Bicycle traffic jams? Daily volumes on Montreal paths soaring

By Michelle Lalonde, The Gazette June 14, 2011

MONTREAL - It was no surprise to anyone who drives or cycles regularly in Montreal’s central neighbourhoods to learn that the proportion of adult cyclists using bicycles for transportation in this city has more than doubled in the past decade, as a recent Vélo Québec report showed.

But the sheer number of cyclists using the most popular paths daily — such as Rachel, Brébeuf, Milton and de Maisonneuve Blvd. — has experts calling for measures to curb a problem that many of us took to our bikes to avoid: congestion.

“We are reaching capacity on a lot of these facilities,” said Luis Miranda-Moreno, assistant professor at McGill University’s Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics.

Miranda Moreno was part of a team of researchers from McGill, Harvard School of Public Health and Montreal’s Public Health department, who recently presented a study at a road-safety conference in Halifax, N.S., that tried to compare cyclist injury risk on bike paths and bike lanes compared with streets with no special cycling facilities.

The researchers used automatic bicycle counters installed under asphalt, pneumatic counters or manual counters to determine average daily bicycle volumes and injury rates on Montreal streets with and without cycling facilities. The study concluded that cyclists are safer on streets with bike paths or lanes than on comparable streets without these facilities, but could not determine whether physically separate bike paths or painted lanes are safer.

But among the more startling statistics in that study were the average daily bicycle volumes on some of Montreal’s more popular path segments. For example, on an average day during the cycling season, which this study defined as April through November, 4,982 cyclists used the Rachel bike path between Parc LaFontaine and Marquette St.; 4,252 used the Brébeuf path between Rachel and Laurier; 3,797 used Milton between Hutchison and University; 3,047 used De Maisonneuve between Atwater and Bleury

Miranda-Moreno stressed that these are daily averages, including counts on rainy and cold days as well as sunny ones.

“What amazed me was to look at the maximum daily volumes of some of these streets, like Milton, which in August and September is reaching maximum daily volumes of 6,000 cyclists,” he said.

“In the biking season, you probably have double the number of pedestrians and cyclists on this street than people in cars, yet cars are taking up 80 per cent of the street,” he said.

Miranda-Moreno said Montreal should establish a “bike boulevard” on streets like Milton, a concept that other Canadian cities with less bike traffic than Montreal are already embracing. On a bike boulevard, cyclists can use the full width of the road. Local vehicular traffic and deliveries are allowed, but speed limits are very low, and the heavy presence of cyclists plus other traffic-calming measures discourage motorists from using these routes.

Quebec City, for example, will make a bike boulevard this summer on Père Marquette St. between Laval University and the National Assembly. Vancouver is also experimenting with the concept.

Now that the numbers are showing that Montrealers are clearly onside with cycling for transportation, Miranda-Moreno said the city obviously needs to expand its bike lane/bike path network. But he noted that doesn’t mean cyclists need physically separated paths on every street.

“Just like the road network has highways, arterials and local roads, the cycling network needs to be continuous and it should have cycle tracks (physically separated bike paths) on very busy streets, painted lanes and bicycle boulevards on some streets, and on quiet local streets you don’t need anything,” he said.

Suzanne Lareau, who heads the Vélo Québec cycling advocacy group, said this study is “another clear signal that the cycling network is well-used and getting saturated.”

She said more cycling paths and lanes are obviously required, especially on or near these well-travelled routes: de Maisonneuve Blvd. east of Berri St.; an east-west link between the Cherrier path and the Milton/Prince Arthur lanes; St. Laurent Blvd.; St. Denis St.; de la Commune St. in the Old Port between McGill and Berri streets.

Call for new measures

Some of the most popular Montreal bike paths, like the ones along Berri and Brébeuf Sts., are getting more than 7,000 users on some days. Cycling safety experts say it’s time for the city to consider some measures to avoid congestion of cyclists at intersections and improve safety:

— Install priority turn signals for cyclists

— Synchronize traffic lights to cycling speeds on heavily cycled routes

— Raise or paint intersections where bike paths cross major arteries to improve visibility

— Install bike boxes, where cyclists can fan out across the roadway, side by side, ahead of the vehicle stop line

— If a bike route is saturated, build a safe alternative on a nearby parallel street

— Do not allow parking beside bike paths near intersections