By Christopher Lee
January has arrived, and this year we have seen record-low cold weather, blizzard-strength winds, and plenty of ice and snow. Naturally, this procession of frightful weather ushers in the annual parade of blog articles reminding us how to bundle up for cold-weather cycling – especially relevant as reports note an increased interest in winter cycling. (Check out our own posts from 2016 and 2014). However, despite an increasing willingness among the nation’s cities to sacrifice parking and add bike lanes to streets, our “complete streets” are still far from complete and that is never more evident than at this time of year. While cycling is still primarily a recreational activity, for those that bike as a practical means of daily transportation, either by choice or necessity, the need for safe, and separated bike lanes does not end with the first flakes of snow. But where determination and demand are easily powerful enough to draw people out onto the streets year-round, an un-plowed or un-passable bike lane can halt that momentum as quickly as it started.
The problem is one of thresholds. In order to be broadly and consistently viable, any transport network requires both a minimum degree of completeness, and reliability. The minimum initial investments can be significant, especially in places where there exists no proof of concept. Adding bicycle lanes and complete-streets-policies as part of a regular planning paradigm has been an uphill battle for this very reason. And yet we’ve made slow progress with all sorts of cities from Chicago and New York to Missoula and Madison adding bicycle lanes and related infrastructure. Even Alaska, with a surprisingly high non-motorized mode share, has adopted a complete streets policy. Yet while network completeness has improved, reliability is another issue, and one that signals a challenge at the municipal level in the way that cities and town prioritize maintenance and enforcement.
In some cases, a winter maintenance failure is a result of a lack of information. Cities that are used to planning for car dominance may not realize the degree to which cycling is another animal entirely. Alta Planning’s self-published guide to Winter Bike Lane Maintenance suggests that “less weight and tired surface area means they [bicycles] are more sensitive to snow and ice” than cars. Once cleared, the repeated action and friction of cars driving over roadways will help to keep lanes clear as snow continues to fall, but this is not the case with even the most well-traveled cycle way. A well-researched blog post by Jakob Baum out of Germany breaks down the science further articulating how “cycle paths are usually 1-2 C colder than the rest of the road, leading to earlier and longer critical below-freezing-point-conditions for cyclists”. This has implications for the prioritization schemes for municipal plowing, suggesting that earlier plowing of bike lanes, ahead of vehicle lanes, may be required to prevent freezing and packed-snow.
The bicycles themselves also react differently than cars to the various snow countermeasure. Both bicycle components and operators (people) are exposed directly to the elements, and therefore salting can have a corrosive impact. The Alta Guide outlines a number of different materials that municipal street maintenance agencies can look at when choosing a de-icing strategy. Salt and sand are popular but may be ineffective at low temperatures and may damage bicycling equipment. Wetted sand, however, will not specifically corrode bike components and has the advantage of requiring less material overall for the same level of melting. Heated-paths require a significant up-front investment (up to $90,000 per mile in Amsterdam) but save on plowing costs and logistics. In any case, choosing a “reactive” rather than a “proactive” approach to de-icing requires a higher priority for bike lanes and a more immediate response given the greater sensitivity of the infrastructure to snow and ice.
Of course, the lingering problem is still plowing. Depending on the design of bike infrastructure, even a town that has devoted itself to maintaining its non-motorized infrastructure all-year-long may not be prepared for the unique challenges of plowing bike lanes. As safety becomes an ever-more important issue there is a greater push to separate cycle ways from traffic lanes completely. In places where this means concrete barriers and grade separations, city plowing equipment may no longer fit in the right of way. Where it does fit, the infrastructure may lack the necessary resilience with repeated plowing destroying markers and other design elements after a single heavy snow. Furthermore, while bicycle- and pedestrian-specific plow equipment is widely available, this may constitute an unexpected additional cost for municipalities new to these maintenance regimes.
Cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh, meanwhile, have discovered that once the laudable commitment to bike/ped infrastructure construction and maintenance has been made, they may face a new challenge and constituency: disgruntled citizen cyclists. As people come to rely on this infrastructure for more than just recreational use, small oversights in maintenance routines can cause headaches and undermine safety. Even after a plow has cleared the cycle way, it is not uncommon for street plows re-clearing a vehicle lane to push snow right back into the bike lane, which is then never cleared again. Particularly in northern cities that see large quantities of annual snowfall that does not melt between storms, the issue of snow storage is one that affects cycling infrastructure directly. According to the Alta Guide, cities planning bicycle lanes should make sure that there exists ample room in the road right-of-way to account for snow storage. This is important in cases where the bicycle lane is located inside of the parking lane and snow piles force cars ever-further into the biking right-of-way, eventually forcing cyclists back out into the streets. Where the bike lane is outside of the parking lane, a buffer can act as both snow storage in winter, and as protection for bicyclists against getting “doored”. Alta also suggests restricting on-street parking during large snow events. If plow drivers are well-informed and lane-prioritization properly managed, bike lanes can still be compromised by residents and business owners who, in the interest of clearing the sidewalk (which many are required to do by law), shovel snow directly into the right-of-way. In Chicago, for example, this is forbidden by local ordinance, but is not strictly enforced. In this case, a municipality can either choose to enforce local ordinance or educate/cooperate with business/property owners, but doing neither undermines its own infrastructure investments.
More fundamental than these logistical questions, however, is overcoming the resistance or doubt in the demand for the infrastructure in the first place. There is little doubt in the growing popularity of recreational winter cycling as equipment like metal tire studs, “fatbikes”, and performance clothing turn snow into an benefit rather than a burden, but as a commuting paradigm, the US has few examples of consistent, year-round, significant mode share. Overseas the winter cyclist is less of a rare, and tenacious animal, and more of an assumed component of the commute structure. Oulu, Finland, a town of nearly 200,000 people, stands out not just because it has a significant and consistent bicycling mode share (>20%), but because it achieves this within 100 miles of the arctic circle. Oulu has shown a commitment to bicycling since its first cycling master plan in 1969 by ensuring that 15% of its network of cycle ways are “maintained 24 hours per day”. By ensuring reliability of infrastructure, cycling is treated at parity with other modes of transportation, and Oulu citizens don’t think of cycling as a modal anomaly. To demonstrate the difference municipal attitude and policy can play in encouraging (or discouraging) bicycling, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba has a similar climate profile, but 1/10th of the mode share.
In the end, the barriers to winter cycling are more municipal than climate- or equipment-based. Indeed, according to one blogger out of Copenhagen, overzealous bike advocates with expensive gear recommendations are not helping to convince the common man to ditch his/her car for a commute by bicycle. As Anders Swanson of the Guardian points out, “Oulu residents haven’t embraced studded tires… [and] helmets are decidedly option”. And yet, for governments and riders alike, proper maintenance is a circular question; if you don’t plow the bike lanes people won’t use them because there is no long-term signal of civic commitment to the infrastructure, and if people don’t use the bike lanes and speak up for their maintenance by voting and reminding their representatives, then governments will continue to relegate them to the rear of the priority line, or simply won’t invest in complete streets to begin with. It is important that citizens, planners, and representatives understand the challenges, make informed decisions, and are up-front about the costs and minimum requirements for sustainable investment. Commitment to these principals will ensure that momentum building behind winter cycling and complete streets is not lost.