Healing the Appeal of Two Wheels

Cycling Panel Looks at How to Make Bike Paths More Accessible

We may not be out of the wintry woods just yet, but if the hundred-odd attendees at last Tuesday’s panel on cycling in the city are any indication, the minds of Montrealers are turning back to biking once again.

The panel, hosted by Concordia’s School of Community and Public Affairs, centred around the accessibility of Montreal’s cycling infrastructure.

In 2008 the city rolled out its first ever transportation plan, which put cycling alongside public transportation and walking as a way to reduce residents’ dependence on cars. The plan outlined 21 development programs that were to be focused on over a 10-year period, and originally were to double Montreal’s existing network of bike paths from 400 kilometres to 800. The Coderre administration has since adjusted that, Aref Salem, a city councillor responsible for transportation in a Ville St. Laurent district, noted. Since, the city has voted to have 1280 kilometres of bike paths laid over the next 10 to 12 years.

While bike paths have been shown to increase ridership, they aren’t without problems. The ground can be uneven, the paths may stop suddenly, and problematic attitudes of others on the road can make navigation difficult.

Bartek Komorowski of Vélo Québec said infrastructure can be improved with the principle of 8 to 80, designing bike paths “anyone from eight years old to 80 years old can use unaccompanied,” he said.

Regardless of the users’ age, they should be able to navigate the landscape comfortably on their own. However, “most people who design infrastructure are civil engineers, who are generally middle-aged men,” Komorowski pointed out.

“A lot of infrastructure has been designed and dimensioned for middle-aged men, and the psychological and physical profile of a middle-aged man,” a profile that does not match the characteristics of the majority of Montreal’s 1.6 million residents.

Marianne Giguère, a Projet Montréal representative, echoed the sentiment.

“I can imagine that many of the engineers planning infrastructure do bike around the city, but maybe they’re in their thirties or forties and very athletic, and they feel comfortable riding the St. Urbain bike path, for example, which is not the case for a mother with her kids,” she said.

“If I can let my 11 year old son ride that bike path, then we can assume it’s for everyone,” Giguère continued, adding that measures like widening bike paths would allow riders of different levels to pass each other freely.

“Most people who design infrastructure are civil engineers, who are generally middle-aged men.”

Kevin Manaugh, a McGill professor who teaches in both the geography department and School of Environment, countered that “one could actually argue that the 40-year old man is an expert and knows what is best for people cycling around,” but said it’s still important to look at whose voices are left out of the planning process.

While comparing Montreal’s system to more progressively planned cities like Bogotá or Copenhagen is tempting, Manaugh said, it isn’t fair.

“Especially in Colombia, you had a very strong top-down vision in terms of completely changing the transport system,” he said, reminding the audience of former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s claim that an advanced city is one where even the rich use public transit.

For Manaugh, this top-down vision is another way of changing how we think about transportation.

“It’s completely revolutionized [how we are] looking at these social justice and equity issues, in terms of making sure that bike lanes were evenly distributed around the city.”

Viewing bike paths with the same lens one uses for sidewalks is an approach that Komorowski suggests. With sidewalks, “we don’t ask ourselves too many questions about ‘is this sidewalk safe to walk on?’” he said. The sidewalk tends to pick up where it left off after an intersection, and, “we don’t forget to put crosswalks and lights for pedestrians, so we should do the same for cyclists if we really want more people to use that as a way to get around.”

At the same time, Giguère noted that “there are many intersections that don’t have lights for pedestrians when they’re necessary, or if there are some, the timer is way too short for somebody that is not a healthy 40-year old athletic man. If you’re elderly, if you’re with small kids, you don’t have time to cross.” If as a city we are unable to plan for pedestrians, how can we create effective infrastructure for cyclists, she asked.

Throughout the evening Salem stressed that the city is making moves towards improving things for cyclists, pointing to initiatives like the year-round maintenance of a 260-kilometre network of paths (though it should be noted that many of these paths do not have medians separating cars from cyclists, and as a result street clearing efforts often push snow into cycle paths), and the proposed “vélorues” that give cyclists preferential treatment on certain streets.

“We have the place today for cars on the streets; we want to change this, but we don’t have the resources to change it in two years,” he said.

“The plan is to change it bit by bit, step by step, and make it safer and more comfortable, and especially accessible to anyone,” Salem continued. “The will is there, we know where we’re going.”