I think people will look back and say that this was the summer that Montreal’s bike commuters developed a collective consciousness. What used to be a row of carefree young people on bikes waiting at downtown intersections has become, in some parts of town anyway, a volatile human serpent hellbent on making the light, swerving around cars waiting to turn, quads burning, helping itself to the right of way.
I’ve been a year-round bike commuter here for the past nine years, and bike traffic on my route increases every year. One reason for this is that the cold winters are hard on the cement infrastructure that makes up our roads and bridges, and in the past decade the whole city has begun to crumble. Now, everything—all the big important arteries anyway, and many of the little ones too—is being torn up and rebuilt. Sometimes they do it wrong the first time and have to tear it up and fix the road a second time; this happens so often that if you try to joke about it, people chuckle politely because they pity you for trying a joke so stale.
The construction makes driving or taking the bus hell. Every so often I “treat” myself to driving my car around. It’s a treat because I can listen to music, which I can’t do on my bike because it’s dangerous, and also because they’ve started ticketing people with earbuds in. After a couple blocks I get tense and regretful, and even rolling down my windows and cranking the 25th anniversary reissue of k.d. lang’s Ingenue for the enjoyment of all my fellow idling motorists feels pathetic, like something a teenager, or an adult who never has any fun, would do. It’s a bouncy ride because of the giant potholes from the freezing and thawing in spring, and it’s harder to avoid potholes in a car than it is on a bike. Biking is a get out of jail free card. You can hop a curb if need be, and be almost anywhere within a half hour.
Or maybe more people are biking because we have a new mayor, Valerie Plante, whose administration encourages it. Mayor Plante has been known to leave press conferences by bike, sometimes biking alongside journalists heading back to their offices. No one knows for sure if it’s all part of the act, but what’s not to like? The city government is building more bike lanes, adding more bike racks, and sharing a lot of photos of the Mayor biking to work in a hi-viz vest. The catch is that if bikes are to be granted legitimacy on the roads, we will be treated like cars, and be ticketed for our infractions. The serpent is being created and tamed at the same time..
Now bike cops gather at intersections and bust people for wearing earbuds or having no reflectors or not coming to a full stop at the light. But as we’re being handled as a population requiring management, we are beginning to act like one. The most interesting Facebook group I belong to is “Montreal winter biking” (velo d’hiver) which has 8400 members. During the winter it’s mostly reports on road conditions across the city, often with details that only cyclists would need: “Slush on the Maisonneuve bike path is frozen, don’t even try it unless you got your studs on.” In past summers, the page was mostly French memes about biking, which I enjoyed.
Now members post updates on the bike cops’ whereabouts with suggestions for alternate routes to avoid them. There are French memes about cops now, which shouldn’t surprise me I guess, but still kind of crack me up.
Quebec is a distinct society that has been accused of believing in its own exceptionalism. Montreal’s bike commuters—and maybe all bike commuters everywhere—might have this trait in common with Quebec. Even though we are undeniably the roadway’s most vulnerable creatures, we act like we own it. It’s very stupid to do this but it feels cool and righteous to zoom between the complacent little Honda CRVs and Toyota Yarii. It feels like, unlike the motorists, we’re taking control of our lives. Sometimes in my car at an intersection full of bikes, I feel like I’m being swarmed by bees. Once, on a day I was driving, a guy slapped the roof of my car to indicate his disapproval about something I did. I screamed—I thought I’d hit someone.
I feel hen-pecked by the bikes when I’m driving, and when I’m on my bike, I feel buoyed by them. I love the silent shared experience of biking alongside a bunch of other people. It’s sort of like an exercise class that I’ve been going to for years, where I know the steps so well I can space out and think my own thoughts rather than nervously watch myself in the mirror. But there are always people for whom conformity in the rules of the bike lane feels too confining. They weave in between traffic to get to the head of the serpent, or they’ll even bike with no hands sometimes, which, I admit, looks cool and is something I sort of wish I could do. (I even spent ten minutes in an empty parking lot this summer trying to teach myself how, but I am 35, and a parent, and maybe no-hands biking is just not in the stars for me.) Anyway I would never bike with no hands in traffic.
Sometimes I see friends walking down the street while I’m cycling, and when I wave to them I always visualize the scene from Wayne’s World where Stacy bikes into the parked car. The only friend I ever see on a bike path is Cavan, a guy I’ve known for years who works at the same university as I do. Recently we found each other side by side at a light and began to chat. Then, at the next light, there we were again, paused and positioned for chatting. But who really wants to make 10 seconds of small talk at every red light between Concordia University and Jeanne Mance park? Apparently Cavan didn’t, because he peeled off and took an alternate route home, leaving me wondering, in a Larry Davidian way, if I’d said something to offend him. But of course I hadn’t—he just didn’t feel like chatting. Upon reflection, I was grateful to him for leaving me to finish my commute alone.
September is the busiest time of year on the bike lanes of Montreal. Like January in a gym, September is when people who haven’t cycled before resolve to start. I hope the new cyclists feel welcome in the serpent. I hope the cops ease up on people who don’t have reflectors, because I still haven’t bought any. I hope people stop biking right up alongside buses that are about to pull away from a curb.It’s not very sportsmanlike to put your own commute’s efficiency ahead of like, fifty peoples’. During rush hour, there are enough of us now to feel like we own the road. We don’t. I hope that as we become accustomed to our new collective self-awareness as members of a huge corps of cyclists, we remain fearful of the cars, who are our enemy. Not because we’re smarter than them, but because they can kill us.