New snow-clearing method allows Montreal cyclists to 'really see the asphalt'

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It was so cold Thursday morning that parts of Magali Bebronne's bicycle froze, but the determined Montreal year-round bike commuter got her bicycle rolling and hit the road.

To her surprise, she found the 20-minute ride through the Plateau-Mont-Royal easier than usual, despite the recent snow accumulation.

That's because the borough is testing a new way of keeping its bike paths clean — a two-step process that uses street-sweepers to clear the pavement before coating the path with a special snow-melting brine.

"When I rode on the Rachel bike path yesterday, I really noticed the surface was a lot clearer than it had ever been," said Bebronne, a program manager with the cycling advocacy group Vélo Québec 

"When you're riding on a bike, just a few centimetres of snow can really make it difficult to ride. Conditions that work for cars don't work for bikes."

But with these new techniques the borough is testing, "you can really see the asphalt," she said. That's why her organization has been pushing the city to get more of such equipment out on the road.

The method has already been tested in Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, and now Ville-Marie is giving it a shot, along with the Plateau. 

The sweepers can be deployed when the accumulated snowfall is about five centimetres or less. Tractors towing tanks filled with a calcium chloride solution then spread the solution onto the paths.

The brine coats the asphalt and makes it easier to clean after the next storm. While this method could be used on sidewalks, it's not as effective on concrete, because asphalt's dark colour absorbs heat and melts the snow faster.

'If you plow it, they will come'

The results on the bike paths have left everybody smiling, so far.

Blue-collar workers have had no problems implementing the technique, and cyclists have been giving positive feedback, said Coun. Marianne Giguère, who is the city's executive committee member in charge of active transportation.

"With all the climate changes that we have — having very cold, and then very warm, and the cold and snow and rain and everything — we need to adjust our old methods," she said.

"The cyclists are quite happy," said Giguère, a councillor in the Plateau's De Lorimier district and a long-time voice for cyclists.

Keeping bike paths clear in the winter is a sure way to encourage people to bike to work or school all year round, she said.

"If you plow it, they will come," said Giguère. She said the number of winter cyclists is estimated to have doubled since more effort has been put into keeping bike paths clear.

"In Montreal, the popularity of winter biking has risen a lot every year."

Boroughs are always looking for new ways to keep streets, sidewalks and bike paths clear of ice and snow, she said — comparing notes at the end of the season on new methods they've tried.

Officials also attend annual winter cycling conferences that bring municipal representatives of wintry cities around the world to share ideas.