The Bike in Winter: Observations and Inspirations from the Winter Cycling Congress

By Steven Bercu (@bicycleurbanist) & Becca Wolfson

In winter, much of the world’s ornamentation, its foliage, its riot of color, falls away.  We are faced with things in their essential nature: the bare branches of trees, the traces of our breath, gratitude for closest friends and loved ones, and the basic challenge of moving from Point A to Point B.

The fifth annual Winter Cycling Congress, held earlier this month in Montreal, had no official theme.  But the theme could have been Paring Away: the search for what is most essential during the still, cold, dark season.  Here we present some highlights and meditations from our time among others who ponder and practice winter bicycle use in its various forms.

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Riders en route to the Winter Cycling Congress in Montreal. Photo credit: @wintercyclingcongress

 

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A warm conference welcome, on a cold day, from Jean-Francois Pronovost of Velo Quebec. Photo credit: @wintercyclingcongress

 

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Conference goers setting out on a guided infrastructure tour, on Bixi [bike share] bikes, with layers to protect them from the -1 degree weather! Photo credit: @wintercyclingcongress

 

Oulu.

On the first morning of the conference, we met Pekka Tahkola, Vice President and a founder of the young Winter Cycling Federation.  Pekka hails from Oulu, a city in northern Finland that hosted the first Winter Cycling Congress in February 2013.  Oulu, where 42% of the populace bicycles during winter at least to some extent, is in some sense the spiritual home of winter bicycling.  Pekka told the story of bumping into a 91-year-old man at an Oulu bike shop who rides through the winter with his 86-year-old ladyfriend: “The gentleman is well preserved due to spending half his life in a freezer.”

Truly, the people of Oulu (Ouluians?) have turned their cold climate into a virtue.  To keep its estimable network of multi-use paths (a network that crisscrosses the downtown) operational during the cold season, Oulu has pioneered an unorthodox approach.  Completely eschewing the use of salt, the city instead allows paths to remain covered with a thin layer of hard-packed snow, which crews keep groomed using a toothed plow blade that leaves grooved ridges.  This surface offers sufficient traction for bicycles, and the system apparently works quite well provided that temperatures remain consistently cold—historically this was never an issue during the long Oulu winter.  Cycles of thawing and freezing, leading to ice conditions, work against the Oulu method, and Pekka noted that climate change is leading Oulu to begin rethinking its approach.

The Common Cold.

Participating in the Winter Cycling Congress let us see Boston and its role as a snow city in a new light.  We began to realize that Boston (and Cambridge), perhaps inadvertently, already plays a leadership role within the small, select group of snow cities striving to facilitate viable, year-round, active-transportation networks and opportunities: Minneapolis (host of last year’s Congress), Calgary, Edmonton, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Copenhagen, Oslo, Oulu, Toronto, Umea, Helsinki, Moscow (next year’s host) . . . an informal confederation of chilly metropoles strung like beads of ice across the upper latitudes.  Unfortunately, nobody from Boston city staff attended the Congress; we hope to see a Boston municipal presence at future Congresses, since Boston has a great deal to contribute as well as much to learn. 

Our kindred climates bring us together in the search for solutions that address winter bicycling and the broader challenge of promoting active transportation and recreation during the snowy months.  Technologies such as jet air travel and the web no doubt shrink the world and propel globalization.  Yet the bicycle, a simple machine, in its own humble way, leads its own vanguard of innovation and urban evolution as northerly cities pioneer cleaner, more convenient, healthier, more efficient alternatives to automobile dependence.  That’s why, for example, city engineers from Oslo and Montreal listen keenly when public works representatives from Calgary describe their successes with the use of brine solutions to preemptively de-ice their network of protected bike lanes.

Loneliness and Isolation.

Whereas the field of medicine locates disability and illness within the individual–that is, at the level of the organism–the field of occupational therapy looks primarily to the environment as the locus of disability and pathology.  Thus keynote speaker Robin Mazumder, who trained as an occupational therapist, paints a portrait of the winter city as a landscape of reinforced barriers, of mobility-challenged people stuck at home and afraid to venture out, of increased loneliness and isolation.  Winter worsens the isolation already coded into the fabric of most North American cities.  The predicament of winter isolation correlates directly to a range of serious, negative mental and physical health outcomes.  

