter, a few blocks later, another perfectly nice bike route, which makes you wonder why you couldn’t just roll from one nice bike route to the next without the stretch of abandonment in between, where you were left to fend for yourself against car traffic.
You’ve just survived the dreaded bike-infrastructure gap.
Your gap may not look exactly like this gap, but you have them in your city. The gaps are the forgotten zones between pieces of bike infrastructure that stand in the way of complete, connected bike routes, and discourage people from riding as surely as a urine collector on a Tour de France bus.
Here’s the bad news: If your city is one of those that has finally come around to building bike lanes, expect your gaps to get worse.
Here’s why: Once cities start laying down bike infrastructure, they tend to measure success based on the number of lanes they build. So the lanes that get built are the easiest and quickest. That can lead to cities full of perfectly fine, but horrifyingly disconnected, bike infrastructure.
In my city of Calgary, city planners and bike advocates are busy patting themselves on the back in celebration of what they expect will be the one-millionth trip on a newly built downtown bike network pilot project. I’m not here to ruin their party, it’s certainly an accomplishment worth celebrating. But this same bike network has some serious connection problems, one of which is detailed above.
The eight-block gap in the above example may be nothing for a confident, experienced cyclist. But if you are a tentative rider who doesn’t feel safe riding with traffic, that gap is an insurmountable chasm. In fact, there’s a not-so-curious connection between the “underperforming” areas of Calgary downtown bike network and a lack of connections in those areas.
Even in cities with more robust cycling cultures, this can be a problem — in fact, it may be even worse in cities where politicians can score political points by crowing about how many bike lanes have been built. In Montreal, one of the few North American cities where politicians can win votes by building bike lanes, I’ve heard several bike advocates complain the city ought to move beyond bragging about how many new kilometres of bike lanes are installed each year, and instead focus on getting more and more people riding.
How does that happen? By thoughtfully and carefully making connections between pieces of infrastructure to ensure there are high quality, safe routes that get people where they need to go.
This may be getting ahead of ourselves a bit. If you are Los Angeles or Edmonton (sorry) or any of the other deadbeat cities that are only now coming around to the realization that bike lanes are good, you’ve got a lot of work to do before this becomes a problem. But for all those cities that are in the midst of building out bike lanes wherever they can, it’s never too early to start thinking about connections.
A decade ago, riding a bicycle in Toronto and Vancouver was, in some ways, a similar experience.
Two of Canada’s biggest cities, both had dense and walkable urban cores, but little in the way of bike-specific infrastructure, so riding through the city could be a harrowing experience. Both cities had thousands of cyclists who were keen on getting around safely, but there were also those who hated the idea of carving out space for cyclists, so fierce debates played out in the media and the local pubs over the idea of bike lanes.
Since then, the two cities went in different directions, and the results are palpable. At least, they are palpable if you were reading the local papers this weekend.
In Toronto’s Globe and Mail came yet another column lamenting the “Mad Max” scenarios between cars and drivers. After witnessing a frightening confrontation between a motorist and a cyclist, columnist Elizabeth Renzetti said summer in her city feels like “Death Race 2016.”
Over on the west coast, in contrast, the Vancouver Sun ran a long piece about the blossoming of businesses located along new(ish) separated bike lanes. The feature even quoted the leader of a downtown business group that was once hostile to bike lanes, who said there has been a “sea change” in attitudes toward cycling, as many business groups embrace the burgeoning scene and the spendy nature of those cyclists.
— BikeMaps.org (@BikeMapsTeam) July 19, 2016
Neither piece is, of course, completely representative of their respective cities (Renzetti’s column is a tad dramatic, and the Sun’s piece is a tad optimistic), but they both are further signs of how much their respective cities have changed (or stagnated) for cyclists in the past decade.
First, Toronto: After an ambitious plan from city hall in the 1990s, Toronto went through a bikelash the likes of which few cities have experienced. After making some headway on the plan, late crack-smoking suburban populist Rob Ford was elected mayor in 2010, and he promptly went about dismantling what little progress the city had made for cyclists. With typically wrong-headed rhetoric, one of Ford’s first acts as mayor was to remove a recently installed bike lane. “The war on cars is over,” he famously said.
