Winter cycling isn’t extreme


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“The majority of people who are biking in the winter, they’re the extreme. They’re the extreme cyclists and I don’t see that changing.”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/01/2019 (1537 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

“The majority of people who are biking in the winter, they’re the extreme. They’re the extreme cyclists and I don’t see that changing.”

Coun. Jeff Browaty made these comments last month at city hall, while questioning the value of clearing snow from Winnipeg bike lanes in the winter. His statement made headlines, but the sentiment that Winnipeg is too cold to support winter cycling is not seen as an extreme viewpoint.

We don’t label cross-country skiers “extreme.” It is not extreme to let our children play in the schoolyard at lunchtime. A game of shinny on an outdoor rink isn’t extreme, and the only thing extreme about skating in the middle of Winnipeg’s frozen rivers is the lineup for skate rentals at The Forks. So, why is riding a bike in the winter seen as extreme?

The difference, of course, is that cross-country skiers don’t share their tracks with 2,000-kilogram machines travelling 60 km/h. Winter cycling is seen as extreme not because of temperature, but because riders must compete with cars for space on slippery, ice-covered roads.

What if they didn’t have to? What if cyclists had their own lanes, protected from cars and kept clear of snow? Would they still be extreme, or would they be as normal as someone skating on the river trail?

The experience of other cities invariably shows that with those conditions in place, winter cyclists become quite ordinary. Studies, surveys and real-world examples consistently demonstrate that the greatest deterrent to winter cycling is safety and road conditions, not temperature. Winter cities that have built well-connected networks of protected bike lanes and made it a priority to keep them clear of snow have all realized the same results — a dramatic increase in winter cycling.

An extreme example of this can be found in Oulu, a city in northern Finland, 150 km from the Arctic Circle. With a very similar winter climate to Winnipeg’s, Oulu has an extensive cycling network and pervasive bike culture that have resulted in a percentage of cyclists in the winter months that is almost six times higher than what Winnipeg experiences in the peak of summer.

Closer to home, Montreal has been celebrated as one of the top cycling cities in North America, with more than 100 km of on-street protected bike lanes and 800 total km of cycling paths. Over the past nine years, the amount of cycling infrastructure in the city has doubled and the number of Montrealers who cycle as their main mode of transportation has grown by 50 per cent.

The city has begun to focus on winter cycling and now clears snow from 60 per cent of its pathways. Investments have been made in new technology such as rotating brush plows that are less damaging to protective curbs and more effective at removing ice.

These efforts have paid off, more than doubling the number of winter cyclists in just a few years. In a city that experiences twice the amount of Winnipeg’s snowfall, with temperatures only about five degrees warmer in the coldest months, Montreal maintains 15 to 20 per cent of its summer cycling population through the winter, averaging more than 15,000 cyclists per day.

Two-thirds of those continue to ride at temperatures below -20 C. Winter cyclists in Montreal were once dubbed les hurluberlus de l’hiver (the weirdos of winter), but today they are neither weird nor extreme.

In Minneapolis, a top cycling city in the United States and its coldest major city, similar conclusions have been reached. In summer, almost three times more people commute by bike in Minneapolis than in Winnipeg. The city’s cycling system is an innovative network of on-street bike lanes connecting to a series of “bicycle freeways” along former rail lines, linking the suburbs with downtown.

Most of these routes maintain more than 30 per cent of their ridership through the winter months, largely because the city has dedicated bike-lane clearing crews that are independent of the street cleaning system. Their mandate is to clear all bike paths within 24 hours of a major snowfall. The city’s new Pedestrian and Bicycle Winter Maintenance Study recommends going further, by identifying priority cycling networks that will be cleared immediately, similar to the way Priority 1 streets are handled in Winnipeg, allowing cyclists to anticipate safe routes connecting major destinations after a snowfall.

In Calgary, a protected downtown cycling network was created in 2015, along with a strategy to promote winter cycling. The results were almost instant, with four times more people cycling downtown in the winter, only one year after the complete network was created. Today, about 30 per cent of summer bike commuters continue through the winter months. More than half of those ride in temperatures below -20 C.

Some of Winnipeg’s neighbourhoods have high summer cycling participation. Wolseley is in the top 10 in Canada, with 15 per cent of all commuters using a bike. Other central neighbourhoods see more than six per cent cycling participation, a higher proportion than both Minneapolis and Montreal. As we continue to expand and fill in the gaps in our cycling network, a tipping point will come, and clearing lanes of snow will pay off with much higher winter-cycling ridership as it has in every other city. This could translate into thousands of winter cyclists in these neighbourhoods.

Winnipeg is a proud winter city in many ways, but winter cycling is still viewed as extreme because we have built a city that makes it so. Our perceptions come from what Winnipeg has been, not what it can be. As our city moves forward, policies such as bike lane snow-clearing should reflect our aspirations, allowing the opportunity for our future to be different from our past.

Brent Bellamy is a senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

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