Words of Wisdom from Velo Quebec in Ottawa

On Monday evening over 100 people jammed into a too-small reception room at the Lord Elgin to hear Suzanne Lareau. She is head of Velo Quebec, a cycling lobby and information group. The event was organized by Cycle Vision Ottawa (why weren’t they signing up memberships??).

It wasn’t just ordinary citizens that came out in unexpected numbers to hear her speak. Prominent in the front row were Roger Geller (cycling coordinator from Portland OR and speaker at tonight’s meeting at Tom Brown arena), Vivi Chi and Mona Abouhenidy and Robin Bennet from the City, and Marc Corriveau, new transit and cycling honcho from the NCC. A number of local cycling advocates were amongst the crowd, and a few were noticeable by their absence. Clive Doucet was there, spoke passionately on global warming, sporting a battery-powered red light (not flashing at the time) on his butt.

Ms Lareau spoke for 90 minutes about some of the successes and problems of cycling in Montreal. She had a PPT presentation to illustrate some of her points (could someone please volunteer to take some new photos, ones not taken at 5pm in the winter? No doubt some good points were lost in the murky images). While not minutes of the meeting, here are some of the points raised:

1. Recreational paths are fine and have a valuable purpose, but should not be confused with the importance of having a network of routes usable for day to day activities, like commuting or shopping. (The recreational paths she highlighted in Montreal tended to be circular or purely recreational and differ significantly from the more linear NCC paths in Ottawa that adequately double as origin-destination paths.) Local trips are just as important as commuter trips.

2. The network of routes or links need not be lengthy. Rather it is important to first identify key desired segments where improvements can be made quickly and easily (and often cheaply) which has a cascading effect of increasing cycling traffic in other areas. She cited the example of McGill St (?) in Mtl where the addition of a counter-flow lane (complete with parking between the lane and the curb for traffic going the opposite way to the path!) for a short few blocks dramatically increased cycling rates on dozens of contributing or feeder streets.

3. Chevrons seem to be important. These are painted markings on the street, usually consisting of two thick arrow points ahead of a bicycle outline, painted on the street. In Montreal, they are painted very close to together, just a few feet apart. The chevrons also indicate the direction of cyclist travel. They are painted across intersections to guide cyclists from one cycling lane or position to another. They remind crossing traffic that cyclists are present. They remind everyone of the presence of a counter flow lane or bi-directional lane.

4. There were more painted features. Cycling boxes are a painted square on the lane ahead of the vehicle stop line so that cyclists move to the front of the queue and may have first chance at moving into the intersection. Yellow cross-hatching was painted near intersections to make certain parking or stopping spots illegal, where it was desirable to preserve sight lines of cyclists or of motorists to see cyclists. The usual diamond painted in the lane to identify a bus lane or cycling lane were also visible in some pictures, although some cyclists present at the meeting did not seem to recognize the symbol.

5. Signage: the only Montreal cycling route sign shown was a 3D silouette of a cyclist mounted atop a pole. It had no text at all. It was clean, elegant, not large. It was certainly better looking than the clumsy big signs (in two languages) used in Ottawa that reflect the car-traffic mentality. Similarly, Montreal now has some cyclist-scaled traffic signals — smaller than those for cars, with the red-yellow-green lights shining through a cyclist outline.

6. Bi-directional paths. The topic of on-street bi-directional paths came up repeatedly during the evening, and it is only by dint of connecting all the single bits of info that a comprehensive view of the situation comes about. I really wished Suzanne had addressed the issue more directly. On one prominent one-way downtown street a single curb lane was removed from regular vehicular traffic and separated by a conrete curb about 18″ wide from the rest of the road. The lane was repainted as a two-way bike route (bi-directional). It seems there have been some issues with this route. Ms Lareau stated a preference for having a one-way path on two separate one-way streets rather than the bi-directional path now in place, but upon clarifiication it turns out her ONLY concern with the bi-directional path was that there is not enough width from converting a single car lane into a bi-directional path plus median, but if they lane had been a bit wider, then she was completely comfortable with it. She later clarified that the bi-directionality was not the problem.

7. Bike route types: Ms Lareau was politely scornful of simple claims that making the right-most vehicle lane wider than other lanes was satisfactory accomodation of cyclists. Wider lanes make for faster vehicles — she was clearly a fan of vehicle calming measures like speed bumps and curb bulbouts and felt Montreal was behind in this respect. Ms Lareau prefers marking cycling lanes, seeing an improvement  from on-street painted lanes to the much-preferable on-street segregated lanes where there is a 18″ or wider median separating the cyclists from motorists. Even more useful and safe were photos of intersections where cyclists had priority, better signalling, and even exclusive cycling lanes approaching the intersection separate from car lanes. In the latter case, the improvements will be lost if the wait times are too long for cyclists due to signal light timing favoring cars.

8. Suzanne Lareau emphasized that there were different types of infrastructure choices for different clientelles and functions. The 20km commuter has different needs than the local retiree going to the library or depannier. She admitted she would never take her 9 year old son cycling on a busy downtown street even with bike lanes. The cyclists own perception of safety and convenience is key, not abstract policies of what is right or wrong.

9. Average cycle commute: According to her data, the average Montrealler commutes 8km to work, which is a 20 minute cycle ride. Cycle commuting is therefore feasible not just for a select few but for the majority of the population, if we provided safe and comfortable facilities. An audience member said that Stats Can shows similar data for Ottawa.

10. Timing: like most cities, cycling infrastructure improvements in Montreal are tied to other road-reconstruction improvements, ie the driving force is less the needs of cyclists than the needs to improve motorist’s roads. Regretably, sometimes cycling improvements are not made during reconstruction, this is especially true in some boroughs where cycling is not regarded so favorably, and where “old” functionaires rule the roost. What is required is a combination of action: identify high-payoff cycling improvements and lobby directly for them, while similtaneously working for cycling improvements as part of other road projects.

11. Winter  cyling is now a focus of her group’s activities. Certain cycling routes are to receive snow clearing in the winter. The problem now is identifying reasonable standards of clearance. Finding equipment is not an issue — sidewalk plows or road plows do the job fine — it is ensuring the paths are clear and by what time of day they are clear. Bike racks are now being left in place all year.

12. It used to be illegal to lock a bike to a parking meter post. Now, parking meters are being equiped with simple 1′ diameter horizontal ring 30″ above the pavement, expressly for the convenience of cyclists to lock their bikes to the post. Such a clean, simple measure with immediate payoff. (Note, Ottawa will shortly be removing all the parking meter posts in favor of pay-and-display vending machines, which cannot be used as cycling posts).

13. Helmets: Suzanne favors voluntary helmet wearing. She cites evidence that making helmets compulsary severely reduces the number of cyclists by making cycling more cumbersome / less easy. She also felt that some cyclists felt wearing a helmet increased their immortality which contributed to more risk taking.

Her presentation was interesting and clearly stimulating to the many cylists present. I would like to see more facts and figures and concrete expressions of policy of the organization. We were left with the impression that things are great in Montreal and getting better, but several times during the meeting I was uncomfortable with what seemed to be left unsaid or glossed over. This was especially true with the Bixi Bike system (short term rentals) which was portrayed in booster terms without any mention of expense or difficulties. The organizers, CycleVision Ottawa, performed a valuable public service in bringing in this speaker. They concluded with a survey of attendees to identify the “first” segregated bike route in Ottawa. (I suggested BikeWest was ideal).

I look forward to seeing if Roger Geller will be as interesting at tonight’s meeting.