Montreal BIXI bikes
The great British Science fiction writer, H.G. Wells, who wrote The Time Machine, and The First Men on the Moon, and The War of the Worlds, and spent virtually his entire life peering into the future, and when he wasn’t doing that, dreaming about perfect worlds, wrote, that every time he saw, an adult on a bicycle, he no longer “despaired of the human race”.
H.G. Wells would be happy to find himself in Montreal this spring.
Because seemingly, overnight, for those of us not paying attention anyway, seemingly overnight, like one of those spring flower s nudging its yellow head through a snow bank, Montreal has become the greatest bicycle city in North America.
I know, that’s a big statement.
And I have no scientific proof. These things are a matter of opinion. But that is my opinion. And I am prepared to take it a step further. I am prepared to say that Montreal can suddenly be ranked among the great bike cities of the world.
You don’t have to take my word. Last year Time Magazine rated urban bike rides, and ranked the 24 km loop along the Lachine canal and rapids, as the third greatest urban cycle, in the world.
Montreal has gone Bike Crazy.
Probably the biggest thing that happened in Montreal last year, was the arrival of the BIXI bikes. These are the community-owned bicycles that anyone can rent. 24 hours a day. The bikes are locked, unsupervised, at corners around the city. They began last spring with 3,000 bikes at 300 stations. They were so wildly popular they added 2,000 bikes and another 100 stations before the biking season was over. Let me do the math for you. That is a total of 5,000 bikes, at 400 stations.
An annual BIXI membership costs about 70 bucks. And with a membership you have unlimited right to the use of the bikes … anytime you want. Here is how it works. You simply walk up to one of the bike racks, and they are everywhere you look, you swipe your pass, and you pull out a bike. And there is no charge for the first 30 minutes. You can ride anywhere in the city. And you don’t have to bring the bike back to where you got it. You can leave it at any of the other 400 racks around town.
SO you take a bike, drive to lunch, lock it up, and you have finished eating take another bike and drive it home.
If you are a tourist, and tourists love the bikes. It costs you $5 for a 24 hour membership.
The BIXI system was designed, built and developed here in Quebec. They took money from the cities parking revenues and from the major sponsor, the aluminum producer Rio Tinto Alcan … and it is so successful they have already sold the technology and concept to Minneapolis, Melbourne, and London. England. And there are at least another 10 cities around the world who have shown interest. It is a staggering success story.
I could go on and on. The twelve technicians trained to service the bikes were at risk high school students. After a year in the program all 12 have decided to go back to school. Melbourne and Minneapolis are thinking about incorporating using that part of the idea too.
But it’s not only the BIXI bikes that make Montreal so cycle-friendly… there are also the bike lanes and bike paths.
There are 500 kilometers of bike paths and lanes in the city of Montreal. 700 kilometers on Montreal island. The most impressive of them all, I would put forward, is the Claire Morissette bike path. Morissette was a passionate bicycle activist who, along with “Bicycle Bob” Silverman, founded le monde a bicyclette and fought with Montreal City hall for thirty years.
She was once arrested, it is worth pointing out, for painting her own bike lanes on city streets. Well, times change. And sometimes prophets get their due. The idea to name the bike lane in Claire’s honor was endorsed unanimously by Montreal City council. She died just before it opened.
She would have loved it. It the only bike path in North America, that I know of, that goes right through the heart of a major city. That is the point of what is happening here in Montreal. They aren’t just building bike paths where it is easy to build them.
Claire Morissette’s bike path runs along de Maisoneuve avenue … which is a major street … and it runs from one side of the city to the other … an entire lane, reserved for bikes, and set apart from cars by concrete barriers.
And in the mornings, and the afternoons, you can see 10, 20, 25, people on bikes waiting at a stop light … Sometimes, at some corners, it is so c crowded there are bike jams, there are so many bikes that everyone doesn’t make it through the light.
It seems everyone is on a bike in Montreal these days … It is intergenerational, and intercultural , and inter class. There is no sense that the people in the cars represent a ruling class that is being confronted by rebels on their bikes. Everyone is on a bike.
Though. I don’t want to give you the impression that everything is perfect. If its perfection you want, you can go to Holland, where bikes coast up to intersections as if they were choreographed by a Tai Chi Master. In Montreal people scream up to intersections as if they are auditioning for the Cirque de Soleil. And they are driving on sidewalks, and going the wrong way up one way streets. They ride bikes here the way they do everything else, as if they are the offspring of a Swiss clockmaker and Italian mobster. And you watch in horrified wonder, until you spot a guy biking towards you in a helmet … and you think, okay there’s one sensible rider in the lot … and then he rides his helmeted head right through a red light … and as he passes you, you notice he has a cigarette in his mouth.
Listen. I know there are problems. I know this isn’t some perfect bicycle world that H.G. Wells has imagined into existence.
I know to belong to the BIXI program you need a credit card and that excludes a certain part of the population. And I know the bike paths drive people crazy in the winter when snow clearing becomes an issue. And that if you happen to be driving your car along de Maisonneuve, and you want to turn right, you can wait for ever to find a clearing in the stream of cyclists. I know you sit in your cars fuming. But the next time you find yourself sitting there thinking bad thoughts about bikes …. and now, probably, me … remember this … you are a citizen of the best bike city on the continent.
And know this too. When we come here from Toronto, and Vancouver, and even Ottawa, and we look around, and see what you are doing, we find ourselves in danger of committing the mortal sin of envy.
And if your contribution is to sit in your car and smolder … that is a contribution.
Am I guilty of hyperbole? I don’t think so.
I haven’t been able to verify this, but I have been told, by more than one person, that the sale of bikes in Quebec makes up for 40% of the bikes that are sold across Canada.
Things are spinning in wonderful ways here in Montreal. The rest of country would do well to pay attention.