Car-free campus or bike-free campus?

Sharing the road with cars, school buses, ambulances, and construction has made cyclists’ use of the new bike path on University a rather unpleasant experience. When completed, however, the path is expected to reduce car usage around the University and contribute to a greener campus.

The City of Montreal established the bike path in order to connect missing links in the current bicycle network. The new path will allow cyclists to connect directly to the Maisonneuve path, and more easily access downtown Montreal. The extension is part of a wider campaign to expand the bicycle network – with approximately 560 kilometres available to cyclists this fall, and plans to increase the network to 800 kilometres by 2014.

Coupled with the commuter Bixi bike system that was installed over the summer, the bike path extension is part of a larger effort to make the city more livable and defeat the “car is king” attitude, which lowered Montreal’s ranking on Monocle Magazine’s Top 25 most livable cities from 16 to 19.

McGill has also announced plans to make campus car-free by 2010, and is working toward the removal of parking spaces on lower campus, and regulation that would restrict all vehicular traffic, with the exception of delivery vehicles entering via the Milton Gates.

There has also been talk of increasing bike lock spaces, and promoting bicycle use through groups such as The Flat, a bicycle repair collective in the basement of Shatner, in order to reduce vehicle traffic.

Despite the benefits of a new bike path near campus, there are concerns that the new path will constrict an important, and already narrow, traffic artery. So far it has limited the parking space available on University. Parents shuttling their children to and from the FACE School, an arts academy across from Otto Maass, will also be affected, as will the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, which uses University as its main emergency route.

Moreover, while the new bike path may appear to be part of the effort to build a car-free campus, the University’s reasons for supporting the path have not been entirely bike-friendly. McGill had lobbied for the bike path in hopes that it would divert bicycle traffic away from campus, as McGill’s central position between downtown and eastern Montreal makes it tempting for cyclists going west from Milton or going east from Sherbrooke.

McGill’s policies on bicycle use have long frustrated city cyclists, with security guards insisting that cyclists take the road up toward Arts, the longer and steeper route through campus, and of late, forcing all cyclists to walk their bikes.

According to François Roy, the Vice-Principal of Administration and Finance, the restriction on bike usage is a safety issue. The heavy foot traffic when students have class and the corresponding bicycle traffic could pose a threat to students, and there have been numerous collisions and close calls between pedestrians, cyclists, and cars. It is hoped that the new bike path will encourage cyclists to take the long way around McGill, via University and Maisonneuve, thus ameliorating these safety concerns.

When compared to the city’s recent bike friendly developments, McGill’s response to cyclists on campus has raised questions as to how bike-friendly the University’s plan for a car-free campus is. While there are plans for new bike parking infrastructure, and other bike friendly measures, the new bike path suggests that McGill does not want non-student cyclists on campus, and thus does not see itself as part of the larger Montreal biking community. Safety for students is certainly a prime concern, but perhaps McGill should attempt to integrate itself better into the larger citywide project to extend bicycle use, while balancing its obligations to student safety with its responsibility to making Montreal more livable.