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.
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.
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:
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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