Quest for safer bike routes leads Vermonter to Quebec

As bicycling season begins and as we attempt to process two recent biking fatalities, the question of how to make Vermont a safer and more enjoyable place to bike looms large.
Education efforts aimed at bikers and drivers, enhanced road markings such as sharrows (like those on Middlebury’s Main Street), and the emergence of more local bike paths are among the answers being offered. The Vermont Agency of Transportation is engaged in an effort to understand how state highways might be made more inviting to bikers.
A more systematic and ambitious solution may be found across the Canadian border in Quebec where the “Route Verte” (which translates as Green Route or Greenway) offers over 3,000 miles of bike routes connecting 320 municipalities including Montreal and Quebec City.
Route Verte was designated the best bicycle network in the world by the National Geographic Society in 2008. The network offers urban biking lanes, suburban transport networks, and rural paths, much of it through forests and parks. Sixty-one percent of the network is “on-road” and 39 percent is on gas line or electrical line right-of-ways, or abandoned railroad beds.
Regardless of where the bike paths lead, strict safety and quality standards apply. Urban bike routes often are separated from traffic by pylons or curbs, or exist inside of curb-side parking. Standardized signs and stoplights allow bicyclists and traffic to flow at different times so that they are not struggling for the right of way.
Pedestrians and bicyclists are given the right of way, by a well-publicized law, at marked crossing zones in towns and cities. A $100 fine applies to motorists violating this rule. As a result bikers do not have to compete for roadway space or to struggle to “take back” the road. Automobile drivers do not need to fear sudden and unexpected movements by bikers. Generally, courtesy prevails.
The hallmark of the Route Verte network is that it rarely presents the rider with gaps or “pinches” such as a wide bike lane that suddenly disappears at a bridge or municipal boundary. And the many separate routes interconnect seamlessly. Getting from downtown Montreal to the Yamaska Park near Granby may require navigating several different routes. But the transitions are typically well marked with signs similar to our U.S. Interstate highway system. And riders will encounter frequent rest stops with clean rest rooms, fresh water, and very often with information centers whose staff can assist in finding nearby lodging, a restaurant or café, micro-brewery, local bike repair shop, or historic site, all of which will have bike racks.
Much of the Route Verte is well-maintained asphalt, some well-lit for night travel. Rural and suburban paths are well-maintained fine gravel. And for the more adventurous mountain bikers, there are also some routes that are steep and challenging. All of these are clearly designated on Route Verte maps available at no charge in every information center or online.
Safety is clearly a priority. On a recent weekend my wife, Carolyn Schmidt, and I rode the largely off-road network near Granby. We asked at the bike shop if they had any knowledge of fatalities on the local routes. After a discussion among the staff they reported that none of them had any knowledge of such events for five years or more. I was unable to obtain precise numbers on total ridership on the path but it is not uncommon to have thousands on one path on one weekend day.
Route Verte emerged out of an initiative begun by a biking club, Velo Quebec, in the 1980s. By 1995 they convinced the government of Quebec to commit $85 million to a decade-long infrastructure project. In 2003 alone Route Verte generated $95 million in revenue, much of it from tourism, and $15 million in taxes.
It is tempting to elaborate on the joys of biking while enjoying Quebec cuisine, local microbrews or wines, and a slower lifestyle as part of the Route Verte experience. However, for Vermonters the more timely, deeper and lasting take-away from traversing any section of Route Verte is the commitment it represents to safety, affordable transport, recreation, the environment, and access to well-kept public spaces for a wide range of age groups and socio-economic strata.
Vermont’s numerous short bike routes are like pearls waiting to be connected and turned into a necklace. What that end product might look like and answers about how we might get there lie just across our northern border. You will find fellow bikers and those in Quebec’s hospitality industry quite friendly, even if you don’t speak French. For more information see www.routeverte.com/e/. 
The Route Verde in Montreal separates bike lanes from city traffic by raised curbs or pylons.
Photo courtesy of Randy Kritkausky 

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