Montreal: Copenhagen in North America
Posted on 11 November 2009
New York has its bike lanes. Portland has its homegrown bike manufacturers. Toronto has bicycle-choked traffic. And Montreal? Montreal has always had thousands of (very fashionable) people riding their bikes in the city, miles upon miles of cycling lanes, and now? Now: it has Bixi. Want to find one of the oldest and most prolific cycling cultures in North America? One that survives the nastiest weather and that pumps millions of dollars into bicycle infrastructure? Look at Montreal.
Sure, Montreal may be different from the rest of North America. It is truly bilingual and conducts a great deal of its business in French. It's natives value a fashion forward approach to life and appreciate good food and good company far more than the Protestant work ethic found on the rest of the continent. Montreal is a bit more collectivist than individualist and it certainly operates differently. But the city itself, in terms of its layout and architecture is as North American as any other eastern seaboard city where people actually live and work downtown. Montreal has far more in common with most large North American cities than bicycle utopias like Portland, where the population is much smaller and things were done right. Like most cities flirting with bike cultures, Montreal made use of what it already had and just tried to make it better. The difference is far more philosophical and adaptable than it is about imposing and installing the perfect urban plan. Montrealers are full-blown North Americans, but in a different sense. They truly value the good life. Why would you have a Bic Mac when you could eat poutine? Why buy a suit for $2000 when you could have one tailored for the same price? Montrealers inherited all the same problems of North American urbanism but nonetheless chose to live differently, and this is precisely why Montreal has North America's first bike share program. Its practical, sure. But its also enjoyable.
Bixi - short for Bicycle and Taxi - is the first example of a Vélib style program in North America. Perhaps this isn't surprising, since both Montreal and Paris share great similarities. Both speak French (Montreal also speaks English - perfectly). Both have very cool rubber tyred Metro systems. Both allocate a great deal of money to the arts. And both have excellent and innovative bike share programs. And, like Paris, it is a point of puffed-up pride - and rightly so. The Bixi is not only North America's first bike share program, it also is a notable improvement on Velib. The bike is significantly lighter, utilizes an improved locking system, and features clever LED lights that are actually built right into the frames tubing. Unlike most of Montreal's appopriation of Parisian culture, this time they did it better. Much better.
To those who didn't know, Velib was designed and implemented by Accell Pro, the parent company of Batavus. The geometry of the bikes borrowed heavily from the Batavus Personal Bike which was the first bike actually designed for heavy commercial from bicycle rental companies to bicycle delivery companies. The Personal Bike was the first bike to feature wide high-pressure tires that soaked up bumps while maintaining efficiency. And, unlike the classic Dutch bike, the Personal Bike featured a lower step-through frame, more ergonomic geometry, and like the classic Dutch bike, it was absolutely bombproof. The Bixi reminded us almost immediately of the newer iteration of the Personal Bike - the Batavus BuB. Both are aluminum and both are clever, intelligent responses to the increasing demands of the city cyclist. The ride is upright, confident, and stylish. Clothes need not be tucked into pants. It feels like a Volvo, at once enjoyable - but explicitly safe. You enjoy it because it feels safe. And you feel safe as you enjoy it. It's super fun to ride. We grinned the entire time. If bikes can be judged on grins Bixi is a grinner. We loved it.
Unlike the white-elephant bike shares of Marseille and Brussels, the Bixi was done right. There is a high number of stations spaced within walking distance of each other and a network of bikes that are re-distributed from station to station (if one is lower than the other). Unlike Velib, the stations are actually modular and can be moved from location to location - allowing the city of Montreal the ability to remove stations when the deep snow of winter sets in. The stations are powered by solar energy and you simply slide in a credit card and ride away. The first half hour is free, and if you ride longer, the price hikes up. The Bixi, like Velib was designed to encourage short distance city cycling. The citizens of Montreal pay almost nothing. The tourists - especially one who take a Bixi all day - pay the most. But hell, it's still totally reasonable. We rode for four hours and it cost us under $10.
Montreal is famous within Canada for being one step closer to Europe. The rest of Canada is one step behind the UK, which itself is one step behind Europe. The USA, which is still reeling from its subprime suburban SUV blight, is several steps behind Canada. Big cities like Montreal and Vancouver have had bike lanes for over a decade. Toronto probably has the highest density of city cyclists in North America. The whole European bike phenomena was started in Vancouver and Toronto. But Bixi takes the cake. Bixi is the pinnacle. From its bike lanes to its fashion-sense to its bike-sharing program - Montreal is inspirational. And this is written by a Torontonian. For those who understand the Montreal Toronto rivalry (its a hockey thing), you heard it here first. Montreal may not quite be Copenhagen, but it has the bicycles, the bicycle infrastructure and the fashion-sense to rival it very soon. And, with Bixi, Montreal has become a North American leader in bicycle culture.
Montreal probably embodies North American problems better than most cities. Cash-strapped and long influenced by seperatist politics, the city is crumbling. You can see it on the freeways and the buildings themselves. It's charming, actually. Like Pittsburgh but with far more joi de vivre. Montrealers know how to enjoy themselves. Dinner parties are very popular in Montreal. People are remarkably friendly. The gastronomy is delightful, if not shamefully fatty. But, like any North American city, Montreal has several elevated freeways running through the center of the city, cutting neighbourhoods off from each other. It's typical North America. The difference is the attitude. Bicycles have always made sense in Montreal. They're cheap. They're enjoyable. That's all you need to establish a bike culture. Riding Bixi in Montreal hardly takes you to the same quality of landmarks one would see in Paris, but what one does see is a city that lives profoundly well with its inheritance. Its a bike tour in Urbanism, a tour through the landmarks of rust-belt dilapidation, bland International style architecture, and fantastic neighbourhoods full of great restaurants and a working class vernacular. (Travel tip: the best poutine is at Chez Claudette and the best beer at Dieu du Ciel)
Bixi, like Velib is a gateway drug for the new city cyclist. In Paris, sales of city bikes (all Dutch, usually) have soared as people realize that they would like to own their own bike rather than rely on the Velib system. We have long stated that Velib was solely responsible for the new Parisian bike culture. Paris bike culture was essentially bought outright. Not by installing bike lanes, but by installing proper bikes. Montreal is a different story. Montreal has better bike lanes than most North American cities and has had them for quite some time. Unlike New York, these lanes are fairly packed with cyclists. To the new cyclist, who is wavering in their commitment, Bixi is the perfect opportunity to try before you buy. After all, a city bike is not just some object that you can pack in your garage and forget, it is lifestyle change. No wonder people hesitate. Riding Bixi you immediately discover that on the right bike even the scariest city becomes fun to explore - that cycling is easy, far easier than you ever would have thought, and that you arrive feeling refreshed, energized and happy.
If you like the Bixi program, drop by Dumoulin Bicyclettes or Cycles Yeti. Both will be selling the Batavus BuB this year which rides exactly like the Bixi program - except much lighter. Like the Bixi, the BuB is a beautiful piece of well-implemented bike design, and for only $600 a bike that is there for you when the Bixi stations are empty. They were almost all empty when we were there. Now that's a sign of success!