PHOTOS: Postcard from Montréal, Fast Forward Philadelphia Cycling Infrastructure A Few Years

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It's easy to forget our neighbor to the north. Canada, for all her natural splendors, is often overlooked for her urbanity. Less than 7 hours almost directly to the north of Philadelphia is Montréal, Canada's second largest city. Both the city and metro area of Montréal are nearly the same size as Philly: City of Montréal: 1.6 million vs 1.5 in Philly, metro area of Montréal: 3.8 vs 4 million in Philly. Both cities have also found themselves economically struggling in the last half century. Philadelphia's industrial economy nearly evaporated and our poor business climate meant investment came to other American cities at our expense. Montréal is much the same though for different reasons. Both are also historically vital cities in their respective countries and both are lower cost cities to live in.

Montréal, city of cyclists.

A well-used Bixi bike share station is nearly empty on a nice fall day.

Despite these similarities, Montréal is far ahead of Philadelphia in one key development: cycling infrastructure. Cycling through Montréal is a wholly different exeperience thanks to interventions the city has taken in the form of protected bike lanes, bike traffic lights and bike share stations. Montréal was even an early adopter of the Complete Streets movement, creating a woonerf (pronounced voan-airf) street typology on Duluth Street in the Plateau neighborhood of the city. 

So what have these interventions meant for the city and for cyclists? Despite the colder climate, cycling is popular in Montréal. Though a metro system cuts underneath various areas of the city, bike share further connects the transporation system together. Riding in the city is a wholly different experience than in Philadelphia. Cycle tracks, two-way protected bike lanes, crisscross the city and allow cyclists to traverse the city both north-south and east-west. Protection from traffic on these cycle tracks varies depending on the space available. The best planned sections are an opportunity for greening, so medians have been planted with trees and perennials. Where less space is available, curbed separations keep cars from easily intruding into cycling space. Along sections with even less space, a row of parked cars and plastic bollards are used. However, these lanes span miles throughout the city, and don't end in lower density areas outside of the core. This consistency and overall length of the protected bike lane network made these pathways more valuable to more people in more places. 

Trees and landscaping separate cars from bikes.

Like in the Netherlands, a moped travels down the bike lane.

They have become like bike highways and more are needed to meet demand, particularly during busy weekdays when commuters are out going to work. Montréal is also a pioneer in bike sharing. Bixi, the company that has supplied bike share systems for cities like New York, began in Montréal. Stations throughout the city are ubiquitous. This has certainly not come without problems however, since the profit model for Bixi, using advertising to finance itself and keep user fees for bikes low, is running on such low margins that financial support from the province of Quebec has been needed to keep the system afloat. New York's bike share system is experiencing this need for financial support as well and additional private funds have been committed to do that, seeing bike share as an extension of the transit system and one that uniquely improves the health and welbeing of users differently than standard transit infrastructure. 

Despite the challenges facing Montréal's Bixi and more extensions to the network of lanes planned, riding around the city feels like a vision of the future for Philadelphia. At higher impact intersections properly timed bicycle traffic lights allowed bikes to move through an intersection first, with pedestrians. Cycle tracks offered a stress-free, less-threatening way to ride for folks of all ages and complimented bike share nicely. The behavior of drivers was also consistently more polite, with drivers waiting until pedestrians and cyclists fully crossed before pulling into crosswalks.

Bike traffic lights!

The house of cyclists fully caters to cycling crowd. Coffee and a repair?

An extensive bike corral outside Le Maison des Cyclistes.

All of this suggested ways that Philadelphia can catch up with Montréal. With bike share launching by next spring, soon we will have our own Bixi-type program. Since B-Cycle will be running the program, financial issues to finance our system long term may be less prevalent. Planning for several "bike arterials" throughout the city also seems vital to supporting cycling. Like the Spruce and Pine bike lanes installed 6 years ago that cross major neighborhoods in Center City, a longer protected network of lanes crossing north-south, east-west opens up cycling as a safer, less-threatening and less-hurried commuting option for more people too scared to ride in mixed traffic. In order for Philly to really find value in protected bike lanes, length of the lane and engagement across multiple neighborhoods in the city will be vital. A stronger bicycle plan than what the Planning Commission has previously released, and a supportive, forceful new mayor will be vital in setting a stronger vision. Videos, like this one, help sell the vision of a safer, more beautiful future for all users of the street, not just cyclists.

This is just one small fraction of the city. Green lines represent lanes. You can also see that parks have been given over to cycling. There are lots of roads in Fairmount where this could happen. Hint, hint Darrell Clarke.

Each red dot represents a Bixi bike share station. This just a fraction of the city:

In addition, bicycle traffic lights at intersections along these bike arterials carve a formal place at the intersection for bikes and will reduce conflict and grey area between cars and pedestrians at the places most often experiencing traffic collisions, injuries and death. Better laws addressing driver behavior would more adequately balance the street in the favor of pedestrians and cyclists. Vision Zero in New York has had success in doing this, levying $10,000 fines for drivers fleeing the scene of an accident (as happens frequently when the accident involves pedestrians and cyclists). Kansas City recently adopted a law to make driver intimidation of cyclists and pedestrians a punishable offense. Given the brusque nature of Philadelphia drivers and the failure of many to yield to those in crosswalks or bike lanes, more laws against this dangerous behavior and a concerted effort to address these issues by a new administration would certainly be welcomed. 

Even the recreational paths separate cyclists and pedestrians. Hint, hint Schuylkill River Trail

Regardless of how and when Philadelphia gets there, Montréal offers a vision of the future from a city with a comparable population size and density. If we can avoid or at least anticipate some of the problems Montréal has experienced along the way, we may even leapfrog our French Canadian counterpart to the north.

Last Updated: Thursday, 09 October 2014 @ 10.58
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geoff's picture Geoff Kees Thompson Founder + Urban Planner Website: About the Author:

Other than time away from Philly studying his masters in Urban Planning in the Netherlands, Geoff has lived here since 2005. He founded This Old City to advocate for better public space as a means to economic development, improved public health, lower crime and a more environmentally sustainable future. He currently sits on the Executive Board of SOSNA and is the head volunteer gardener for Saint Mark's Church at 1625 Locust Street.


He is also Chair of The 5th Square PAC, an organization committed to voter education and the funding of progressive urbanist candidates for Philadelphia's future. 


Follow This Old City on Twitter @thisoldcity and Facebook or Geoff individually @geoffkees

Follow The 5th Square on Twitter @5thsq and Facebook