Monday, 25 June 2012

Using a Boris bike in Montreal - safe, easy and refreshingly normal. Boris Johnson bought the same hire bikes but forgot to build the bike lanes. Why has he left Londoners to go play with the motor cars?

This is how to do it. Underpass in the city centre. One
car lane removed, protected bike lane added.
I spent the weekend in Montreal last week. A lot of that time was spent on a bike. Montreal's cycle network is fantastic. It consists of dozens of protected routes through the city, some of which stretch for tens of miles. 

What's fascinating about the Montreal bike network is that everyone uses it - serious road bikers, parents and children and lots of people using mobility scooters or wheelchairs. And it seems to work for everyone. 

The routes are well sign-posted and they really do stretch for mile after mile after mile. 

What's more, this is the home of the Boris bike. The London cycle hire bikes are from Montreal. They use the same bikes here, dubbed 'bixi'. So you can literally compare like for like. The only difference is that cycling exactly the same bike in Montreal is a complete breeze compared to London.

Not everything is perfect. This is not a Dutch-quality cycling experience. And the bike lanes aren't much use in the depths of a Canadian winter. But this is a high quality network that has been built massively more cheaply than the blue paint of London's cycle super highways but to a much higher specification that actually works.

Bike lane approach to junction

Pretty much every time you come to a junction on the main bike routes (the subsidiary bike routes are admittedly less impressive), you're segregated from motor vehicles. Here's a typical junction, pictured left. No bicycle traffic lights, like at Bow. No masses of sign posts. Plain and simple. Bikes get priority over motor vehicles at the junction. Cycling straight on? No problem (usually), because motor vehicles turning right (ie across your path) have to give way to you. And they do. Minimum infrastructure, minimum fuss, less congestion and obstruction for everyone on the road. And it works.

You see signs dotted about reminding drivers to give way to people on bikes. And the result is a network that really does work for people - pretty much all sorts of people. You see serious road bike racers using the bike lanes. And you see plenty of people using their wheelchairs, including these two chaps using their hand-propelled wheelchairs. And of course, you see lots of people on Boris bikes - except they're a different colour and have different sponsors here.

And that's exactly how things should be. Kids, mums, dads, grans, fit, unfit, sporty. Everyone and anyone was up and about using their bicycles.

It's particularly interesting to compare Montreal's bike lanes with the set-up in London and to look at London from North American eyes.

Bike lanes good enough for wheelchair users

Last week, the Seattle Times newspaper carried an article about cycling to the Olympics in London. I think the article summed up London's cycling infrastructure absolutely perfectly. This is what the Americans had to say about the London cycling network:

"Like a runner or a swimmer, you would need to be physically fit. Like a goalie or a boxer, you should be prepared for close calls. But if you are coming to London's Summer Olympics - and you have what it takes - using a bicycle could be a great option in a city bracing for gridlock."

Compare and contrast. In Montreal, you have a network that encourages literally everyone to get on a bike. Yet when a US newspaper takes a cool-headed look at cycling in London, what does it conclude? If you're an average mum or dad, don't cycle here. If you're a child, don't cycle here. If you're old or infirm, don't cycle here. The exact opposite of what's happening in cities like Montreal. 

Boris bikes at home in Montreal - home of the
Bixi bike. Same bike, different sponsors

The Seattle Times interviewed an official at Transport for London: "In some ways, a bike riding novice in London is like a beginning skier in the Alps, according to Lilli Matson, an official with Transport of London - they need to be careful. She suggests that newcomers practice riding in safe zones such as London's flat Hyde Park." Lilli Matson is the head of delivery for the aptly-named 'Better Routes and Places' team at Transport for London. Her comment is just so so wrong. And yet she's absolutely right. Cycling in London is like beginning skiing in London.

And that's the problem. It shouldn't be like learning to ski. It should be like Montreal, where everyone can cycle and pretty much all shapes, ages and sizes do seem to cycle. London is turning cycling into an extreme sport - complete with hi-viz and helmets. Meanwhile, people in Montreal just happen to get about using bicycles. No helmets (or very few), no hi-viz. Most people didn't use lights at night, I noticed.

Motor vehicles: give way to people on bikes please
Another US magazine has also been talking about cycling in London recently. The headline described cycling in London as "hell on two wheels". Using a bike in London is "like Darwinism" and that "only the fittest survive". The article in Atlantic Magazine is pretty straight-talking and it verges at points on the offensive. But both this piece and the article in the Seattle Times are hinting at the same thing. London has got its cycling culture really wrong. With the notable exception of a few small patches in, say Hackney, cycling in London is either commuting at speed or on Sundays when the streets are quieter. It still hasn't broken through to become something that literally everyone and anyone does just to get around.

And for that, I blame the Mayor and Transport for London. We are still designing cycle super highways that operate only at peak hours and are woefully inadequate when you compare them with what's being built in New York or Montreal.

London has exactly the same cycle hire bikes as Montreal. And now New York is launching its cycle hire scheme. Exactly the same bikes. And both cities are building extensive cycle networks with big, protected cycle lanes, priority for people on bikes at junctions. They're doing it right. London bought the bikes and then left Londoners to go play with the motor cars. I think that's wrong.