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Cities tackle winter weather to keep riders rolling.
Each winter, a growing number of riders venture out onto snowy and rainy streets by bike. Although North Americans increasingly see their bicycles as a reliable mode of transportation, riding through winter weather can be intimidating. To increase the number of winter riders, cities across North America are working to make routes more accessible through snow clearing and developing connected, protected infrastructure.
Cycling in the City, a report prepared by the New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) shows winter cycling has increased 86 percent since 2008. It’s hard not to notice that this increase is paralleled by a huge expansion in bike infrastructure. “Biking isn’t just warm-weather recreation, it’s four-season transportation,” said NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn. “More and more New Yorkers are building bikes into their everyday routines because [they’re] affordable and efficient every day of the year.”
Winter Cycling Congress
In February 2013, civil engineer and bicycle advocate Timo Perälä gathered planners and advocates from around the Northern Hemisphere at the first Winter Cycling Congress in his hometown of Oulu, Finland.
Perälä, president of the newly formed Winter Cycling Federation, felt that Oulu – located 124 miles (200 kilometers) south of the Arctic Circle – provided a great example of how cities can support winter riders. City workers leave a layer of packed snow on many shared paths instead of completely clearing the way. “We use gravel to add friction on top of that,” said Perälä. “I think it works beautifully.” As more snow falls, the path is groomed, similar to a ski run, to keep it passable. Oulu’s summer cycling mode share, the portion of all trips made by bicycle, is an impressive 21 percent. The 7 percent who continue to ride their bicycles through the winter are still more than those who ride in most North American cities on a summer day.
“Oulu is quite an amazing city,” said Marc Jolicoeur, research director at Montreal, QC-based Vélo Québec. “They are the living proof that year-round cycling in a winter climate is possible.”
“It was just marvelous!” said Daryl Bender, alternative transportation project manager for the City of Hamilton, ON, who also attended the Congress in Oulu. “It was remarkable to see the diversity of people using their bicycles.”
Jolicoeur summed up the most important takeaway from the conference, “You must adapt to the winter that you have. There is no single recipe that you can use all over the place.”
The Effort to Manage Snow
Montreal receives the heaviest snowfall of any North American city of its size – an average of 85 inches (216 centimeters) per year. To deal with the accumulation of snow, the city closes some of its bikeways in winter, converting protected bike lanes to car parking and closing some off-street paths.
“There is officially a white network that the city tries to keep open,” said Jolicoeur. Despite the closures, he noted, “cycling levels stay high until the first snow appears on the ground.” Because the smaller network makes connections more difficult, a cycle track crossing downtown Montreal that sees 4,000 riders a day in the summer will see those numbers dwindle to just 300 in January and February. By March, as the weather warms and snow clears, the numbers start to rise quickly to around 1,000. “It shows you there could be many more cyclists, even in winter, if it was easier to get to the bicycle network,” said Jolicoeur.
Hamilton, unlike Montreal, gets very little snow – often, the bulk of it arriving all at once. “With our occasional winter dumps, our strategy is to manage it instead of getting rid of it,” said Bender. Because snow from the road can’t be piled on the sidewalk it often ends up in the bike lanes, narrowing or completely obstructing them. “The challenge is, what do we do with the snow?” said Bender. The city is undertaking a pilot project along 6 miles (10 kilometers) of bike lanes that will search out better ways to facilitate winter bicycle travel. In the pilot area, the city applies more salt and compacts the melted snow against the curb.
“We have always had a respectable and boisterous winter cycling community in Chicago,” said Ethan Spotts, spokesperson for Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance, a non-profit advocacy organization. The organization sponsors an annual Winter Bike to Work Day, commemorating the coldest day ever recorded in Chicago. To help support riders, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) employs special plows to clear protected bike lanes. “We try to get them done before the next rush hour,” said spokesperson Peter Scales, noting that CDOT will plow overnight to make sure the morning bicycle commute goes smoothly.
Brian Litmans, president of the non-profit organization Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage, credits the growth in winter riding in Anchorage, AK, in part, to the development of bicycles equipped to handle snowy conditions. “The seasoned commuters are using either a fat tire bike or studded tires,” he noted. “If it snows a few inches, you’re fine on a snow bike usually.”
“The big thing is snow removal,” said Litmans. “In the past couple of years, the city has gotten much better about coordinating the plowing of multi-use paths and sidewalks with when they plow the streets.” If paths are plowed before the streets, snow from the streets gets dumped on the paths, obstructing them, this is a problem the coordination aims to fix. “We’re seeing tons of people on our trails, both winter bike commuting and out recreating,” Litmans said. “It’s definitely all about attitude, embracing being out in the elements. It can be snowing or raining – it’s much more enjoyable on a bike than inside a car.”
