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How to Encourage Bicycling Through the Winter

How to Encourage Bicycling Through the Winter
Shared Lime bicycles waiting for riders, Metuchen, New Jersey.

Shared Lime bicycles waiting for riders, Metuchen, New Jersey.

Over the last decade, cycling has experienced significant growth across the US as more people realize its convenience and affordability, and more governments understand the critical role of bicycling in mitigating road congestion and climate change. Moreover, the current COVID-19 pandemic and imposed lifestyle changes have caused a cycling boom. According to The Union Cycliste Internationale, “Sales – particularly of low-cost bikes, e-bikes and kids’ models – should approach all-time annual highs, with figures for May (from suppliers to retailers in US dollars) more than double those of May 2019. Riding participation may break all records, increasing by 20 percent or more” [1]. Thus, 2020 has turned out to be a big win for bicycling by helping to shift population transportation preferences towards more sustainable alternatives. To maintain this momentum, local authorities must accelerate the implementation of their sustainable transportation strategies and provide thorough planning and financing to improve and expand their bike infrastructure. However, many times these strategies and initiatives are limited to warm seasons and do not extend to winter. The approaching cold season can soon affect the current positive trend of bike use as cycling rates in many North American cities usually significantly decline in winter months.

Bicycling is a critical transportation link for many people, regardless of the weather.

Bicycling is a critical transportation link for many people, regardless of the weather.

Winter season in New Jersey is from December to February when the weather is cold, and the skies are gloomy. Sometimes, snowfall is heavy, and occasional blizzards make the conditions challenging. Planning bicycle infrastructure must account for the local weather and factor in all these seasonal variations as the all-season efficiency of bike infrastructure can have a huge effect on how people bicycle during the winter. As some studies suggest, a certain portion of the population adapts to cold weather conditions and continues cycling during the winter. While the percentage of the population using bikes in winter may depend on the region, weather, culture, and habits of the local population, the data from other states and countries may still be a good proxy of people’s attitude towards winter biking. Major finding from studies in Sweden, Montreal, Minneapolis, and Calgary shows that an estimated one-quarter or 20 to 25% of the existing cycling population continues to cycle in winter [2]. This article aims to investigate ways of improving the winter cycling experience and increasing the winter cycling population by addressing specific bike infrastructure issues during the winter and providing recommendations on winter biking to bicyclists.

Like any travel lane, bicycle lanes should be cleared in the winter. Photo Source: Washington DC DOT

Like any travel lane, bicycle lanes should be cleared in the winter. Photo Source: Washington DC DOT

In Calgary, Canada, a survey was conducted among cyclists on a newly implemented bike lane under close-to-freezing temperatures. About 61% of the cyclists selected icy conditions of the bike lane as their major safety concern during the winter. When asked about the most concerning deficiency in the bike lane, about 24.8% specified their concern to be snow and gravel removal, 20.4% of the cyclists identified the road surface condition (e.g. cracked and rutting pavement), about 16.5% identified lack of signs in the bike lane. In terms of weather comfort, 38% of the participants said that cold weather did not influence their decision to cycle [3]. Another Swedish study finds that by improving winter maintenance service levels on cycleways, it might be possible to increase the number of bicycle trips during winter by 18%, representing a corresponding decrease in the number of car trips of 6% [4].

The numerous research and survey results suggest the following key elements of making winter cycling a more popular transportation option:
1.    Well planned bike infrastructure.
2.    Due maintenance of bike lanes.
3.    Informing the population about the available possibilities of using their bikes throughout winter and basic tips for cycling in the winter.

Identifying a place to store snow is an important consideration. This bicyclist is waiting on the street because the bus stop is covered with snow.

Identifying a place to store snow is an important consideration. This bicyclist is waiting on the street because the bus stop is covered with snow.

