(originally written on Thursday - it's pouring at the moment!)
Well, on to cheerier thoughts. We've got a bright-ish day here, and are still on our bikes even though the city is starting to close the bike paths for the winter. Of course, Montrealers being who they are, some people continue to commute by cycle throughout the entire winter, each with their own combination of clothing and equipment - like studded bike tires. Not I. Once there's ice on the pavement, I'm through. It also becomes more dangerous because drivers and pedestrians aren't looking for bikes as consciously in cold weather, and you're much more likely to get clipped or have someone step out in front of you. Of course I do have my equipment (all pretty inexpensive and low-tech) - lights, mirrors, gloves, bike lock, a helmet with a wool liner these days, a windproof parka and a scarf that can be pulled up over my mouth, a plastic bag to go over the seat in case it rains while the bike's locked up outside, a backpack for the computer, a couple of paper towels to wipe off the handlebars. I guess for a lot of people this would be too much hassle, or too much work, but I'm in much better shape now than I was in the country, and the fresh air and tour through the neighborhoods almost every day feels great. It reminds me of being a kid, when my friend Lorry and I spent lots of time riding around our little town on our one-speed bikes, feeling free, and checking everything out that was going on.
For me, the bike represents both exercise and freedom - it's so wonderful not to have the hassle of a car, having to find parking spots, and then being tied to that spot rather than able to roam around freely. We're going from owning two cars to one that we use fairly infrequently, and saving substantial amounts of money as well as feeling like we're doing our bit for greenness. In spite of being a city where cycling is difficult or impossible for four months out of the year, Montreal does a great deal to support and encourage it, extending bike paths and this year starting the BIXI program for short commutes, and I'm grateful.
I took my first ride on a BIXI bike a couple of weeks ago. We bought a subscription when the program began, to support it and to be able to offer a bike to visitors, but we found that once in a while it was convenient for us too. I think the day I used one it had been raining hard earlier and so I didn't have my bike at the studio, but later I needed to do an errand. There are a great number of conveniently-located BIXI stations all over the central part of the city. You just choose a bike with the seat at the right height, put your "key" in a slot, release the bike, and you're ready to go; at the other end you just dock your bike into a station and your ride-time is registered as terminated; all the stations are solar-powered and the bikes include digital microchips so they can be identified and found. The BIXIs are super-sturdy, with the chain enclosed so you don't have to worry about pant legs getting caught or anything; there are three gears, lights, and a basket with attached bungie cords. The system has been very popular in its first year, and I've heard that Montreal has sold its high-tech home-developed BIXI system to two or three other cities - which is good, since it took a lot of money to develop and launch.
Sometimes I reflect on how totally unaware I was of the problems of city transportation when I lived in the country, where we just got in the car and drove everywhere we couldn't walk to -- and there's the problem, of course. Moving millions of urban people every day and trying to do it responsibly is an enormous issue that's become fascinating to me, and I'm glad we have options here and that the city continues to innovate, pushed by a population for whom environmental issues are fairly high on the priority list. Still, construction projects are everywhere, the streets are full of potholes, and huge amounts of oil and gas are being consumed every day. The bridges into the city are congested with single-occupant vehicles, and I'm constantly aware of the constant movement of trains, boats, airplanes, cars and trucks in and out of this transportation hub. My little bike trip to and from work is truly a tiny gesture.
Addendum: and then there's this. about vandalism in the Paris system. Our local bike system has a low rate of vandalism and theft: high-tech improvements allow unreturned bikes to be found, and the pedals also lock after a certain period of time, rendering the bike pretty useless to thieves. Bixi officials say nearly all "lost" bikes have been recovered becasue people call up to say they've seen one that seems to be abandoned. Follow-up articles in the Montreal papers, after this NY Times piece about Paris, suggest that another reason for the low rate of Bixi vandalism here, as opposed to the French system, is that the Montreal pricing structure was set to make it possible for almost anyone to rent and ride a bike, whereas the Paris bikes are perceived as expensive and elitist, and are therefore a source of resentment rather than pride for less affluent citizens. Whatever it is, it seems to be working - and the Bixi people have announced trials of 7-speed bikes for next year.