QUEBEC BUREAU CHIEF
MONTREAL – So what if the white painted stripes outlining the bike lane along Prince Arthur St. aren't straight, as if drawn by a child without a ruler.
At least the lane is there, say the hundreds of cyclists who use it every day. In fact, bike lanes like this, and paths demarcated by concrete curbs, are everywhere in this city, which for cycling enthusiasts seems to have suddenly become bike heaven.
Through a combination of recent efforts, Montreal is dramatically prioritizing bicycles. Not only has it embarked on a huge expansion of its bike paths – it already has more than Toronto – but on May 12 it will officially launch the first full-fledged public bike rental service in North America, called Bixi, a combination of bike and taxi.
"Bixi for me is not just a bicycle," said André Lavallée, a member of the mayor's cabinet and responsible for the city's transport plan. "It's like an ambassador for our vision of transport in Montreal, of our values and willingness to change the city."
Lavallée is out to "change the mindset" of citizens here, to reduce car dependence, and one major way is through the bicycle.
The efforts are getting noticed. Toronto's Green Living magazine named Montreal the "most bike-friendly city in the nation."
Time magazine called Bixi one of the 50 best inventions of 2008. The service also won an Edison "Gold" award for the best new energy and sustainability product.
To be sure, there are annoyances. Montreal is one of the continent's bike theft capitals. And, anecdotally, Montreal drivers, can be relatively aggressive. (As can cyclists here, to be sure.)
But Bixi and paving the way for 800 kilometres of bike routes by 2013 are "good for our health and good for the environment," said Suzanne Lareau, president of Vélo Québec, which has been promoting cycling for decades.
Montreal forgot about building bike paths for the last 20 years, Lareau observed, and now, with its new transportation plan, "the city says, 'We have to ... make up for lost time.' "
Lavallée attributes the change in political attitudes in part to the relentless activism. But also, he surmised, "it's cultural, because Montreal is in the middle, both European and North American, so it's a different way of life."
Examples are everywhere. Take the elegantly designed bike path along de Maisonneuve Blvd. through downtown. The city even kept it plowed in the winter, which some called a waste of money.
Bixi, for its first season at least, will be concentrated in the central core of Montreal, with 3,000 bikes and 300 stations, each just a few hundred metres from the next.
Public bike rental systems are found in other European cities, notably in Paris, where its service, Vélib, has been a huge success and whose bikes are now as familiar a sight on the landscape as a Citroën or sidewalk toilet kiosk.
Toronto is hoping for a public bike system of its own and has asked for companies to show their interest in running one. It wouldn't be operational until next spring at the earliest, a city official said.
Montreal's parking authority has fronted the $15 million to start up Bixi and hopes that, given that a city agency is on the hook, it won't experience the extensive vandalism and theft as seen in Paris, whose system is run by a private company. Thousands of Vélib bikes have been swiped in the last two years. Some of the rather utilitarian bikes have been used for stunting. Others have reportedly been torched or thrown into the Seine River.
Montreal officials are confident, however. They say Bixi will be more secure than Paris.
And Montrealers, Lavallée said, "will fall in love with it."
RENTING A BIXI IN MONTREAL
Insert your credit card, get a code, choose a bike at its dock, type in the code and, voilà, you're riding.
The first 30 minutes are free. The second 30 minutes cost $1.50, the third $3, the fourth and subsequent 30-minute periods cost $6 each.
With a membership – $28 for a month or $78 for a year (the season is only May through November) – you get a keycard and the process is faster.
Bikes can be dropped off at any station. If the docks are full, you get an extra 15 minutes free to drop it at the nearest station.
Montreal's system is more expensive than those in Europe, local officials say, because Bixi is city-owned and does not, as in the case of Vélib, the bike rental service in Paris, rely on an advertising company to operate the system in exchange for ad space.