Doored Again! Discussing Bicycle Safety in Montreal

I‘m biking along in the early morning, riding down Sherbrooke for just one block. Suddenly, a taxi door flies open in front of me and now I’m lying on the pavement: bike on top of me, left arm red and bruised, helmet visor broken off and lying in the street.

I was doored. It didn’t hurt too badly—no broken limbs or brain damage—and thankfully I was wearing a helmet. But some haven’t been so lucky.


Who rides these?

Bicycling in Montreal is a central part of the city’s flow. It makes for more physically active citizens and a greener urban environment. Yet, safely including this form of transportation poses significant problems for urban designers and policy makers. As a result, Montrealers are becoming more than a little familiar with easily preventable bike injuries every day. I’m not even the first writer for The Main to have been doored.

“Montreal is the best city for biking in North America,” says Philippe Crist, French economist and researcher for the International Transport Forum. A renowned cycling advocate, Crist has dedicated a large sum of his work to researching and improving cycling safety in major cities.

While his praise makes us feel we deserve a pat on the back, there’s a big caveat here:

We are only the best in North America.

Indeed, this is more due to weak competition than our impressive bike infrastructure. The Copenhagenize Index —which ranks cities on their bike friendliness— rates Montreal as the only North American city in the top 20. But it still sits low on the list at number 11 (a drop from 2011, when it stood at number 8). The rest are predominantly European.

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What Mr. Crist believes is, if Montreal wants to keep up, it must compete against Europe’s most bicycle-friendly cities, rather than North American cities, which apparently aren’t even in the competition.

But how can we do this? We can’t just throw money left and right to accommodate bicycles. This doesn’t have to be expensive, he says. We don’t have to build super-highways for bicycles and we don’t have to toss hundreds of thousands of dollars into new infrastructure. Crist believes you only have to attract new cyclists. He believes that turning drivers into cyclists will reduce auto traffic, freeing up the roads for bicycles, and thus improving overall safety and making the city greener.

The Spanish city of Seville sets the bar for this method, having displaced 1-6% of its car traffic onto bicycles in just 4 years. Montreal has only displaced 1.5-2% from 2003-2008. However, some neighbourhoods show higher rates, such as the 10% displacement of car traffic in the Plateau.

Have you ever been hit by a car as it turns left here?

Attracting new cyclists means improving safety. It’s about making people who are scared to bicycle feel more comfortable. One way Crist suggests doing this is to lower speed limits. Though even proposing this might send Montreal drivers into a fit, it wouldn’t require a shift across the entire grid—only in major routes of bicycle and pedestrian traffic—and requires little cost. Paris has tried this already, shifting speed limits down to 30km/h across 38% of its roads.

But reducing speed limit is a one-sided fix, and it likely won’t prevent accidents unrelated to speed, e.g., dooring. Many argue that bikers themselves are the problem. Running stop signs, weaving through traffic, cutting off cars and going the wrong way on streets are not uncommon practices for many bikers. Just because they don’t burn fossil fuels, many seem to think they always have the right of way.

When it comes to bike safety, we could use some new ideas from both sides of the issue.

Whatever your perspective, it’s clear that cars and bikes aren’t great at sharing the road. However, for the safety of all our citizens and the health of our city, Montreal voters and policy-makers should keep bicycles in mind. They can make for a healthier, happier city, but they can also create a hazardous environment for bikers and drivers alike. Whatever happens, I really don’t want to be doored again.

Photos by Gerry LauzonJames Schwartz. Featured image by Aimee Custis.

Based on Philippe Crist’s talk at Go Vélo Montreal and the Copenhagenize Index.

What are your ideas for improving cycling in Montreal?