Bicycle Bob Montreal cycling velorution

How Bicycle Bob “vélorutionized” cycling culture in Montreal

“Robert Silverman had two goals: to make cycling seem like a normal urban activity, and to encourage the city to develop infrastructure to support a growing number of people using cycling as their primary means of conveyance. Either of these tasks was an uphill battle. Doing both simultaneously was Silverman’s life work.”

If you enjoy biking around Montreal — and, statistically speaking, that’s likely a substantial number of Cult MTL readers — take a moment to give thanks to Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman, who passed away in February. Without Silverman, Montreal quite simply wouldn’t be the cycling mecca it has become in recent decades.

I write this cognizant of the fact that many of Cult MTL’s readers may not even be remotely aware that there was a time, not so long ago, when this city had essentially no cycling infrastructure whatsoever and the powers that be were doing essentially everything they could to develop and enforce a city that was entirely dominated by the automobile. This is no exaggeration: 50 to 60 years ago, the city of Montreal was busy ripping up the trees that lined so many of our city streets to make room for parking. Small city parks and playgrounds were destroyed and paved over to make parking lots while highway-style interchanges were constructed where housing once stood. Buildings, some well over 100 years old, were torn down on either side of René-Lévesque to make an urban boulevard, while new highways were built in every direction, facilitating a massive population transfer that emptied the city of most of its residents — something we’ve only just begun to recover from.

It wasn’t just that so much of our urban environment was handed over to the exclusive use of the automobile that it quite literally made the city an unpleasant place to live, the city of Montreal was actively trying to prevent people from biking in the few places that were safe and pleasant to bike. Cycling had been technically illegal in city parks since 1874 but the police would occasionally be called upon to enforce the ancient bylaw. A 1973 Montreal Star article relates that the Fuzz set a trap up on Mount Royal to catch the cyclists who made good use of the Olmsted Trail, which then, like now, private cars were not permitted to use. The police ordered everyone off the trail, including the children who rightfully pointed out that the park was probably the only safe place in the city to ride a bike.

Astoundingly, back then you could drive your car into the Botanical Gardens — people were encouraged to do so — while cyclists were banned from both the Botanical Gardens and Île-Ste-Hélène. A city parks spokesperson from the time informed the Star journalist that bike paths would never be permitted in any of Montreal’s parks, as there was nothing more dangerous to pedestrians than a cyclist. Cars, he related, were far easier to control and, by extension, safer for the public at large.

Fifty years ago is a long time for someone in their 20s, but in the grander scale of recent history, or the history of North American cities, it may as well have been yesterday. My experience of Montreal has generally been one in which cycling has been encouraged and cycling infrastructure has gradually increased and improved over time. I recall bike safety lessons at my elementary school and the summer a bike lane was painted along the north side of Pierrefonds Boulevard (replaced a few years later by a completely grade-separated bike path located on the outside of the sidewalk), so I always found the antipathy, if not overt hostility towards cyclists in much of the city’s populist media to be something out of left field. Articles like the one I just read in the Star, and the life experience of Bicycle Bob Silverman, remind me that cycling in an urban context is still really quite new for an awful lot of people.

“To protest the lack of a bike lane to the South Shore, Bicycle Bob dressed up as Moses to ‘part the seas’ of the Saint Lawrence River”

It took Silverman a while to find his life’s calling. His politics were way too left wing to live a ‘normal life’ in the superficially liberal but generally conservative world of Montreal’s anglophone community. As Marion Scott relates in her recent, and excellent, obituary of the man, Silverman attempted to run a bookstore, but as an avowed Trotskyist discovered, he wasn’t adept at capitalism. He tried his hand living in Cuba in those heady days right after the revolution, and found himself picking sugar cane with Che Guevara, only to then discover the Cubans weren’t too keen on him importing anti-Soviet literature. He lived on a Kibbutz but discovered his concern for the wellbeing of the Palestinians made him a suboptimal Zionist. He then spent some time in France, learned the language and fell in love with riding his bike. Coming back to Montreal, he was active in the anti-war movement before rededicating himself to the cause of cycling in the mid-1970s.

