Montreal isn’t Copenhagen: an illustrated bike story

Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, remarks that she isn’t in Kansas. As I cycle around Montreal, thinking urban(e?) thoughts on this beautiful spring day, I realise I’m not in Copenhagen.

Neither am I in Rimouski, Oslo, Norwich, Toluca or St-Rémy-de-Provence… so why am I specifically not in Copenhagen? This city is often put forward as the gold standard for bicycle use. It is indeed great for cycling: part of its cycling greatness is down to good design, pro-active politicians and the city’s cycling culture.

But some of the city’ s cycling greatness is down to Copenhagen being Copenhagen and not Montreal.

Urban cycling has many benefits: fun, speed, low pollution, keeping fit, minimal use of space, incredible energy efficiency… The United Nations Environment Programme calls it the ‘better mode of transport‘ and many commentators put cycling forward as a key element of future urban mobility. It is a great way for some people to get round all year: but its extreme nature (in certain cities) means that it isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t take long to figure out why cycling is not a practical mode of transport for many Montrealers1 .

For reasons of realism, but also of equity, I wonder what the alternatives to cycling are for people in suburbs, and for people unable or unwilling to face the obstacles I describe below. This is an important question for planners – there is huge enthusiasm about active transport, which is not always tempered by careful consideration of what can and can’t be achieved by good planning.

Here are a few comments and pictures from my commute to work on 8th March 2021. Some of the issues I highlight are ones of design and policy; some have to do with attitudes; and others are down to topography and climate. Were I to have pictures of the suburbs, then another layer – that of inherited urban morphology – could be added.

Optimists think all these issues can be overcome. Of course, they can be overcome by young and fit bike enthusiasts: but cycling will only become a viable alternative, a ‘solution’ to urban transport, when it ceases to be an enthusiasts’ preserve. I am not sure, in Montreal at least, that this will ever happen.

1 The Transport Research at Montreal group has published many studies, available on their publications web site, that look into cyclist behaviour, cycling infrastructure, and limits to cycling in Montreal.

1- Weather check

Fig 1. Weather. 8.30am, 8th March: -8C and sunny – ideal conditions
Fig 1 bis. Weather: 8.30am, 15th March -16C and sunny. It was +5C at 8.30am on 11th March, and 17C today at 3pm (22nd March).
Fig 2. Mean temperatures in Montreal and Copenhagen. Source: https://weatherspark.com/
Fig 3. Annual snowfall, Montreal. Source: https://montreal.weatherstats.ca/charts/snow-yearly.html
Fig 4. Montreal snow is not Copenhagen‘s. Source: https://weatherspark.com/

2- Cycling in style

Fig 5. Style. To keep warm, and to keep salt and dirt off clothing, pragmatism takes over from style. Rain, heat, dust … : almost all weather conditions interfere with cycling chic. Cycling chic is for flat terrain (less effort, so less sweat), short rides, dry weather and temperatures in the 5C to 18C range – the Copenhagen range?

3- Preparation

Fig 6. Grease and dirt. Some basic mechanics to start off the day: there’s usually something to adjust. Note that since it is winter, my bike has a soft rubber compound tire on the back, and a studded tire on the front (very important for ice sheets and for retaining some control in the snow). On 8th March they were not necessary – but I don’t change tires every day!

4- Obstacle course

Fig 7. Elevation profile of my commute: hills are fun to cycle down, but what about the climb? Note: the highest point in Denmark is 171m high (Ejer Baunehøj) and I believe the highest elevation in central Copenhagen is about 50m. Copenhagen has great cycling infrastructure, but is also far less hilly than many places. Whilst I admire the cycling infrastructure in places like Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Strasbourg, they have in common flatness and clement winters (compared to Montreal).

Fig 8. Copenhagen elevation profile. Left: Vallensbaek to Virum 28km South to North / Right: Provestenen to Pederstrup 24km East to West. Google maps added the comment about flat routes, not me – the Copenhagen profile?
Fig 9. Ice ridge: I can’t cycle along a 3 inch icy ridge (even with a studded tire). It was left there by Côte-des Neiges snow ‘clearing’ on Lemieux St. So I move into traffic – the Montreal manoeuvre?
Fig 10. Highway code. The Québec highway code specifies cyclists should ride as close as possible to the right of the road. The highway code is vague on how ‘possible’ should be interpreted (The Boulevard). Anyway, to avoid this mess, I move into traffic – the Montreal manoeuvre?
Fig 11. Pedestrian safety is important: but should it require cyclists to veer into traffic ? (Victoria Ave.). I have no choice: I move into traffic – the Montreal manoeuvre?
Fig 12. Great! No snow, ice or delivery trucks on the cycle path: just pedestrians (de Maisonneuve & Clarke) Note: just over a year ago a pedestrian sent me flying when she stepped onto a bike path without looking – she was fine and very apologetic, my bike was fine and indifferent, but I broke my wrist and thumb, and eventually needed an operation on my hand. Cyclists sometimes ride badly and dangerously – just as pedestrian sometimes walk badly and dangerously.
Fig 13. Debris and rubbish. Further along de Maisonneuve, a fairly typical scene.

Fig 16. CENSORED PHOTO

The truck which almost ran me down when it veered off de Maisonneuve and across the cycle path is not shown. I was busy (saving life and limb) so missed the photo-op. Such incidents occur about once per urban bike trip: one learns to ride very defensively and to anticipate, even when riding on a clearly marked cycle path, respecting all traffic signs. Defensiveness and anticipation are not always successful, as the pedestrian incident described above testifies. Still, they have been moderately succesful since I’m not yet dead.

Fig 14. New concrete curb (on Mansfield St.). It is a good addition, which discourages parking on this particular stretch of bike path – but I suspect cars will find a way, though.

THE END

PS: Unusually, on 8th March, I came across no non-bicycle vehicles using the cycle lanes. Here are some more typical pictures from other rides:

A1. Ice and vehicle on de Maisonneuve cycle path: I should call the police.
A2. An alternative de sidewalks: Cyclist heads into oncoming traffic to give way to vehicle in cycle path – the Montreal manoeuvre on steroids.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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