But it does not have to be this way.  We humans excel at controlling our environment.  Winter can be a time when people connect, when we cherish our social connections at community gatherings, when we celebrate the beauty and stillness of the world around us.  Mazumder offered some light-hearted examples of putting this impulse into action, including a 3,000 person, flash-mob snowball fight that took place two years ago in Edmonton; and the joyous outdoor coffee scene on the snow patio of Edmonton’s Café Bicyclette.  His ultimate point is that we can unlock the activity latent in a winter city through empathic, human-centered design interventions.  It’s not good enough to help people to get around.  We must enable one another to get around in a dignified manner, because dignity is a fundamental precondition to personal happiness.

Strategies.

Cultivation of a healthy, urban bicycle culture that goes strong through the winter months remains very much a work in progress; it is safe to say that we remain in an exploratory phase.  However, it is already possible to tease out some consistent themes and promising strategies.  Here is a brief overview of what we think are some emergent best practices:

  • Celebrate.  Winter is an amazing time for outdoor events that celebrate life.  We experienced some of this ourselves on a mobile workshop, pedaling to Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges borough on a gelid afternoon.  Stopping to thaw out at the indoor, underground hockey complex in Westmount, we stepped inside from the biting, late-afternoon cold.  Volunteers from a local community greeted us with warm smiles, and presented us with homemade snacks, including cookies imprinted with antique bicycles

 

  • Target active summer cyclists.  One of the keys to developing a successful winter bicycling culture is for a city to become a first-rate bicycle city during the other seasons.  A steady and growing population of people regularly using bikes for transport during the rest of the year will furnish a strong pool of experienced riders ready to take their activity to the next level by riding year-round.  The cities that are doing the best job of advancing winter bicycle trips seem to be the ones making the most progress with active transportation overall.
  • Bring the bling. As we learned from Timo Perälä of Oulu and Liv Jorun Andenes of Oslo, giving away some winter-specific gear such as studded rear bike tires can incentivize some people to give winter riding a try (although it was made clear that in many of the participating cities and countries – especially European – with the right clearance techniques, studded tires are not required for winter riding!).
  • Normalize.  Jennifer Stelzer and Elyse McCann of EnviroCentre gave a compelling presentation that emphasized the importance of deploying positive messaging and imagery in support of the pursuit of winter riding.  Recognizing that the media seems to love stories featuring lunatic, Grizzly Adams-style winter bicycle “enthusiasts,” they have a curated a library of counter-imagery featuring children, families, and other “normal” folks enjoying winter bike travel around the city.  This has already been proven to be the case in Boston, too, and we gave a presentation about the successful #WinterBiker campaign of 2014 when a coordinated effort of the Bike Union and other local advocates helped normalize biking through winter and pressured the DCR to properly clear the Southwest Corridor.
  • Maintain.  Public-works types have been developing a growing array of stratagems for keeping their bikeways passable in the winter months.  Preemptive deicing using brine solutions and swapping out conventional plows for brush plows seem to be premiere among best practices.  From a management standpoint, it is critical to instill in winter crews a sense of pride and importance in the efforts they make to keep winter trips practical and safe.

 

  • Carrot and Stick.  Becca, in her presentation, reported on the Boston experience, where we have succeeded in getting folks to shake the snow off their bikes and mount up using the combination of joy and FOMO (can’t-miss social opportunities punctuating the winter).  The Boston Cyclists Union has brought smiles and encouragement to many winter riders, for example, by giving out our Valentine’s spoke cards or breakfast burritos and hot coffee as people ride by highly trafficked spots on their morning bike commute.
  • Collect Data.  Tony Desnick, of Alta Planning + Design’s Minneapolis office, presented the findings of their 4th Annual Winter Cycling Survey, a comprehensive survey Alta released and analyzed with over 1,200 responses from people in their year-round and winter biking habits.  Among other things, survey results show that more than 60% of respondents bike 4 days a week or more even in the winter, and the top factors that keep people from biking in the winter are poor facility maintenance first, followed by ice and then rain.
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Proof is in the pudding — rain is more likely to keep people from biking than a little snow. Rue Boyer, Montreal.       Photo credit: @wintercyclingcongress

 

