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.


  1. Here, here! Hear? Hear? TfL?

  2. Very nice post. Montreal hasn't always been like this: it's only in the last 10 years that the biggest changes have occurred, with Bixi and the separated lane network, which have grown ridership substantially. We're playing catchup to them now in Vancouver, but at long last we have a downtown separated lane network of our own and a possible bike share coming in 2013, although perhaps hindered by the mandatory helmet law that British Columbia has that Quebec does not.

    I've rode a bunch in London too when I visited twice last year, as well as in Seattle, so I definitely see what the Seattle reporter is talking about, although Seattle has some catch-up to do as well, within its downtown core anyhow. Still, I'd say London is much more comfortable for riding than most North American cities, save for the few exceptions like Montreal, Vancouver, Portland, and a few others.

  3. "London bought the bikes and then left Londoners to go play with the motor cars. I think that's wrong."

    What's worse is that *tourists* use them. It breaks my heart to see a group of visitors taking bikes out, and seeing that lost look on their face when they realise that there is nowhere pleasant and safe for them to actually ride the things.

  4. I'd love to see wide roads and dedicated cycle lanes, but how feasible is that in what remains basically a medieval city at its heart? Roads are narrower, population density much greater, how would it actually work on a London-wide level? Where would the extra space come from? It has to be either roads or pavements, yet with the bus lanes London has it seems not to be feasible to reduce highway width on any large-scale basis. So do we take space from pavements instead?

    I'm a London commuting cyclist. It's not easy but the bus lanes provide a modicum of safety. I just find it difficult to imagine these wide open spaces in our cramped city.

    1. You are oh so wrong.

      Check out the comparison of Dutch to UK roads of the same width and use.

  5. Anonymous, it's quite simple, if you look at the major roads in London which have 2+ lanes dedicated to motor traffic, often with on-road parking at the side that is where the space is.

    According to TfL's own research, 50% of car journeys in London are 2 miles or less, a distance which can perfectly well be walked or cycled. However, many people don't choose to walk/cycle because they don't feel safe, or indeed feel like it is a positive choice given the priorities emphasised by the road design. Re-allocate road space so that people from 8-80 can cycle around our city instead of drive, and switch the priority from moving people in private motor cars to active travel and things could change quite quickly.

  6. I think London will catch up eventually, but not under Boris Johnson and his "traffic smoothing" policy. With political will, lanes can be taken away from motorists and given to cyclists, even in London! Sure, motor traffic will suffer. But that will also encourage more people on to the newly-created cycle routes. Create gridlock and people will look for alternative ways to commute. People often refer to London not having any space on its roads - but we managed to implement bus lanes here, so why not segregated cycle lanes too?

  7. To add to what JonEvents says, the "no space" argument is a canard even in the heart of the Cities of London and Westminster. In that cyclists' paradise, the Netherlands, cities like Utrecht, Amsterdam, Delft and Leiden also have medieval centres with narrow streets. They don't have segregated cycle lanes there either. They don't need to. You provide what is needed for the general road conditions, so more segregation on large, faster routes, but you also manage the road conditions through other engineering measures - traffic calming, partial pedestrianisation, "naked streets" (if done properly, Monderman style) and filtered permeability.

    Take an example. This afternoon, I would like to cycle from my office near Fleet St to a meeting at a client in Jermyn Street, just suth of Piccadilly. In between there is a positive warren of narrow minor streets. In principle, allowing for a bit of zigzagging, I should be able to make that transit on substantially traffic-free routes. In practice, those routes are either not at all traffic free, because they are allowed to be rat-runs, or they are one-way, the wrong way for me, and with no contraflow provision. I could just about remain on real quiet streets if I swung well to the north and then back south again, three sides of a rectangle instead of one.

    What they should be is two way (for bikes at least) and constricted so that vehicles can get in and out to service premises along them, but they can't pass through. In the City, we are seeing the beginning of such thinking with several steps forward on contraflows earlier this year (and one step back with the re-opening of Gresham St at its western end). Westminster doesn't seem to give a monkey's about cyclists, although perhaps the new council leader might change that? I live in hope, rather than expectation.

  8. I looked at this when I cycled in this morning (Croydon to Holborn). There are large stretches where segregated lanes just don't look feasible without removing bus lanes.

    I agree on Paul M's points, but this isn't where our children would be cycling. That's on suburban roads where, with parked cars either side, there's only enough room for one car at a time, or two at a push. Given cycle journeys are short (I take my boy to tennis but we have to cycle on the pavement for safety's sake) it's the suburban rather than the city centre which is where the problems are most acute.

