Don’t get me wrong, I love Philadelphia. I’m a lifer who, when it comes down to it, can’t really imagine living anywhere else. But let me tell you, Philly’s urban planners could learn a lot from the city of Montreal.
For starters, everywhere you look here, you see bike paths. On streets, through parks, around bridges and highways – you can’t go anywhere in this town without encountering a narrow two-lane asphalt or gravel strip, perfectly suited for two-wheeled transportation. And as a result, everywhere you look, you see bikes. Mountain bikes, road bikes, touring bikes, commuter bikes: hundreds of bikes, with hundreds of riders, all communing peacefully on these stretches. And the drivers! They actually respect the cyclists! They pause to let them cross through intersections; they share the rare road that doesn’t come equipped with a bike lane; they wait patiently for bikers to cross and turn, rarely blaring their horns or yelling expletives out the window.
Now, let’s talk waterfront… If Philly did half for Penn’s Landing what this city has done for the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, it would be reaping the financial and cultural rewards of the parks, fountains, restaurants, concert venues, and general urban outdoorsiness that Montreal’s residents and tourists seem so readily to take advantage of during the summer months. Penn’s Landing has certainly come a long way in my lifetime, but please, compared to what I’ve encountered over the last couple days, its eons behind the times.
We arrived in Montreal on Monday evening, parked the car in a lot, and haven’t moved it since. On Tuesday, we spent the day exploring the neighborhoods by way of a 30-mile loop that started at our YWCA-turned-hotel downtown, skirted the Saint Lawrence, and wove up through the island’s eastern hot spots before winding back toward McGill University and climbing Mount Royal in the center of the city. After a feast for dinner at the Indian buffet across the street and a good night’s rest, we hopped back on our bikes Wednesday morning en route to the 1976 Olympic park and stadium, and the Biosphere, a zoo and nature center that exhibits four of earth’s ecosystems, complete with otters and penguins and capybaras and anacondas.
By most accounts, a historical city, Montreal is not. Whether because it lacks some of the historical memory that places like Philadelphia possess or because it’s content focusing on culture instead, the town seems better suited for hanging out and exploring than it does for museum hopping and pop-intellectual enrichment. Still, as Brent and I wandered through Old Montreal and the Latin Quarter today, around Chinatown and the main library and the university campus, we founded ourselves drawn toward comparisons with the past, discussing Sun Yatsen and Lenin and Rosa Parks and debating the merits of grassroots direct action vs. state-sponsored political change. It turned out, we didn’t need to seek it out after all – it proved to be organic to the experience of the city itself.
So, yes, I love Philadelphia. I love its historicity on display, the gritty neighborhoods and the metropolitan downtown, the passion for all things Eagles green, the woods in Fairmount Park and the biking along Kelly Drive and toward Valley Forge and beyond. I’m looking forward to returning in a couple weeks and I’m always happy to call it home. But I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered an urban space that has it quite as together as Montreal seems to. At least in July, through the eyes of a tourist who’s been there for all of 72 hours.
Plus, how many cities let you pay $3.50 to work out in the Olympic swimming pool?!