My love affair with Bixi remains undiminished. This despite the wear-and-tear its popularity has caused — I have been left frustrated by broken docks and bikes on more than a couple of occasions — and the fact that accessibility on the fringes of its service areas is a bit spotty. (It’s no fun to bike home to Park Extension at 3am only to find out there’s no docking spots left at Parc metro, the only Bixi station in the entire neighbourhood.) I love the convenience of being able to cycle without worrying about a bike, the heft and stability of the big Bixi bikes, and even the name, which rolls off the tongue so easily and can be used as both a verb and a noun.
While Bixi has made cycling an even more assertive part of Montreal life, this was a bicycle city long before the first bike share stations opened in 2008. It’s one of the only places in North America where you see lots bikes used not only by students and cycling enthusiasts, but also by parents with children, deliverymen riding specialized three-wheel bikes and people hauling stuff around. I’ve put together a handful of photos, mostly taken last summer, of Montreal by bike. Take a look.
The modern bicycle was invented in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until the “safety bicycle” was introduced in the 1890s that cycling really caught on. The new bikes featured chain-drive transmission, pneumatic tires, a metal frame and two small wheels of equal size; they were exponentially more comfortable than the bulky, bone-shaking dandy horses and velocipedes of earlier eras. Their innovation led to cycling’s first episode of mainstream popularity.
More and more city streets were being paved, and with the Model T still a decade away from production, the only things that newly-minted cyclists had to worry about were pedestrians and horse shit. The map above, pulled from the collection of the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec by Spacing Montreal’s Alanah Heffez, shows a collection of bike-friendly streets and roads in turn-of-the-century Montreal. The emphasis is clearly on recreational cycling through the countryside — most of the island was still undeveloped back then — but it suggests the extent to which cycling was seen as an attractive way to get around.
Things changed in the twentieth century, of course. Like most cities, Montreal became more and more oriented around the automobile. Cycling never quite died out the way it did in other cities, and it enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after the 1970s, but it was still a distinctly eccentric way to get around. Even when new cycling infrastructure was built under the Jean Doré administration in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn’t clear whether it was built with the intent to facilitate cycling as recreation or transportation. Plenty of people got around Montreal by bike, but it wasn’t until very recently, when the number of cyclists and cycling infrastructure reached a kind of critical mass, that cycling became a widely accepted way of moving around the city.
Last month, I returned to Montreal for a couple of weeks and I made great use of Bixi, the city’s expansive bike-sharing system. Bixi is now in its third year and the honeymoon it first enjoyed with the public is clearly over; in recent months, the local newspapers have been filled with stories about discontent over broken bikes, a budget shortfall and new advertising panels on each bicycle. Yet the system remains vastly popular: its ridership has grown by 40 percent this year alone, with two million trips taken halfway through the cycling season.
The following essay appears in the August 2010 issue of Muse, a Hong Kong arts and culture magazine.
I still remember bicycling up Mount Royal. It was a warm summer night and there were five of us riding through the streets of Montreal, looking for something to do. Somebody suggested heading up the mountain that rises like a crouching giant from the middle of the city. The path uphill was surprisingly level but completely dark. Our eyes rendered useless, we relied on our other senses to guide us forward, listening to the gravel under our tires, the wind in the trees. The air smelled damp and earthy. I looked up at the treetops silhouetted against the bright city sky.