Six years later, a more forward thinking and reasonable regime is leading city hall, and the plans for making the city better for cycling are slowly being dusted off. In a city that is filled with so many bicycles only the willfully ignorant could deny their place with a straight face, those lost years are taking their toll. Progress is finally being made, which means the growing pains of its transportation infrastructure are being acutely felt, and the result is those portrayals of a bottled-up sense of hostility on city streets, confrontations, raging debates in the press, and those “Mad Max” analogies.
That scenario might sound familiar to Vancouverites. The city was within the throes of its own George Milleresque dustup over bikes just a couple of years ago, when plans to add a bike route sparked street protests, allegations of class warfare and general unpleasantness directed toward those on two wheels. The turnaround has been swift, with formerly hostile business owners making a complete turnaround, cyclists flocking to the new routes, and city planners trying to keep their I-told-you-so smirks in check.
That may seen a dramatic flip, but it’s not atypical. The controversies that dog bike-lane proposals seldom last long, often because well-planned and well-executed projects quickly prove their worth and then fall from the minds of reasonable people who were once opposed. That tends to leave those dug-in opponents looking like lonely cranks, like this guy.
— Peter Dormaar (@PeterDormaar) July 30, 2015
What worked in Vancouver, and in so many other cities, was the political courage to back a project that was well-conceived but contentious. Not every project will work, but sometimes giving them a try is worth the pain.
Toronto is a different city than Vancouver, with its own unique transportation and political problems, but you can’t help but wonder if those bike plans had been implemented all those years ago, Mad Max would exist only on Netflix.
The biggest argument in urban cycling of the last 20 years is pretty much settled. So why are we still arguing about it?
After last week’s post about the ways Montreal managed to become one of the continent’s most bike-friendly cities, that old saw fired up again. Much of the commentary focused on the perceived shortfalls and benefits of vehicular cycling, which is a a philosophical and practical guide to getting around a city on a bike, described by its chief proponent John Forester like this: “Cyclists fare best,” he wrote in his 1976 book Effective Cycling, “when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”
For a long time, this was a dominant idea among North American bike advocates, but over the last 20 years, a counter theory grew that was, in some ways, the polar opposite. Rather than accepting bicycles as vehicles on a road, the new idea has cyclists being accommodated with dedicated infrastructure that keeps them segregated from cars.
Cue the bicycle culture wars, with factions on each side battling it out like Buckley versus Vidal (or, perhaps more accurately, Hitchens versus Hitchens) to the bafflement of outsiders who could never seem to understand why people who all loved bikes hated each other so much.
Today, the debate is pretty much over. There’s a winner, which means there’s also a loser. Vehicular cycling is dead. As an overarching theory designed to guide the way our transportation system develops, vehicular cycling is a mastodon. Bike lanes are being built everywhere in North America, and civic politicians are tripping over themselves to be seen as bike builders.
So why does vehicular cycling still have its defenders? I think it’s because in our nascent bike cities, vehicular cycling as a personal tool for getting around remains very much alive.
There’s a distinction that needs to be made here. Vehicular cycling is more than just a style of riding. It was a theory of transportation that was never fully adopted anywhere. Treating cyclists as vehicles on the road required more than just cyclists to take the lane. It required equal treatment by motorists and the law. It required mutual respect, the development of better skills among both cyclists and motorists, and the end to what Forester still refers to as the motorist-superiority/cyclist-inferiority complex. That didn’t happen.
What happened instead was some hearty bicycle lovers adopted the tenets of vehicular cycling in the way they got around cities. They started riding in the centre of lanes instead of cowering in the gutter lane. They asserted their rights to the road, and made those cross-traffic left-hand turns that make less confident cyclists gasp in horror. All of which pissed off those drivers who thought they owned the road.
And guess what? This works. This is the part of vehicular cycling that remains alive. If you have the skills and confidence to ride this way, it’s probably the best way of staying safe on the vast majority of North American streets. And even though bike lanes are being built all over North America, it’s going to be a long while before you’ll be able to get to all of your destinations exclusively on safe, separated bike routes.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in bike infrastructure, and I think it needs to be built faster and more extensively in every North American city. I think vehicular cycling has failed, and it failed because it doesn’t work for the vast majority of people interested in cycling. I was almost giddy when I realized that, during a recent trip to Montreal, decent bike infrastructure meant I almost never had to make one of those hair-raising left-hand turns across rows of cars.
Yet, my city remains far from that state. So while I look forward to the day when I no longer have to rely on the tenets of vehicular cycling I have picked up over the years, I know that, from time to time, I’ll still be taking the lane.