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

The Plateau-Mont-Royal and Ville-Marie boroughs are testing a new way of keeping bike paths clean — a combination of sweeping the pavement then coating it with a special snow-melting brine.

Pilot project in Plateau-Mont-Royal and Ville-Marie involves sweeping pavement, spreading snow-melting brine

Magali Bebronne was out cycling on Rachel Street East in Montreal's Plateau-Mont-Royal borough Thursday. She found the bike path was cleaner than usual after a recent snowfall. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

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.

Thursday evening in Montreal may have been down around –16 C with a biting windchill, but the Rachel Street East bike path was plenty busy. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

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.

Cyclists pedalling no matter the cold

Even when temperatures plummeted to bone-chilling levels by Thursday evening, cyclists were pedalling up and down Rachel Street East's protected bike path.

Vélo Québec's headquarters is on Rachel Street, and Bebronne said she'd seen a mother with her two young daughters all out biking earlier in the day. When the path is clear, she said, people are more inclined to cycle, no matter how frigid the temperature.

She, too, has seen a substantial increase in the number of cyclists using the bike path as the city improves snow-clearing techniques on bike paths. Now, she said, it's time to adopt tried-and-tested methods throughout the city.

"Maybe not every borough would have to invest in such equipment, but maybe it's time to imagine that such equipment could be shared between boroughs," Bebronne said.

"One piece of equipment could go over the bike path of a few central boroughs."


Isaac Olson has been a Montreal-area journalist for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Isaac_J_Olson


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?