Montreal Shows the Real Value of Cycling as Transportation and Tourist Bait

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CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter

Whenever we discuss investing in bike infrastructure and making life better for cyclists, we hear “New York isn’t Amsterdam” or Toronto isn’t Copenhagen.” Or “it’s too cold and snowy in winter here, nobody is going to ride their bikes.” In Toronto where I live, every time they have the Ride for the Heart where two highways are closed for a few hours so that cyclists can enjoy them once a year, we hear about how “it’s too disruptive” even though these highways are often closed Sundays for maintenance and really, every other road in the city is open and really, it’s Sunday morning.


Maisoneuve bike lane/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Then there is Montréal. The Quebec government first started looking at bikes as transportation in 1977 with a report “La bicyclette, un moyen de transport.”

The document explained the benefits of the bicycle as a mode of transportation. It recommended formally recognizing the bicycle as a vehicle in its own right and proposed the construction of bikeways and the improvement of road safety for cyclists.
protected bike lane

seriously, this isn't even a busy street but it gets a protected bike lane/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Since then, the City of Montréal has rolled out over 600 kilometres (373 miles) of bike lanes. Much of the push for cycling in Quebec comes from Vélo Québec, an almost 50 year old organization that “has played an important role on the Quebec cycling scene. It constantly encourages the use of bicycles - whether for recreation, tourism or as a clean, active mode of transportation - in order to improve the environment, health and wellbeing of citizens.”

starting line for night ride

Starting line for night ride/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Vélo Québec invited TreeHugger to attend one of their accomplishments,The Go Bike Montréal Festival. This started with bike to work days and lectures, and ends with the Tour de l'Île, a 50 Km (31 mile) ride through the heart and soul of the city that has been running since 1985. But more on that later; the weekend (and my introduction) starts with the the Tour la Nuit, a 25 km (15 mile) night ride that has been running since 1999, when it attracted 3000 riders. This year I joined 25,000 cyclists of all ages in a fantastic experience. Many people dress up their bikes with lights, wear costumes, head-dresses full of lights, families together from babies in trailers to grandparents.

velo-quebec ride from Lloyd Alter on Vimeo.

But the most extraordinary thing about it was the organization and the support. Thousands of police are blocking every intersection; volunteers (3500 of them are also at every intersection and turn to make sure cyclists go the right way.

Residents have had to move thousands of parked cars and are pretty inconvenienced by this, but they are out there with noisemakers and water and cheering everyone on. It is one giant 25 kilometre long street party.

start of the tour

Start of the tour/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The big event is the Tour de l'Île de Montréal, a 50 kilometre ride through the city. It started in 1985 as an event to inaugurate Montreal’s first separated bike path and has been growing ever since. 25,000 cyclists did it this year, even though conditions were ominous.

There were three options for the ride: a 25 km loop, a 30 km which is the 25 with a 5 Km climb over the Jacques Cartier Bridge, and a 50 km loop that goes through a suburb south of the St. Lawrence River. I opted for the 50 and rode through town with a big crowd of casual riders out for a leisurely ride.

It is a wonderful thing, to be able to ride through the city with the streets cleared of moving and stored cars, to go through every red light because the streets are blocked. Of course you see a city differently on a bicycle, and in this ride with families and kids and grandparents, you just can roll along and take it all in.

bucky dome

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Crossing the big bridge was also fun; it is a slog climbing up but you get a great view of the islands that were the site of Expo 67. I tried to get a good photo of Bucky Fuller’s dome but alas, the bridge is lined with suicide fencing so this was the best I could do without crossing through all the cyclists.

After crossing the bridge I got to the 30 Km turnaround point, and it had started drizzling. After many Toronto Ride for the Heart trips in the pouring rain I thought I might just cut it short and do the 30 km route so it was back over the bridge, to join the 25 km riders.

olympic stadium

Passing the Olympic Stadium/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

More Montreal, through the 1976 Olympic grounds, through parks and beautiful neighbourhoods. By this time the MAMILs, middle aged men in lycra, serious cyclists, started lapping all the 25 km riders, because they are going so much faster.


Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This is perhaps my only criticism of the event; These guys almost scared me off the road, going twice as fast as everyone else, squeezing through families and around old people, anything to keep going fast. There is no question that they are good, and I never saw any sign of rudeness or yelling even at a serious bottleneck at the Olympic Stadium, but I cannot help wonder if there shouldn’t be a MAMIL lane or a “keep right” recommendation so that they can beat their last time without scaring everybody else who is just trying to have a nice ride with their family. I am not certain that the two kinds of riders mix.

through parks

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

By the time I got to the end of the tour, the rain was pouring down and everyone was totally soaked. But that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm, of either the riders or the volunteers or the citizens of Montreal, who were so amazing in their support of the event, standing out there in the rain to cheer us on.

The real miracle of this is the organization, the degree of support. How did they do this? How do they get a city to get behind such an event? More to follow on that in a subsequent post.