The fifth annual Winter Cycling Congress, held February 8–10 in Montréal, brought together 375 participants from nine countries and included dozens of presentations and workshops.
It would be impossible to cover the whole Congress in one blog post, but one way to summarize the progress of winter biking would be with this, only partly tongue-in-cheek, exhortation:
“Take heart, stalwart cyclists – The Suits have arrived!”
While the momentum of all-season cycling has been building slowly for decades, progress has accelerated greatly in the past ten years. One result is that city governments across the northern hemisphere are working not only to add new cycling infrastructure, but to keep the bike lanes cleared and safe through the winter.
The Winter Cycling Congress included presentations by several professional consulting firms who design cycling infrastructure in northern cities, villages and rural areas, addresses by big city mayors and members of Parliament, plus input from maintenance experts with experience in widely varying climates.
Can you ride through the winter? Yes, you can.
While bikes have obvious appeal as healthy, low-energy, sustainable transportation tools, in many countries the bicycle’s positive impact will remain limited if people feel they can’t ride in the winter months. If city planners try to build adequate infrastructure for large numbers of cyclists in summer, but still need to accommodate all residents via alternate transport methods in winter, then our overall transport systems will remain costly and inefficient.
What are the main barriers to wider adoption of winter cycling? First, let’s deal with a common, silly objection: people can’t ride when it’s cold. This is absurd because people happily do many other activities outside in winter: ice skating, hockey, snowboarding and skiing, for example. Furthermore, all preceding generations up until about 100 years ago managed to get around in winter without being chauffeured in heated canisters. Dressing for the weather is not rocket science – our Neanderthal forebears were able to figure it out.
So when the cheap gas and diesel run out and there is no choice but to adapt to a low-energy transport system, humans will once again rise to the challenge of putting on long underwear and warm hats, without considering themselves heroes for doing so.
Today there are planning consultants gathering data in many cities, asking what are the major factors that keep people biking in the winter, and what factors make them stop.
Tony Desnick of Alta Planning discussed the results of an international survey. When respondents were asked why they decided to ride in the winter, the most common response was “I started biking and I didn’t want to stop.” (That certainly rang true with me. When I started riding a bike in Toronto in the summer of 1979, I had no expectation of riding all year. But as the months rolled by I liked biking more and more. Soon a whole winter had gone by – and now it’s 38 winters.)
When summer-only cyclists were asked “What will take you off your bike?” sixty per cent cited poorly maintained infrastructure, said Desnick.
While cities around the world are learning that provision of protected bike lanes results in immediate boosts in cycling, winter cities are also learning that a substantial share of cyclists will happily ride through the winter, as long as bike lanes are maintained.
Thus cities such as Minneapolis and Montréal now regularly clear at least some bike lanes promptly after snowfalls, with bike-lane plows going out even before most streets are cleared.
The leader in taking care of winter cycling facilities is the small city of Oulu, Finland, which hosted the first Winter Cycling Congress in 2013. Though the city is just 150 km south of the Arctic Circle, about 42% of its 200,000 residents keep cycling through the winter, said Winter Cycling Federation vice-president Pekka Tahkola.
The steadily cold winter actually makes cycling and path-maintenance easy, said Tahkola. Maintenance crews leave a thin layer of snow on the paths, this quickly becomes well packed, and cyclists have good traction even without using studded tires. With few thaw-freeze episodes, there is no reason to use road salt so paths and bikes stay clean.
Most temperate-zone cities face tougher challenges, exemplified by the freezing rain which turned to slush and then bumpy ice throughout Montréal during the conference – conditions that are increasingly common due to global warming.
Yet federal politicians, municipal staff, and planning firms from cities such as Calgary, Winnipeg and Copenhagen are helping to ensure that bike infrastructure is not forgotten when winter maintenance programs are designed – and winter ridership is increasing as a result.
Though city governments and planners play a crucial role in these efforts, often it is the activism of determined cyclists which prompts action. Becca Wolfson of the Boston Cyclists Union told the story of the city staffer who wrote that cyclists who want to bike in winter “are living in the wrong city”, and they only represent “.05% of the people” anyway. The response was a well organized campaign on Twitter, with pictures of the winter bike commuters holding signs saying “I am the .05%” or simply “#WinterBiker”. This year Boston is making it a high priority to clear major bikeways of snow.
From downtown cores to the suburbs and beyond
Nor have winter bike activities been confined to major cities. Darnel Harris discussed a program to boost cycling in Toronto’s far-flung suburbs. These areas now tend to have lower housing costs than downtown, and are home to many people who can’t afford either condos or cars. Yet these areas also present major barriers to mobility and accessibility, with high-speed arterial roads, infrequent buses, and schools and stores that are too far from homes for walking to be a practical mode of transport. Among these communities, Harris said, cargo bikes have a particular appeal.
Other presentations dealt with a state-funded program to design biking infrastructure in rural Montana, and a project to connect two small villages in Finland with a safe and attractive bikeway.
Thank God It’s Friday!
But enough of traffic statistics and commuting modal share trends. Some of us also bike in the winter for pure fun, and the week ended with a special treat.
Though the conference officially closed at noon on Friday, about 25 lucky souls from at least five countries took a bus out of town to the great cycling facilities in Bromont. Here we were fitted with fat bikes before heading out on the snow-covered trails. Though we bundled up to stay warm in the –15°C temperature and stiff breeze, most of us soon started shedding layers as we pedaled up hills, slid around hairpin curves and dodged trees. As a conference finale, this was hard to beat.
Top photo: Although Montréal’s bike-share system, Bixi, does not operate in winter, conference organizers from Vélo Quebec made arrangements for participants to use Bixis in a variety of outdoor workshops. Here a group leaves the conference venue for a tour of Montréal’s maintained winter bikeways. (Photo by Anne Williams, courtesy of Winter Cycling Congress Facebook page).