Winnipeg played host last week to the second International Winter Cycling Congress. Nearly 200 delegates from across North America gathered to discuss the challenges of urban winter cycling and celebrate the benefits it can have for northern cities.
The health and quality-of-life-benefits cycling as urban transportation can bring to the citizens of a city are obvious. Numerous studies show commuters who cycle are generally healthier; they feel less stress, sleep better and have more energy. Physically active employees often show improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and turnover.
Beyond improving the well-being of its citizens, many cities that struggle to keep up with infrastructure deficits are beginning to understand the positive role investment in active transportation can have in building a sustainable city.
As we construct sprawling suburbs, greater commuting distances increase vehicle time on the road, which, in turn, increases congestion levels. The response is often to build new roads or expand existing ones to accommodate higher traffic volumes at peak times.
This increased capacity then drives new development even further out and the cycle begins again. By investing in initiatives such as public transit and cycling infrastructure, cities can begin to affect the urban-sprawl spiral, while incrementally reducing road construction and maintenance costs. At less than a tenth of the cost of a new road, construction of fully segregated bike lanes is an attractive option for cities interested in sustainable growth.
For the first time, vehicle-ownership levels are declining in Canada and young people in particular are looking for alternative transportation options.
Enticing even a small percentage of commuters to choose cycling can significantly affect overall traffic congestion.
A study by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration indicated reducing the number of cars by only three per cent can lower peak rush-hour traffic by nearly 30 per cent. Realizing the benefits of reduced infrastructure spending through the provision of alternate transportation options is only effective if the strategy is successful year-round. A harsh winter climate is an obvious barrier to achieving these results.
Delegates at the Winter Cycling Congress were inspired by the successful growth of four-season cycling in Minneapolis, a sprawling suburban metropolis that has been named the best cycling city in America, despite winter conditions similar to those in Winnipeg.
Political leadership in Minneapolis has been dedicated to transforming the city's urban-cycling culture, making it a central component of overall transportation planning and a primary tool in its urban-design strategy.
Widespread construction of dedicated bike lanes, urban zoning requirements for bike parking, rapid transit with bicycle-carrying capability and the implementation of a successful 170 station bike-share program has led to a 78 per cent increase in commuter cyclists since 2007.
Despite being America's coldest major metropolitan area, winter cycling rates are growing three times faster than those in summer. Today, five per cent of Minneapolis residents bike to work (twice that of Winnipeg) and nearly 40 per cent of those cycle through the winter months.
The most significant barrier to winter cycling participation is not temperature, but the perception of safety. Riders generally feel cold can be accommodated with proper clothing, but unsafe road conditions pose a deterrent that is difficult to overcome.
The Twin Cities has addressed this issue by developing a system of paths that physically separate cars and bikes. Smaller street-side bike lanes connect to an innovative system of 'bicycle freeways' linking downtown and the suburbs along former rail lines. The eight-kilometre Midtown Greenway carries as many as 4,000 cyclists per day. The city has committed to clearing these paths within 24 hours of a snowfall, providing winter cyclists with a safe and efficient commuter path in all seasons.
With winter participation rates growing, Minneapolis cyclists are experiencing safety in numbers as greater presence in the streets has heightened overall awareness and lowered accident rates.
Similarly, in Montreal, a city that keeps 60 km of bike lanes clear from snow all winter, participation has grown by 70 per cent since 2009 with the number of accidents remaining constant.
Winnipeggers often hide behind the excuse of cold winters to resist new ideas for improving our city's urban quality. Minneapolis should inspire us to embrace northern-city living and reap the benefits of becoming a year-round cycling community.
The conditions for developing a four-season cycling culture in Winnipeg are more favourable than they were in Minneapolis. Our city is denser, it's smaller with far shorter commuting distances, a more highly concentrated downtown workforce and stronger initial participation levels. Both cities have ample sunshine and flat topography, each with rail lines and hydro corridors that could serve as 'bicycle freeways.'
Climate and urban form are not the most important factors in developing an urban cycling culture. The common characteristic shared by all bike cities is political leadership that makes active-transportation policy a priority.
These cities achieved high numbers of commuter cyclists through deliberate municipal-development decisions. They serve as a model for winter cities such as Winnipeg, demonstrating what is possible with strong political leadership committed to sustainable urban growth and healthy cities.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.