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Bicycle Bob was years ahead of his time

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A Vancouver journalist recently visited here and was shocked by one element of Montreal life – and it wasn’t our debate on reasonable accommodation at Quebec hotels.

What stunned him were the endless bike paths that now crisscross Montreal streets, filled with armies of bike commuters.

Vancouver has nothing like it, just some pretty park and seawall recreation paths. Toronto has about 80 kilometres of paths. But Montreal now has about 1,000 kilometres of cycling paths in the greater urban area.

Even famous bike-friendly towns like Chicago and Portland, voted America’s “best biking city,” have a fraction of that number. Montreal is becoming one of the world’s most bike-crazed big cities – the new Beijing since car-crazy Beijingers chose pollution over bicycles.

It’s all changing the life of many car-addicted, fume-spewing Quebecers – like me. For decades I’ve been a caraholic who always drove downtown, though it’s only a seven-minute cycle away. Frankly, the benefits of biking were outweighed by the risk of cyclo-suicide.

But in the last two years, bike paths have appeared on dozens of major city streets, and Montreal’s crazed drivers are starting to respect them more than they do red lights. This summer, I’ve become a convert to car-free downtown life; Carjosh became Bikejosh.

The swelling army of cyclists has taken over our streets with the usual Montreal enthusiasm for anything we embrace. How did an ice-bound Nordic city become a North American and perhaps world leader in biking? Part of the answer is history, and the story of a Montreal character named Bicycle Bob Silverman who became our Johnny Appleseed of cycling.

Bob was an early biking fanatic who broke onto the scene in the 1970s with madman antics that could only happen in Montreal. He and his band of guerilla protesters covered themselves in fake blood, then lay down in rush-hour traffic to protest the “auto-cracy.” They painted bike paths in the dead of night to wake up local bureaucrats who thought cycle paths were for psychopaths.

Bob even dressed up as Moses and tried to “part” the St. Lawrence River, so hemmed-in bikers could escape the island. As usual, his antics made national TV and a few years later he got what he really wanted – a bike path over the ice bridge at Nun’s Island.

Bob felt that “cyclotherapy” was the only way to fight “auto-eroticism” and his philosophy has spread.

In several weeks, Mayor Gérald Tremblay will proudly open a major new bike route on de Maisonneuve Blvd. – but back in 1991, I reported in this paper that: “Bicycle Bob is organizing a giant rally to demand a bike commuter path on de Maisonneuve Blvd. Laugh if you want – but you’ll probably be pedalling along it in a few years.” At 74, Bob is semi-retired in the Laurentians, while we’re just catching up with his 20-year-old ideas. But in his absence, who will dream up crazy ideas for our city’s next 20 years? Allow Bicycle Josh to “peddle” some ideas.

n While the city is creating many bike paths, it’s reducing downtown bike parking, which is why eight bikes are chained to every “No Parking” pole. It’s time we took a tip from Amsterdam, the world’s greatest bike city.

They’ve built mammoth indoor bike garages that hold thousands of bikes while a new one being constructed at the train station will hold 10,000 bikes. Like many cities Amsterdam has also equipped buses with bike racks to help commuters bus-and-bike.

n Paris has just created a revolutionary scheme to encourage biking, by making 20,000 bikes available all over town for $5 an hour. Just swipe your credit card into the bike dispenser, then drop the bike off at any depot when you’re done.

New York and Chicago have just announced similar schemes – why isn’t bike-leading Montreal leading the pack? n We’ll never be a 52-7 outdoor biking city, unless we revolutionize winter biking. Why not create the world’s first heated bike corridor? Perhaps snowmobile-inventor Bombardier could create the first truly Canadian bicycle with a heated driver’s compartment bubble, winter tires and windshield wipers.

That would make biking wildly popular in Montreal – and create such bicycle-crowded streets that downtown motorists would start demanding something new.

Car paths.

The Gazette –  22 sept 2007
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