Better Infrastructure’s Link to Increased Winter Riding
Caroline Samponaro, senior director of campaigns and organizing for New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, credits new and safer bike facilities with increasing winter riding in the city. “The fact that you have these key pieces of infrastructure is an incentive to think of biking as something great to do all year,” said Samponaro.
“You shouldn’t have to fight against the cars,” said Perälä, who favors bikeways that work for people of all ages and abilities. Perälä noted that the process is long and requires an investment of money and courage from politicians. Oulu began planning its bicycle infrastructure in the 1970s. In North America, where many cities were built around cars, change is more challenging because “you have to take the space from somewhere,” said Perälä.
Like Oulu, Portland, OR, started planning and building bicycle infrastructure decades ago. “It takes a while to build a [bicycle] culture,” noted Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesperson Diane Dulken. “Once you reach a tipping point, it spreads through the larger culture and that’s what’s happening now.”
It rarely snows in Portland, but it does rain. A lot. “So many factors have combined to make bicycling an inviting option, throughout the year,” said Dulken. “Winter is not the obstacle. If you build enough safe, comfortable streets, then that goes a long way to increasing the number of people who choose active transportation.”
Providing better and more attractive infrastructure is a priority in Chicago, IL. “Mayor Emanuel has a plan and a goal to add 100 miles (160 kilometers) of protected bike lanes in his first term,” said Scales of CDOT, noting that the city will be halfway to that goal by the end of 2013.
The link between active transportation and infrastructure is the focus of the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program. As part of the federal study, Minneapolis, MN, received $28 million to build infrastructure and study the extent to which bicycling and walking can carry the city’s transportation load. The program has helped Minneapolis add 75 miles (120 kilometers) of bike lanes in the greater metropolitan area. So far, the results are impressive: between 2010 and 2012, the September rider count increased by 24 percent while the January count rose by more than 200 percent.
“The increase in cycling rates in the winter outstrips the increase in cycling rates in the summer,” said Prescott Morrill, non-motorized transportation research and evaluation specialist at Transit for Livable Communities (TLC), who worked on the pilot. “I think it’s also this cultural shift where winter biking is becoming normalized.”
Hilary Reeves of Bike Walk Twin Cities, the organization funded through the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot program and administered by TLC, attributes the popularity of winter cycling in her hometown to Minnesotans’ embrace of winter. “Minneapolis- St. Paul is a very active city, so people are out year round. Biking is just one part of that,” she said. “The more you see people out there, the more you think you can do it yourself.”
Nicole Waxmonsky, a former board member of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, always felt confident in her commute because of Minneapolis’ policy of quickly clearing bicycle routes: “If you have to ride to work, you know that your path is going to be in pretty decent shape.”
Bike Share Brings Year round Visibility to Biking
While riders in Anchorage may be purchasing their own sturdy winter rides, elsewhere, the growth of bike sharing is providing new incentive for riders to take to their bikes in the winter. In 2013, New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco all launched bike share systems that will remain in service year-round.
In Chicago, the visibility of Divvy Bikes, the city’s bike share system is expected to help boost year-round cycling numbers in the city. “Making it easier with bike lanes and with bicycle share, in and of itself is a promotion of cycling year round,” said Scales. He noted that the stability of the wide-tired bicycles and their weather-tolerant design make them ideal cold and wet weather rides. “Frankly, I would prefer to ride one of these bike share bikes in the wintertime,” Scales said.
Toronto, ON, where a bike share program has been running year-round since first launching in 2010, has seen continued usage throughout the winter months. Around 1,000 rides per day, or a quarter of the rides recorded in summer months, are made on the system. While a heavy snowfall closed the system for a few days in early 2013, the problem was clearing the snow around the bikes for access and not problems with the bikes or station software.
Samponaro predicts that New York City’s counts are “going to explode” once bike share is factored in. Over the summer, the Citi Bike system logged a staggering 3 million trips. “What’s true in any city is that once you get a city resident commuting by bike, it’s really hard to change that pattern,” she noted. “Just because it’s getting cold, you don’t want to give up the convenience.”
A Great Way to Make the Winter Better
“I don’t think of myself as a cyclist,” said Perälä of riding in Oulu. “It’s just a normal thing to do here.” Even in the winter, it’s still the fastest way to get around. Perälä loves his winter commute because “you get this feeling of wind and silence. The scenery is beautiful on those crisp winter mornings.”
Litmans shared a similar sentiment: “I enjoy winter biking because Anchorage is a pretty beautiful city. It’s more beautiful in the wintertime.” “I think people who bike throughout the winter are maybe a little happier than your average person,” Scales from Chicago observed.
In New York City, Samponaro extends her morning commute in the winter because it’s her only chance to get a bit of sunshine on short winter days. She noted that it’s a “great way to make the winter better.”
Laura McCamy is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher based in Oakland, CA. Her writing has appeared on sfstreetsblog.org and OaklandLocal.com and she edits the East Bay Bicycle Coalition’s newsletter, rideOn. @LMCWords