Here’s what happened when one city rejected vehicular cycling

In the 1970s, an American named John Forester came up with an idea for keeping cyclists safe while riding on busy roads. The idea was that bicycles should be piloted, and be treated, like motor vehicles — riding alongside moving cars, using hand signals and crossing traffic for left-hand turns. The idea, which he called vehicular cycling, caught on, and it soon became the dominant theory of bicycle transportation in North America.

Today, that idea has been almost universally rejected. Cities everywhere are scrambling to do something Forester argued against for generations: building bike lanes separated from cars.

But here’s a thought experiment: What if Forester’s ideas had never caught on? What if, 40 years ago, the idea that all people on bikes should be strong and confident enough to mingle with cars was rejected, and today’s ideas of building safe, bike-specific infrastructure had been embraced back then? What would North American cities look like?

Here’s one idea: They’d look like Montreal.

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One of Montreal’s many segregated bicycle paths. Photo: Tom Babin.

Montreal is a fascinating bike city. For much of the past 30 years, the city was nearly alone in North America in building segregated bicycle infrastructure. Today it has grown into a bicycle haven in a continent of car-centricity, perhaps the most bike-friendly city on the continent (sorry, Minneapolis).

So what was different in Montreal that gave it a 30-year-head start? I recently put the question to Jean-François Pronovost, the VP of Public Affairs of Velo Quebec, a cycling advocacy organization that, next year, celebrates its 50th (!) anniversary. He has an interesting theory.

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Montreal pioneered the use of bike-sharing systems in North America. Photo: Tom Babin.

First, some background. Around the time Forester was developing his ideas for vehicular cycling, a different approach was developing in Europe. Fuelled by the oil crisis and grassroots protests from citizens horrified by the post-war takeover of their cities by cars and the carnage they had wrought, a few cities started building safe spaces for bikes on city streets. Amsterdam (and much of the Netherlands), and Copenhagen were chief among these cities.

The positives of cycling were also dawning on North American cities at the time (albeit on a vastly smaller scale), but the ideas being embraced were Forester’s. Blind to what was happening and Europe, North American cycling advocates rallied behind the idea of vehicular cycling, and it’s promise that education and training would be enough to fill the roads with cyclists.

In Montreal, however, things were a little different. A much more robust citizen movement in support of bikes was taking place, driven by several groups, including Velo Quebec, but also by an organization called La Monde a Bicyclette. This group quickly drew attention thanks to the advocacy of Claire Morissette, and the theatrical leanings of Robert (Bicycle Bob) Silverman, who had a knack for making it into the newspapers by doing things such as dressing as Moses while attempting to part the waters of the St. Lawrence River for cyclists because the bridges were too dangerous.

Pronovost was getting started in his bicycle advocacy at the tail end of this era, and he remembers the unique mood in Montreal at the time.

“There was more of a connection to Europe here (in Montreal),” Pronovost says. “The model was the Netherlands. The model was Denmark. We saw that it was a way to bring more people on bikes.”

To outsiders, Pronovost says this approach seemed bizarre. He remembers meeting with bicycle advocates in Vancouver in the early 1990s, who were openly hostile to the idea of infrastructure built specifically for bikes.

“They were very against bike paths,” he says. “We even invited John Forester here for a public debate in 1992. It was like a boxing match,” he says with a laugh.

Undaunted, the Montreal groups continued lobbying and eventually got their wish. The first segregated bicycle path was build on Montreal’s Berri Street in the 1980s, while the idea was being mocked by vehicular cyclists elsewhere.

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The first on-street separated bike lane in Montreal was built here, on Berri Street. This is what it looks like today. Photo: Tom Babin.

Montreal, and Quebec, has often embraced its independent status, and that proved true with cycling as well. For the next 40 years, the city quietly grew more bike friendly while the number of bicycle commuters in nearly every other city stayed stagnant, and minuscule.

Today, we know things are changing. Those European ideas of encouraging people to ride bikes by ensuring their safety with segregated infrastructure are being implemented everywhere. In Montreal, the idea is still growing. The difference is a 40-year head start.

This plays itself out in many ways. The province is adopting new laws to protect cyclists, and continues to build for cycling. On a recent visit to the city, I found myself among hundreds of commuters, including Pronovost heading home at rush hour along Laurier Street, where a bustling bike lane was recently installed, dappled with wide pedestrian plazas. While Pronovost stopped at a bakery on the way home for dinner, I marveled at the volume and diversity of cyclists streaming past.

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The bike- and pedestrian-friendly spaces around Laurier Street. Photo: Tom Babin.

The result, according to a recent Velo Quebec study, is that, over the past 20 years, 600,000 people have started riding bikes in the province, and 2.7 million people now ride a bike weekly. The network of bikeways in Quebec has grown by 30 per cent since 2010 to reach 12,000 kilometres, while the number of serious injuries continues to drop.

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A new bike counter on Laurier Street. Photo: Tom Babin.

Much work remains to make Montreal more bike-friendly — Pronovost thinks more of a focus on completing small connections between existing bike routes would make a huge difference, and my ass can attest to the terrible state of the city’s pavement — but the work in Montreal shows what a difference a long-term commitment to cycling can make.

And as far as thought experiments go, with cities all over the continent just beginning to embark on bike-friendly building binges, just imagine what they will be like in 30 years.


Originally published at Shifter.

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