Canadian winters are the basis of many criticisms of investing in cycling. Taken to the extreme, they are why our cycling infrastructure is, according to some, "wasted six months of the year". While I doubt that my bike will be hung up for anything close to six months, it is a good bet that I will pedal very few kilometres during December, January, or February.
Let's explore why.
ColdWinter is cold. No question, cycling in winter is less comfortable than other times of the year due to temperature.
Conditions beyond -15C with windchill will weed out many riders. But strangely, the bikes are often out and about with more moderate freezing temperatures... especially as spring approaches and these temperatures feel less frigid by comparison. Skiers know that cold is not an obstacle to outdoor winter travel.
Cold itself is probably the least relevant reason for my lack of winter cycling. Clearly, cold takes its toll, but cities like Minneapolis are much colder than Waterloo and this doesn't stop half of their cycling commuters from carrying on until spring. You can always dress warmer.
|Winter biking in Minneapolis. That's -3F. Image source Cascade Bicycle Club|
It's usually what accompanies the cold that is more relevant.
Snow and IceAs an undergrad, I biked through snow now and then. Taxing and difficult, and when ice is involved, quite risky.
But you could say the same thing about driving: difficult and dangerous when ice and snow are around. So why are antiques and convertibles the only cars that hibernate the winter in the garage with the bikes? How is it that most motor vehicles drive on through the winter regardless?
The answer is simple: road maintenance.
The standard of road maintenance for snow and ice clearing that we see exceeds that of anything else, even (regrettably) sidewalks. As for trails, many see infrequent or even no snow clearing. Ice patches form, and are not as easily melted and dispersed as they are by automobile tires on the city streets.
Also, road maintenance tends to be for car lanes only. Bike lanes get short shrift, often becoming dumping ground for snow piles that, once melted, deposit their suspended debris in a thick mat of tire-destroying crap that remains uncleared until April. That formerly complete street is now a narrow car-only strip of pavement, and drivers once acclimatized to watching for bikes seem to have forgotten all about them.
|Image Source: Treehugger|
Snow and ice are major obstacles to cycling only because we are allowing them to be. Eventually we will learn from our colder but more cycling-savvy cousins, and we will establish a core cycling network with year-round maintenance. But until then few will be able to ride regularly through the winter because they have nowhere to ride.
VisibilityWinter brings darkness and inclement weather.
When daylight savings is in effect, most people can cycle commute while the sun is up. As the days shorten and the the clock "falls back" in November, the ride home is suddenly a dark one.
And no matter what we do, we can't change Waterloo's latitude. Even in a climate-changed world, our winter days will always be short.
And yet, despite equating ourselves with Nordic countries, our city is at the same latitude as the balmy south coast of France. Long winter nights are a problem that all of the big cycling nations of Europe contend with, and to a greater degree than we have to.
|Image source: Copenhagenize|
The solution here is the same as before. Establish a cycling network that is maintained year-round, give people the ability to ride their bikes in safe conditions separate from traffic, and visibility becomes less of a problem.
|Image course: Copenhagenize|
The hundred year stormThe aspects that lead people to criticize the practicality of cycling and the worth of investing in cycling infrastructure come back again and again to the quality of that infrastructure. Build it and maintain it properly, and these criticisms will lose their force.
Massive blizzards will still roll through each winter, and they will still prevent people from cycling. But then, we also urge people to stay off the roads in cars, too-- and see grim reminders of what happens when people inevitably don't.
But in a multi-modal city, people have choice. For those days that are too snowy, or too cold for even the hardiest cyclists, there is always transit, or carshare, or walking, or simply driving. Cycling is just a part of the puzzle. If it were a year-round transportation option, it could help many people reduce or eliminate their car ownership burden. This way lies real reduction in traffic congestion, as well as big savings for families who now maintain one, two or more cars because they must plan for the coldest season-- but end up using them year-round.
GoalsThere's nothing special about our city that makes it impossible to be a bike-friendly place all twelve (or, perhaps, eleven and a half) months of the year.
To get us there, Kitchener and Waterloo should be filling in our trail network with a goal of establishing not only a contiguous, separated network for cycling (something that we still lack), but also committing to maintaining it through the winter.
As for me, this year I'll be carrying on through November as long as I can. This year I've got my sights on an arbitrary, but achievable, numeric goal: 2000km. For me, round numbers are good motivators. A little extra incentive to put on an extra layer, and keep pulling the bike out of the garage. The morning rides are becoming increasingly beautiful as the leaves turn, and that's an extra reward.
After that, I'll look at fighting another winter cycling obstacle: inertia. Yes, it's dark, yes, it's cold... but it's often neither snowy or icy. I haven't done a good job of taking advantage of these days when they come up because the bike is "put away". But if the trails and the expressway overpass are passable, this year I will try to get a few winter rides in as conditions allow.
Perhaps you can too.
|Image source: whatsgoinon|