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It's like Lakewood, so why is Montreal bike nirvana?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/08/14 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

Facebook tempted me with its, What city should you live in? quiz. It put me in Paris. Zutalors! But then, I suspect that a lot of us wish Cleveland was a little more like the City of Light. What is getting lost in translation?

Green city<br />Montreal as seen from the Oratory Saint Joseph.Reaching Le Plateau<br />Montreal's Plateau neighborhood.Les enfants bicyclette<br />A man and his young son using a bike lane on Avenue Laurier in Montreal, Canada.Green streets<br />Green bump outs like this one are being installed all over Montreal on the SAME streets as bike lanes!Biking beauties<br />Biking is a way of life, along with charming town homes, in Montreal.Walking feet<br />A pedestrian only zone in Montreal's old cityTo market to market<br />A woman and her young daughter rent a Bixi bike at Montreal's Jean-Talon market, the largest outdoor market in North America.Back to the future<br />Bucky Fuller built the Biosphere and eco-museum for the Expo 67 in Montreal.What a waste<br />Shotgun shells and other trash become haute couture in Outfits from a new era exhibit in Montreal. Dress designer is Charlestea.
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Over the weekend, we returned to Montreal, Canada, thinking that we could drive to a city modeled on the slow, culture-rich atmosphere of Paris’ Rive Gauche. We had nothing planned but to walk, eat, see and soak in what this city wedged between a 16th century port and a mountain towering above avenues lined with great shops and restaurants stretching for miles had to offer.

Montreal is attractive—with its old-world charm and leafy neighborhoods. It’s also a culturally diverse and tolerant place with a big gay, foreign, bi-lingual population of families that makes it comfortable and exciting.

Naturally, it lead me to think, could Cleveland ever possibly feel this complete? Where Cleveland has pockets of vibrant neighborhoods like Tremont, Montreal’s neighborhooods—like the Plateau, Mile End, and Little Italy—form an uninterrupted fabric of urbanity that is at an ideal scale for producing the type of vibrancy that urbanophiles love to wax on about.

Montreal, the city, houses 1.8 million people nearly all of whom live in town homes (the region, which includes its share of sprawl and single-family homes, is 3.8 million). The more upscale homes in the city are adorned with scalloped dormers and winding iron stairways. But even in modest areas further from the center of town, two-to-three story modern town homes are all built right to the street.

The city’s density is comparable to most large European cities with 3,600 people per square kilometer. Montreal’s density is almost identical to Lakewood’s (3,639/km2)—it’s not too urban, but still feels like a place where it’s possible to ditch your car for a bike or a transit pass. Montreal is proof that density at the right scale—and small investments in alternatives to the car—supports great numbers of bikers and daily Metro users. Montreal’s mode split is impressively high—22% ride transit, and 11% walk or bike on a daily basis (only Vancouver at 16% biking is higher for Canada).

Biking in Montreal—where the city has clearly invested in an impressive network of curb-separated and painted bike lanes—seems to have reached a tipping point in the intervening decade between our visits. Riders of all ages, gender and ability can be seen taking to the streets. My theory is the four or so protected bike lanes that connect downtown with the neighborhoods go a long way in attracting the curious to try biking—and that includes young children and families.

Its miserable winter weather didn’t discourage Montreal from introducing a suite of green transportation policy—and a project to double its bike lanes. The Montreal 2008 Transportation Plan stated an “intent to significantly reduce its dependence on cars through massive investment in various forms of public transit and active transportation.”

2008 is also the year that bike share company, Bixi, launched in Montreal. The company recently filed for bankruptcy, leading many to question its ability to help the city reach its carbon reduction goals of 30% by 2020 (unfortunately, sprawl means 48% of GHG emissions in Montreal are a result of transportation). A McGill University study found that Bixi bikes replace “only” 8 percent of taxi trips, and 2% of car trips. Cause for hand-wringing, perhaps, but Montreal deserves credit for taking an early position as a bike share city, and for having the conversation about how to improve it. Because clearly more people are on bikes, which will continue to have a catalytic effect both on infrastructure and attitudes—ensuring that the active transportation shift will continue inter-generationally.

Having visited Montreal before and now, after bike share was introduced, the difference is stark—not only in terms of the volume of bikers, but also who is biking. We saw little kids biking on the street, and a huge range—from seniors to groups of ladies out for an evening to football fans—trying out Bixi. The dual-pronged strategy of investing in bike lanes and a significantly large bike share operation has elevated Montreal to one of the world’s great biking cities.

As Cleveland starts it deliberation about whether it should invest in bike share and whether it should set yearly benchmarks to add bike lanes, including the gold-standard protected bike lane, it can look or even send a delegation to Montreal to see an example of a city building toward a vision of green city on a blue lake.

* * *

Richard Buckminster Fuller was a 1960s architect who is usually described as “ahead of his time.” Most well known for his giant geodesic domes, Fuller and the 1967 World Exposition made its mark on Montreal at Ile Sainte-Helene, an island where a Biosphere and museum under the dome rises to the challenge of understanding humankind’s impact on the environment.

Considering that only straight lines led to Fuller’s sphere, it is a marvel. Inside, the museum’s exhibit, “Finding Balance” is a nicely streamlined approach to environmentalism. Ten examples of consumption fill up translucent columns with outmoded product (shoes, cell phones, etc.). Touch screens and graphics dive into how mining, manufacturing, and lifespan impacts the planet. Making clothes, for example, is very chemical and water intensive (from the harvesting of cotton to the dyeing). But, like cell phones, shirts and pants once were and can again be made less on the cheap if consumers will demand it.

“Arctic: The Turning Point” exhibit was vivid and on point. It figures out how the big chuck of ice melting within the borders of Canada because of a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperatures due to global warming is altering fragile ecosystems and the lives of native people who are on the front lines. The way the exhibit talks about resource extraction both by Canada and other nations is important to pay close attention to. First peoples still live on the land in territories here, but clearly, the context of protection is balanced on a razor’s edge with Canada’s “all the above” energy strategy.

Canada has caught up to the U.S. in its per capita use of fossil fuels as it moves mountains to get at fossil fuels in the Tar Sands of Alberta to the exploitation of the no longer impossible to reach Northern Passage through the Arctic. To its credit, the exhibit doesn’t shy away from what is and will be lost, including images of vast, red and orange Tundra in the fall and seals, walrus, polar bear habitat on the icy continent. But, it doesn’t offer much in the way of an alternative to the Tar Sands and Arctic oil exploration, either (that comes in another exhibit, “Renewable energy: Time to decide” which reflects on the question, is it possible to have a world working 100% on renewable energy by 2050? Hint: yes, is the answer, with the caveat that has been stated by many others here at the GCBL blog—that we’re stuck at the opening gate thinking about cost when a massive mobilization will create vast new wealth and stabilize the climate.).

A lighter, perhaps ‘throw away’ exhibit cleared some of the somber message behind “Arctic.” In “Outfits from a new era” 16 designers reclaim trash for fashion. The results are stunning. From sparkling video tape to human hair to shotgun shells, the dresses and bodices offer that, with some imagination, the expense of making materials need no longer be a complete loss.

In a final note, the Biosphere itself is a pedagogical space for emerging green tech including a living (planted) wall and a garden/pond that can process greywater on site. Like its host city, it is an inspiring place to see the “future” become real.

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Chris Stocking
3 years ago

Thanks for the post, planning a train trip to Montreal this summer. Unfortunately won't have my bike but will try the bike share out.

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