Allison Hanes: I am woman, see me bike

Allison Hanes: I am woman, see me bike
Allison Hanes: I am woman, see me bike

A cyclist travels south on Brébeuf St. near Laurier Ave. on Tuesday Sept. 22, 2015. Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

I have a confession to make: cycling in Montreal terrifies me.

I recently got back on two wheels after an eight-year hiatus. I took a slightly wobbly trip on a Bixi along the de Maisonneuve bike path. I also got the tires inflated on my sorely underutilized bike and took a spin around the park.

The thrill of the breeze on my face, the exercise of pedalling, the relative speed of getting around compared to walking are all good reasons to consider biking more often. But the truth is I am still too hesitant — okay, downright chicken — to take it up regularly.

Mostly this is a result of what I observe from the safety of the sidewalk as I’m walking to and from work. 

Watching cyclists navigate major thoroughfares like Sherbrooke St. or St. Laurent Blvd. – with buses swerving in and out, big trucks lumbering past and a steady stream of cars passing them – turns my legs to jello.

Even on many side streets, where bikes outnumber cars at least three to one, drivers exhibit dangerous impatience and entitlement. (Not all, but enough to make me nervous). I’ve witnessed vehicles driving in the bike lanes, tailgating and honking at cyclists, or trying to swerve around them.

A ghost bike was placed at the corner of Belanger and 6th Avenue in Montreal on Friday July 21, 2017. Meryem Anoun was killed in an accident with a truck at the corner. Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

Stoking my fears are the tragedies I read about, like that which befell Meryem Anoun. The 41-year-old mother of three was killed last month by a dump truck as she rode her bike in Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie. Her terrible fate is yet another reminder of the dangers that persist for even a cautious cyclist in a city that likes to bill itself as the most bike-friendly in North America.

To nervous nellies like myself, Montreal still has a way to go before it can truly claim to be a bike mecca. I visited Amsterdam a few years ago and there is simply no comparison. But research suggests that as a 41-year-old mom with kids, I am exactly the kind of cyclist Montreal should be trying to win over if it really wants to live up to its potential.

A recent study published in the Journal of Transport and Land Use found that women are more likely than men to be deterred from cycling by proximity to traffic and inadequacy of infrastructure. (Guilty as charged.) It showed that the number of women who bike in a city is an indicator of how good the network actually is. The University of British Columbia researchers suggested that addressing the “gender gap” among cyclists would improve safety and encourage more riders of all ages and abilities to take it up.

Montreal’s cycling gender gap may not be huge, but it is still noteworthy. According to Vélo Québec, 46 per cent of the approximately one million cyclists in this city are female. So there are plenty of women — much braver souls than I, clearly — biking daily, some with multiple children in tow.

Getting more people out of cars and cruising around on two wheels should be a public policy priority. More cyclists means less congestion, cleaner air and better health.

But what would it take to get a risk-averse mom like me out there?

More separated lanes, for starters. Bikes and cars just don’t mix. There are too many gaps in the nearly 800 kilometres of the network that suddenly flush cyclists from separated paths out onto main arteries, unprotected. The Parc Ave. bike path, for instance, ends abruptly at the Georges-Étienne Cartier monument in Jeanne Mance Park. Those heading north are forced to dodge pedestrians on the paved sidewalk. Why not connect it up with the Côte-Ste-Catherine cycling lane, which is also missing a crucial leg near Mont-Royal Ave., just a short distance away?

And when roads are dug up — as so many are in our neverending construction blitz — room for cyclists must be included in the plans. They certainly shouldn’t be quietly dropped, like a new bike lane on Laurier Ave. sadly was recently.

“Sharrows” painted on the roadway indicate shared roads between vehicles and cyclists. Giovanni Capriotti / Montreal Gazette files

Sharrows — painted lines on potholed roads — just don’t cut it anymore. Good road design these days incorporates traffic-calming measures, bike boxes that put cyclists out front in intersections, and traffic lights that give those on two wheels an early go-ahead. Confusing configurations and unclear signage actually augment danger.

More paths on side streets are also part of the solution. But drivers need to be made aware of their existence and educated about how to proceed. Changes to the highway traffic code should acknowledge that cyclists deserve priority in some areas and require cars to yield.

Many boroughs, including the Plateau-Mont-Royal, have lowered speed limits to 30 km/h on residential streets and 40 km/h on busier roads. Mayor Denis Coderre has pledged to reduce speeds citywide, but these limits are meaningless if no one enforces them.

The blaming and shaming of cyclists needs to stop. After Anoun’s death, the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec held an event to raise awareness about the dangers of large trucks’ blind spots. The spokesperson for the SAAQ pointed out that when someone is killed by a truck, it’s not always the drivers’ fault. This may be true, but we must avoid the maddening reflex to put the onus for safety on those who walk or bike, which lets motorists off the hook.

When the city does commit to security measures, it has to follow through. Last fall, Coderre announced the Vision Zero strategy, which aims to eliminate all pedestrian and cycling deaths. But few of the major initiatives have been acted upon. Certainly implementation came too late to save poor Anoun.

The person who was most impressed with my shaky bike excursion was my seven-year-old daughter. She has become an avid cyclist herself. As she rides off to school or camp each day, with only her bumblebee bike helmet, painted lines on a road and her dad’s watchful eye to protect her, I watch with a mix of delight and dread. 

She may be the one who finally gets her worry wart of a mom out there on two wheels one day. After all, when it comes to cycling there is strength in numbers.

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