- Bicycle Urbanism by Design: Space for All on the Streets of Montreal

by Charlotte Gagnon-Ferembach

A daily reality for many vulnerable road users in Montreal

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Charlotte Gagnon-Ferembach has a background in urban design from the University of Québec in Montréal (UQÀM). She is currently doing an internship at the Copenhagenize Design Montreal office.

A car remains parked, on average, 95% of the time, monopolizing an incredibly important portion of urban space to the chagrin of all other road users. Even in some of the world's most sustainable cities, including Copenhagen, the personal vehicle occupies a disproportionate amount of space compared to other urban transport forms, even if a minority of residents own a vehicle and fewer use them daily. The map below shows the amount of space taken up by all parking spaces combined in 2015 in the cities of Copenhagen and Frederiksberg - 3.23 km2. This is an enormous amount of space that could be transformed into parks, restaurants, gardens, living space, etc. The list of possibilities is endless.

Montreal is no exception to the rule when we talk about public land being occupied by a sea of car parking. Much like many of its neighbouring North American cities, the metropolis is organized along a fairly standard rectilinear street grid, which facilitates transport by many different travel modes, but has also facilitated the expansion of car-culture over the past century, leaving a mark on the urban landscape. On top of the typical issues that arise due to the dominance of cars in our cities, a major problem is the immense amount of land that we dedicate to car parking to the detriment of other activities. This imbalance is at the forefront for many urban residents world-wide and here in Montreal, causing people to take action and reappropriate space, finding solutions to fight car-culture with design that makes daily life better for all.

PARK(ing) Day, which celebrates tactical urbanism by revitalizing parking spaces for one day, is one of these action-oriented movements that is trying to make lasting change. This last Friday, the 22nd of September, Montreal participated yet again in this event, along with 161 other cities around the world. To mark the occasion, Copenhagenize Design Co. worked in collaboration with Piétons QuébecGhost Bike MontrealFriends of Gorilla ParkThe Montreal Bike Coalition and le Conseil Régional de l’Environnement de Montréal.

The intersection of Beaubien and Saint-Urbain today

The intersection of Beaubien West and Saint-Urbain streets captured the attention of our working group, as it is centrally located in the vibrant neighbourhood of Marconi-Alexandra but suffers from design negligence for all types of users. The intersection is heavily used by all types of users and is populated with a high number of very large transport trucks. Conflict between users will be amplified as the plot of land on the north-west corner of the intersection is given back to the community as the much-needed green Gorilla Park, and as the University of Montreal opens up their new nearby science campus. The existing design of the intersection shows the areas that create significant safety concerns and increase risks of collisions, especially for the most vulnerable of road users – on foot or bicycle.

Among other issues, one can identify that there are no safe pedestrian crossings here, an abrupt end to the Des Carrières bike path sandwiched between two high-use parking lots spilling out onto a fast-moving 4-lane Beaubien street, a lack of signals or signage and traffic calming measures, and a number of potential zones where parked cars are positioned such that bicycles are almost guaranteed to get doored. A YouTube video by Simon Van Vilet demonstrates what this feels like at rush hour.

In order to demonstrate the risk that is inherent at this and many other intersections in the city to the public, the working group decided to team up with local artist and activist Roadsworth to remove five parking spots at the intersection and create temporary painted curb-extensions and show the potential for positive change.

The plan for the intersection of Beaubien and Satin-Urbain on PARK(ing) Day

Roadsworth hard at work on his street art

The project naturally peaked the curiosity of passers-by who would stop to observe the on-going painting and engage the project team in discussion about the risks and potentials at the intersection. This hot first-day of autumn was the perfect time to kick-off discussion about the revitalization of space like this between residents and workers, local advocates and professionals who aim to turn talk to action for even just a few hours. Even with non-stop vehicular traffic, it was possible to create a more comfortable meeting space for all users to imagine the future of their city, without any real tension from car drivers.

Curious passers-by and team members hard at work behind
Beyond this day-long event, the working group has issued recommendations to the City of Montreal to redesign this space and invest in permanent, high-quality infrastructure to improve the visibility, security and quality-of-life for pedestrians and bicycle users in spots that today only sees car-parking. This proposal (as can be seen below) includes the addition of uni-directional cycle tracks on each side of Beaubien Street, a safe and expanded entrance/exit to the southbound Des Carrières bike path, clear and lasting pavement markings (in green), and safer pedestrian crossings with permanent concrete curb-extensions; all while removing just a few car parking spots (which happen to be next to two large parking lots). This overall design was informed both by best practice bicycle infrastructure principles and a local understanding of mobility patterns at this intersection today, as a means of supporting and promoting sustainable modes of transport.
A proposal for an intersection that is designed for the safety and efficiency of all users

Following yet another cyclist death last week in Montreal, the ongoing debate in the city surrounding immediate change to our street design has definitely heated up and fingers have been pointed to the new Vision Zero adopted by the City in 2016. The City has been making some strides towards safer streets for bicycles with the recent launching of it's Cycling Master Plan: Safety, Efficiency, Audacity, but its Vision Zero goals will not be met unless plans and announcements quickly translate into safe, and physically separated street facilities for vulnerable users.

Furthermore, this new public campaign to reduce road deaths is predicated on the use of the word "accident" – as can be seen in this video produced by the City to discuss their desire to aim for "zero fatal accidents". Of course, not all unforeseen instances can be prevented, but many of these collisions and deaths can be attributed to inadequate street design, infrastructure and behaviour of motorists. Like we have written in past blog posts, the term "accident" is continually mis-used in circumstances even when there is indication that a pedestrian was killed due to motorists inattention and poor design. In short, the City of Montreal, like many others in the world, has an essential role in educating the population and convincing the skeptics that our streets will inevitably have to be redesigned as we move forwards.

Questioning the allocation of space to car parking can certainly play an important part in this discussion and offer solutions to create a better use of urban space. Organizations like the American foundation Better Block are helping to move this conversation forward in the U.S. – by revitalizing un- or under-used space into meeting spaces and place for vulnerable users in order to promote good urban rehabilitation practices to the 99%.
A temporary improvement to an intersection in Ohio, USA by the foundation Better Block

Other initiatives around the world can offer inspiration to any cities looking to make important steps forward – especially the story of the redevelopment of Nørrebrogade in Copenhagen. This project began as a pilot project and became permanent in 2008. A once-car-centred street has now been permanently closed to personal vehicles and sees huge numbers of citizens being transported by bike or bus every day. Even further, the City coordinated the traffic lights for bicycle users during rush hour to  allow for a green wave when travelling at 20 km/h, after studying the typical movements of bicycles. From all of these changes, only positive results were observed: an increase in bicycle traffic, a decrease in vehicle use, more punctual bus service and happier residents who supported the project.

The pilot projet on Nørrebrogade in Copenhagen, 2008

Copenhagenize Design Co. is in the business of promoting innovative ideas that can change our intersections for the better, one at a time, and working with cities to help them establish a more human-scale to their streets, creating more life-sized cities where we can all move freely and safely.

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