15 October 2015

Cycling In Montreal

Different cities have different "feels" or "vibes".  A musician--Charles Mingus, I believe--once remarked that he could tell, blindfolded, and with his ears plugged, whether he was in San Francisco or New York or Paris or wherever.  

He, or whoever that musician was, also said it was possible to sense the "energy" of a place you're visiting for the first time the moment you step off the plane or train or whatever took you there.  I believe there's something to that:  I recall feeling almost as if I'd developed another sense as I walked through the airport in Istanbul.  Every place I went, whether in the city itself or along the coast or into the Cappadocia countryside, just seemed to pulse with vitality, whether I was marveling at the Blue Mosque, sauntering among the ancient ruins or looking at the almost-otherworldly landsapes--or seeing the mansions along the Bosphrous or the shacks of once-mighty cities whose harbors had silted up.

Likewise, cycling feels different in different cities.  In Boston, it can seem like mano-a-mano combat with drivers; all through Florida (all right, it's not a city, but bear with me), it feels as if you're holding out (I was going to stay "standing your ground", but that seems pretty touchy!) and holding onto pieces of real estate that are miles long and inches wide.  In Prague, you're always climbing or descending a hill, just as I remember San Francisco.  The difference between cycling in Paris and cycling in New York is like the difference between caffeine and Red Bull laced with cocaine:  The former energizes cyclists but doesn't seem to impair their social skills; the latter turns everything into a race--to what, no one seems to know.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Parisian drivers are courteous and respectful because, I believe, many are--or have recently been--cyclists.  I'm not sure that the bike lanes or Velib made it a more "bike friendly" city, as some have said, although I did see more cyclists on my most recent trip there than I saw on previous trips.  More time elapsed between the Montreal trip I just took and the one before it, but I think it's fair to see that there are more real changes in the city's cycling atmosphere than I've witnessed in any other city.

I certainly saw more cyclists--and, perhaps most important, a wider variety of people cycling--than I did on previous visits.  I rode some routes I'd ridden before and explored areas I'd never before seen.  I was able to do most of my riding on bike paths, although that was not one of my objectives.  I wouldn't say that the paths, which were all but non-existent the last time I was in Montreal, necessarily make cycling safer or even more pleasant than it had been before.  But I have to say that, for the most part, they seem well-planned:  I didn't find myself on "paths to nowhere" or ones that abruptly let cyclists out into dangerous intersections.  

However, I found myself questioning the wisdom of this:

I understand what planners were trying to do:  Provide paths that allow cyclists to ride in an orderly fashion.  And, for whatever reasons, they wanted or had to keep the paths on one side of the street or the other.  The issue wasn't the width of the paths.  One lane in each direction is more or less like one lane in each direction on a road for motorized vehicles:  You follow similar kinds of procedures and etiquette for riding with, behind or in front, of--or passing--other drivers.  It certainly seemed to work well:  I didn't sense conflicts between cyclists over rights-of-way.

On the other hand, there was a problem I found with them:  When you're riding in the right lane, in the opposite direction from the motorized traffic, and you come to an intersection, you have to take extra care, especially if the cross-street is one-way, with the traffic coming from your left.  This is even more true when drivers traveling in the opposite direction on the street your path parallels make right turns.

To be fair, the local cyclists and drivers didn't seem to have any problem.  Perhaps they've grown accustomed to the arrangement.  Were I living in Montreal--or simply cycling there more often--I probably would, too.  

I didn't see any of the confrontations, or any other expressions of hostility, one witnesses--or, perhaps, gets involved in--here in New York.  There seems to be more respect--or, at least, some sort of detente--between motorists and cyclists.  The latter--even the fastest and most competitive ones--come to a full stop at red lights, as do pedestrians. So do the drivers:  They don't try to "gun it" as the light is changing, and there is actually a pause between the light turning green and cars proceeding through it.  In the Big Apple, it seems, drivers have learned how to put their foot on the gas pedal a second or two before the signal changes so their vehicles are in motion even before the light is green.

In brief, the calm atmosphere I experienced while riding in Montreal seems to be a result of people's sense of security about themselves, as motorists and cyclists as well as human beings.  In New York, I am realizing, no matter how well you do, you've only survived the day and, perhaps, survived for another day.  As James Baldwin has noted, when everyone is striving for status, nobody really has any.  Or, as a student of mine remarked last night, "You have to be a shark to survive in this city!"  If that is the case, and Montreal's streets are waterways, one can navigate them as a dolphin.

Plus, you've got to love a place where you can see a sign like this:

I think something was lost in translation.

or a street with a name like this:

Admit it:  You would love to say you live on "Rue Rufus Rockhead"!

just blocks away from this:

In Vieux Montreal, or Old Montreal

or this:

"Farine Five Roses":  I'm not sre of whether it's stranger in French or English!

or where a bridge like the Jacques Cartier would have an underpass like this between the east and west walkways:

 You can't hear the traffic above you, and look at how clean it is!  It was open, even tough the west walkway is closed.

Such a thing never would be built in New York.  (A fair number of bridges, such as the Verrazano Narrows, don't even have bike paths or walkways.)  And if it were, it would always be "closed for repairs", but homeless people or the young and intoxicated would break into it.

All right.  I'll stop whining about what does and doesn't happen in New York and say that Montreal is indeed a fine cycling city. 


  1. As a frequent visitor to and sometimes a cyclist in Montreal, I love the bike paths. The two way bike lanes in your photo work extremely well. It's the barrier between bike lane and automobiles that give that extra sense of security to cyclists. As Burlington continues it's quest to become more bike friendly, we often refer to Montreal paths as bicycling nirvana. Burlington has create some pop-up demonstration lanes that mimic our neighbor to the north's lanes. Also, Montreal removes the barrier in winter to accommodate snow removal.

  2. Annie--You live in Burlington and frequently visit Montreal. You just might be in cycling heaven!

    Perhaps if I were to ride more frequently in Montreal, I'd become accustomed to those lanes. On the whole, though, I loved cycling--and much else-- in Montreal.