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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Flexible bike paths: Lessons from a mild winter


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ave du parc

This post is a special submission from Daniel Rotsztain, a student of Urban Geography at McGill University. Also see his previous post on Spacing Montreal entitled Natural Paths.

With just a light dusting of snow this January and February, our ability to rationally negotiate Montreal’s bike paths seems to be completely paralyzed. While I acknowledge that some bike paths become legally void during the winter months, this year an absence of snowbanks that typically deter winter cycling has meant that an onslaught of cyclists have hit the streets, and end up sharing the same routes as pedestrians. These hazardous conditions are direct consequences of a lack of clear demarcation, winter bike path maintenance and flexibility.

Two examples come to mind: at Ave du Parc and Rachel, where the bike path typically bends east in the summer months, cyclists have been forced to continue north toward ave Mont Royal, sharing a cramped path with pedestrians whose vision is considerably hindered by their furry parkas. Another mix-up occurs just south, at Parc and Pins: where the bike path and sidewalk weave in and out, sometimes separate and other times apparently merged.

Despite these confusions, this year’s relatively mild winter has shown us that winter biking in Montreal is indeed a reality. And clear, flexible cycling bylaws throughout the year would lead to increased usership and the increase the adoption of cycling as a viable, year-round transportation alternative, rather than merely a recreational summer activity.

The confusion seems most extreme along rue Rachel. As I was cycling east along on a sunny Saturday morning, I noticed that elements of the signage that formerly denoted a bylaw stipulating the bike path’s existence from 1 April to 1 November had been removed. Whether officially by the city, or illegally by the public, I don’t know, (though I’ll assume it’s the latter, as the metal poles that typically separate bikers from the traffic in the summer were absent, removed by the city at the beginning of the winter season).

Either way, uncertainty has ensued. For many blocks, cars respect the path, parking several metres away from the curb. But on other blocks cars park directly beside the curb, forcing cyclists to swerve off the path into oncoming traffic. Stretches of Rachel that feature a concrete divider as opposed to metal poles serve as a much safer way to alleviate the confusion, perhaps representing the most effective design.

rachel bike path car free

rachel with cars on bike path

The bike path on Rachel is technically closed for winter. Hoewver, on some blocks, drivers spontaneously chose to respect the bike path while on others, cars were parked next to the curb.

Nevertheless, concrete barriers, such as those along downtown’s Boulevard de Maisonneuve are major, rigid investments. Acknowledging that the mildness of this winter is not representative of more typical years, (other winters proving that snow-biking is not always this easy), exposes the need for Montréal’s urban design to be clearer, and above all, more flexible.

What I interpret as an organic (as opposed to legally enforced) respect for the Rachel bike path shows that many Montrers are able to negotiate the law in a sensible manner, flexibly reacting to the weather to best accommodate our transportation needs. A city does not have to be so rigid in its urban form. If Montreal invested in clearly demarcated flexible bike paths that could adapt to mild winters, more people would be inclined to use them, leading to better circumstances for cyclists and ultimately, more functional urban space.



  1. This is a really good point to bring up. Biking is my main means of transportation outside of winter, but I generally pack the bike away and switch to public transit once it starts snowing/freezing. This year I brought my bike out two weeks ago and I keep getting thrown off as I try to take bike paths that aren’t open yet and are consequently blocked by cars. Ideally the city should towards more towards more year round bike paths, and also a more flexible opening and closing dates for those that are seasonal.

    Regarding the Rachel bike path, two or three days ago I saw city workers putting the metal polls back into the pavement. It would look like the city (borough?) has decided to push forward the opening date given the mild weather. Perhaps there is already some movement on the topic.

  2. The “Apr 1 – Nov 15” dates on the signs on Rachel were removed by the city in Fall 2007 in preparation for the first year of the Réseau Blanc. I saw the workers do it with my own eyes. The first map of the Réseau Blanc shows that part of Rachel included:

    But come winter, it was decided that there would be no Réseau Blanc on Rachel between St Dominique and Christophe Colomb (where there is no concrete divider), as seen on the next revision of the map:

    Then a couple of months ago I brought to the attention of a Plateau councillor the fact that the signs show no date restriction (ie year-round path) but the map shows no path. She told me that in fact there is no more Réseau Blanc in the Plateau! A few weeks later, and now the date restrictions are back on the signs.

    I agree a flexible system is needed, instead of these rigid dates.

  3. De Maisonneuve around Place Des Arts is the very example of a very ambiguous bike path. They narrowed the street so that it’s not an option, and the bike path is a darker shade of brick on the sidewalk. What do you imagine the pedestrians will do of that : nothing, they will walk over it without thinking. Very stupid and dangerous. ( And ugly this whole place des spectacles ).

  4. he bike path in the picture is supposed to be part of the reseau blanc winer path network along with the path along parc avenue (half of it anyway) in jeanne manse parc. But the city only cleaned the bike path, but never cleaned the sidewalk along side of it, forcing pedestrians onto the bike path, therefore mixing up the two types (and speeds) of active transport users. And thereby creating a big mess in spring when pedestrians have to be taught to STAY OFF the bike path (Please).

  5. D’accord about the PDA bike path.

    Think of the poor American tourist who might not even know what a bike is!

  6. Pour ajouter à la confusion, cet hiver, l’arrondissement du Plateau a décidé d’économiser les 125 000 $ de coût de déneigement des pistes cyclables du réseau blanc.
    Choix économique judicieux si l’on considère le faible enneigement. Par contre cette décision signe la mort du Réseau blanc, faute de leadership à la ville de Montréal.
    La ville de Montréal ne se donne pas les moyens de ses ambitions pour promouvoir l’usage du vélo 365 jours par an. Dans tous les articles, le leitmotiv est le même: dossier non prioritaire.

    Read this 2008 Réseau Blanc review (The Gazette)

    Join Facebook group: Vélo d’hiver – Montréal – Bike Winter

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