It’s difficult to imagine but Montreal was very much behind the times in the mid-1970s on the matter of cycling in urban areas. The counter-culture of the 1960s and the growing environmentalism movement of the 1970s led to a rebirth of cycling enthusiasm across Europe and, more importantly, North America at the time, seemingly everywhere except Montreal. Even Vélo Québec at the time was more interested in advocating for cycling as a sport or recreational activity than as a means of active transport in an urban environment. In the mid-1970s, Montreal had no bike lanes or bike paths to speak of, nor any bike stands. In addition to facing the possibility of fines lest they trespass in a city park, cyclists were also banned from using the metro and local commuter trains, and there was no way to bike to the South Shore as bikes weren’t permitted on any of the bridges. It wasn’t unheard of that a motorist might try to deliberately run a cyclist off the road, and Quebec’s cyclist death and injury rates led the country. In the same 1973 Montreal Star article mentioned above, journalist Susan Pomerantz related that Ottawa — the city that fun forgot — was head and shoulders above Montreal in terms of developing safe bike paths and promoting cycling as a healthy alternative to the car.

Silverman thus had two jobs to accomplish: first, to make cycling seem like a normal activity in an urban context, and second, to encourage the city to develop the infrastructure necessary to support a progressive growth in the number of cyclists using cycling as their primary means of conveyance. Either of these tasks, individually, was an uphill battle. Doing both simultaneously was Silverman’s life work.

It helped that there were already a number of cycling enthusiasts and that they were beginning to organize in the mid-1970s, but what really kicked the pro-bike lobby into high-gear was Silverman’s chance discovery of likeminded people on the other side of the linguistic divide. Silverman and his friends were mostly middle-aged anglophone leftists from the Lower Main, while francophone cycling enthusiasts tended to be younger and more explicitly sovereignist in their political orientation. But as with all great things about this city, they found a common cause and put their differences aside to accomplish it.

It wasn’t long after that Silverman wound up working with Claire Morissette, a fellow ‘Velorutionary’ and every bit Silverman’s equal. The two were co-founders of le Monde à Bicyclette and shared the desire to have an east-west separated bike lane to cross through the downtown core. It would open in 2008, a year after Morissette succumbed to cancer, and was named in her honour. Silverman and Morissette wound up splitting the city between them, with each speaking to their respective linguistic clan, a two-pronged approach to get Montrealers of all tongues to realize the bike had just as much a right to be a part of our city’s transit cocktail as the car. Silverman was the ideas guy who came up with innovative ways to get the word out about all the unnecessary barriers and all the ridiculous and arbitrary rules that impeded the development of cycling in Montreal. To protest the lack of a bike lane to the South Shore, he dressed up as Moses to ‘part the seas’ of the Saint Lawrence River (a bike lane was added to the Victoria Bridge in 1990). To bring attention to the fact that bikes weren’t allowed on the metro, Silverman and other biketivists brought all the outsized items that were permissible on the metro, from telescoping ladders to skis and even life-size cardboard hippopotamuses (bikes are now allowed in the front cars during off peak hours). Perhaps the most effective (and hated) ‘cycledrama’ Silverman came up with was attaching poles and cardboard to his bike, roughly occupying the same dimensions and volume as a sedan, and biking around the city in it to demonstrate the ridiculous amount of space cars took up, even though most were transporting no more than one person at a time.

Silverman remained active in promoting his cause well into the 1990s and early 2000s, at which point he had little choice but to slow down. Fortunately, his years of dedicated advocacy seems to have paid off in a big way, and certainly encouraged a lot of Montrealers to rethink our commitment to the car. It’s unfortunate that he never really got to enjoy the bike-positive city we live in today, where cyclists are steadily winning the war against the car and not only living better lives, but providing a better quality of life for all of us. Silverman helped prove that a lifetime of activism, an open and progressive spirit and a desire to work with others can lead to some impressive accomplishments. Montreal is a better city now because of his life’s work, and it’s worth remembering he had neither political connections nor much of any money to speak of. It was all pedal and people power, and it transformed the city in ways the elites could never even dream of. He’ll be missed, but never forgotten. ■

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Cult MTL. 

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.