  9. Brilliant article. And just to wade into the 'space' 'debate': Medieval street design has a mode of transport that is far less suited towards it than cycling: motor vehicles! As another person has pointed out, you don't need to put in dedicated cycle tracks in the narrower, smaller roads. You can use other traffic management techniques, and set up the supportive 'grid' of cycle tracks on the main roads, as the Dutch have done so well in recent decades (and the Danes, and others). It's the motor vehicles we need to manage out of places where space is at a premium, to make room for cycling, walking and social interaction. "There's no space for cycling" - we're one of the physically smallest modes of transport on the street!

  10. Montreal struggled to build its network. The path along de Maisonneuve, which cuts through the heart of downtown, connecting the east and west sides of the city, was highly controversial when it was built in 2007. It removed parking on one side of the street for several miles. Businesses were upset over the parking removal. People said it wouldn't work, that it was a waste of money.

    However, anecdotally, it was only after this path was completed that bike use really exploded in Montreal, with another major bump came with the arrival of Bixi in 2009. The bike path gets heavy use, and in the summer it often moves many more people per day than the 2 adjacent lanes of car traffic. Removing it now is a non-starter, and biking in general is pretty non-controversial. The point is, building real bike infrastructure is not easy. However, if you fight the opposition and get it done, the rewards are much much greater than those from building half-hearted infrastructure which doesn't bother anyone too much.

  11. This is a nice Utopian vision of Montreal, but unfortunately it's not quite true.

    For one thing, our road network is a mess. Our crumbling infrastructure, endless construction and massive potholes (and even sinkholes) wreak havoc with driving and cycling alike.

    For another, our Bixi network - which I use to commute - suffers from logistics problems, poor management, and oversubscription. Finding a bike in residential neighbourhoods during morning rush hour is all but impossible, and finding a parking space at night is tough too. We're a city built on a hill, and inevitably the 5,500 Bixis end up at the bottom of the hill and need to be trucked back up.

    Furthermore, our network of bike paths has expanded significantly over the past 10 years, but it's still not nearly as extensive as it needs to be. Key paths like De Maisonneuve get very crowded at rush hour, and other routes from adjacent neighbourhoods are lacking or dangerous.

    Our drivers are notoriously aggressive and certainly don't always yield to cyclists as they are supposed to. On the flip side, cyclists don't always obey traffic laws either. The accident rates are still far too high, and anyone cycling regularly without a helmet isn't in breach of any laws but, in my opinion, is a bit of a dumbass.

    Added to all that is North America's highest rate of bike theft. Plenty of people use Bixi here because we don't want to invest in a road bike only to have it stolen.

    Yep, cycling is a nice way to get around, and I've no doubt that we compare favourably to London as far as that goes. But Montreal is no cyclists' utopia. Not yet, anyhow. We still have a long way to go.

  12. You do have a long way to go. But you have to accept that I'm writing about Montreal from the perspective of someone who is more used to the problems of cycling in London and in that context, believe me, you have utopia. Admittedly, you have awful weather and you generally can't cycle five months of the year. But what you have is lightyears ahead of what the UK has. And that's the point that I'm trying to make

  13. Good post, I ride 20km to/from work every day in Montreal, about 18km of which are on a bike path. And yes, things have changed here a lot in the past 10 years, but I think that's the point. We used to take our lives into our hands when cycling here, now not so much. It doesn't seem like much but a lot has been accomplished here.

    BTW, cycling in the depths of winter ain't as bad as you'd think, in fact it is pretty fun.

  14. Wheels for Wellbeing totally backs this debate.

    Novice cyclists, of whatever shape, form, age, etc. need to be able to start using their cycling skills as part of their regular routine if they are to benefit from the amazing benefits that cycling gives them (cheap transport, freedom of movement, health benefits etc). But a city where it's all about the survival of the fittest is no place to grow in confidence and ease cycling into one's life. We are here so disabled and other "unlikely" cyclists can discover cycling (off road before potentially moving to the roads). Many disabled cyclists cycle around London streets now but many more could in the future, as well as many more non-disabled cyclists.

    We need to move away from this fight for insufficient/unsafe road space, for everybody's sake. Other cities can do it and with the right political will, London can too. Every additional cyclist on a bike is one less person in a car, and another step towards a congestion free, calmer, safer city for all.