  • Get Serious.  Copenhagen’s charismatic mayor of transport, Morten Kabell, made a persuasive case that rapidly growing cities, such as his, must prioritize the most efficient modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, and transit) if they stand any chance of staying ahead of the vehicular vapor-lock induced by private cars flooding a finite streetscape.  The question of “How can we possibly afford to build that” frequently directed at some of the more extravagant bicycle infrastructure projects such as Copenhagen’s iconic Cykelslangen (bicycle snake) bridge must be reframed.  The proper question becomes: “How can we afford not to build it.” It is critical that advocates and planners marshal the considerable economic arguments that support implementation of cohesive bike networks.
  • The Winter Network.  For cities that have comprehensive fair-weather bicycle networks, it can be helpful to think of the “winter network” in separate terms.  Coming back to the theme of Paring Away, it may make sense to focus on clearing the critical linkages to keep bicycling viable along connected routes through the winter.  Other facilities, such as those connecting to recreational areas that are not heavily used in the winter, could be deprioritized for clearance or even let go entirely until the melt.  As Helsinki’s Martti Tulenheimo of the Finnish Bicycle Federation has observed, keeping a city’s bikeshare system up and running all winter long, even at reduced capacity, adds a further element of reliability, predictability, and normality to the city’s bicycle network. To that end, Bike Share Toronto presented their robust data on the steady number of trips that are maintained through the winter, and can demonstrate that rain is more likely to keep people off of bikeshare than a little snow, and the cost of fully removing the city’s bike share infrastructure and re-deploying it after the core winter months was almost as costly as doing a bit of extra winter maintenance on bikes that stayed out year-round.  Something for us to chew on in Boston, and that Cambridge has already tackled with their commitment to keep Hubway stations open twelve months of the year.  In Montreal, exclusive news was shared that while currently only one of Montreal’s 5 bridge crossings over the St. Lawrence River (akin to Boston’s Charles River) is maintained for biking through the winter, the city is exploring ways to open another bikeable bridge crossing by next winter, the Jacques Cartier Bridge’s bike path.  Currently they’re talking about introducing sub-surface heating elements to prevent ice buildup and allow for snow to more easily be brushed or plowed away.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have even one safe and separated bridge crossing over the Charles?  
  • Have a Policy.  One of the most important takeaways for us was that any snow city that wants to get serious about the winter commute must adopt a policy for snow clearance and adhere to it.  Riders need to have a clear sense of which routes can be expected to be clear within predefined time frames following a snow event. We do not expect transit riders or automobile drivers to venture out after a snowstorm, only to become snowbound after completing half their journey.  Similarly, people on bicycles need to be able to plan a route that does not terminate prematurely in snowbound impasses.  A clear winter policy will allow advocates to clarify their asks of a municipality, as well as to applaud successes on the ground.  In Copenhagen they clear snow from bike lanes before clearing roads for cars.  In Oslo if it snows more than 2cm, snow must be cleared from bike lanes within 5 hours.  

 

Change the policy, change the practices, change the infrastructure, change the narrative. Lessons from Ottowa, Montreal and Finland.

Change the policy, change the practices, change the infrastructure, change the narrative. Lessons from Ottowa, Montreal and Finland.

 

A few last thoughts on where we are in Boston

We’re lucky that the DCR has a published snow removal policy that allowed us to advocate for better adherence back in 2014.  Boston, Cambridge and Somerville have yet to make clear what their snow removal policies, which makes it more difficult to hold them accountable for clearance if they’ve never committed to doing so, and plan to advocate for full development of winter snow removal policies for bike facilities in the region.  It’s certainly deserved, as data from the Eco Counter in Kendall Square demonstrates that bike traffic in January and February hovers around 34-47% of the September bike traffic.

There are many other things that are already happening in Boston, like hot chocolate rides being led by neighborhood groups, and Boston Bike Party continuing through the winter, other group rides and socials, and Family-friendly rides like the New Year’s Day RideWinter Solstice Ride, and Boston Winter 100 in February, and tactical projects like the resident-led snow tunnel creation in 2015.  

We came back from Montreal elated about the possibilities that winter biking holds and the potential for the Boston area to be great.  However, our spirits dropped when we returned to messy streets that had been poorly maintained after our first significant snowfall of the season, the week of February 13th.  Through advocating for improved clearance, we learned more about the City of Boston’s experimentation with brine solution and purchase of a new bobcat for snow removal in protected bike lanes (!), Cambridge’s pilot program with Montreal-style overnight parking bans on Hampshire Street following a significant snow event to allow plowing from curb to curb and commend their innovation!  We were also happy to see the City of Somerville prioritize snow clearance on the new Beacon Street cycle track.  These are great pilots that should be expanded and more inclusive!  Next all we need next is a network of protected bike lanes, which are easier for municipal staff to actually clear than piecemeal stretches, and more of a commitment to clearing our bike facilities when it snows.  This may mean additional overnight parking bans for the sake of better snow removal, or year-round street sweeping schedules that can double as opportunities for snow clearance from curb to curb, keeping bike share open year round throughout the region, and perhaps Boston can step it up and host the winter cycling congress in the future, sharing our best practices and learning from the rest of the best of this world-wide winter biking community!

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