A comprehensive winter cycling strategy starts with building infrastructure. Bicycle infrastructure designed to favor winter cycling should meet additional requirements aimed to mitigate the negative effects of the adverse weather conditions during the winter. Well-designed infrastructure can make maintenance easier and reduce operating expenses. Some recommendations for designing bike infrastructure in areas with a high possibility of snowfalls include:

  • Consider how infrastructure such as bollards, narrow curves, and high curbs can prevent plowing.
  • Provide enough width for specialized snow removal vehicles that are used to remove snow.
  • Provide designated space for snow storage.
  • Provide off-street or parallel facilities. Where off-street facilities or bicycle boulevards are provided parallel to major routes, the clearing of bikeways on the main route may be unnecessary so long as these alternate snow routes are clearly marked, well-maintained.
  • Use recessed thermoplastic pavement markings. Milling the area of pavement three millimeters deep where thermoplastic pavement markings are applied has shown to be effective in reducing damage as a result of snowplows.
  • Supplement pavement markings with street-level signage where pavement markings, such as bike lane demarcation, bike boxes, or contra-flow bike lanes become invisible under the snow.

Targeted surveys of winter cyclists show that predictable road surface conditions are the key factor for winter cycling. A lack of road surface maintenance is the primary deterrent to cycling, not temperature or weather. According to some estimates, improved surface maintenance could lead to an additional 12% to 24% biking mode share retention.The following recommendations should provide main principles of keeping bike lanes operating throughout the winter and minimizing disruptions due to weather conditions:

  • Bicycle infrastructure should be intact. Potholes and faults in the road surface should be repaired before winter sets in.
  • The clearance of cycling lanes is a very important aspect. Prioritize the cycle path network in the clearance schedule.
    • Cycling lanes are best cleared by sweeping or brushing, not by salting. Due to their low weight, cyclists do not crush road salt granules and do not activate salt to dissipate residual snow left by plows. Therefore, cycling lanes require a different treatment for clearance than streets.
  • Create a priority bicycle network in winter with a high level of surface maintenance and make information about the winter route map available on the city website.

Well-designed bicycle facilities with proper maintenance is only a part of a good winter bicycling experience. No amount of infrastructure maintenance can keep a bicyclist warm and dry. Proper clothing and equipment are critical for cycling in winter. There are many tips for improving the winter biking experience that every winter cyclist should be aware of. These tips could be published on the city website along with winter route map information. Some of the tips are:

    • Dress properly. Wear layers to keep your torso warm, including a lightweight, breathable outer jacket that is both water and wind resistant. It also helps to use fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin. This will help keep you drier and warmer. Lots of body heat escapes through the head, so using a balaclava under the helmet will help keep warm.
    • Start your ride feeling warm, perhaps even a bit too warm. Have a hot drink in a warm room just before you step outside. This will allow you to warm-up on the bike more comfortably. [7]
    • Keep your extremities warm. Hands and feet typically get cold first, as the body focuses on keeping the core warm. Wear either long-fingered gloves or mittens to protect your hands, and thermal socks to keep your feet warm.
    • Have a double-insulated coffee mug or flask that will keep your liquids hot—and in turn, keep you warm—even in freezing conditions.
    • Wash your bike after every ride. Riding in the slush and snow will expose your bike’s parts to a lot of salty, dirty water, which can cause corrosion and damage over time. Be sure to wash your bike as soon as you finish each ride. [8]
    • Be visible. In many locales, drivers do not expect to see cyclists on the road during winter months. Wear brightly colored clothing, and use reflectors and lights, even if you won’t be riding after dark. [7]

Finally, it might be helpful to think of some of the personal benefits that come from winter bicycling:

  • Cycling in the cold helps burn more calories. When the temperatures fall, the metabolism rises to keep the body warm, leading to a greater calorie burn.
  • Cycling is a good way to combat seasonal mood disorders because the exercise releases natural antidepressants in the brain.Getting out and about can help to reduce isolation, and support fitness and wellness goals.

[3] Amiri M, Sadeghpour F. Cycling characteristics in cities with cold weather. Sustainable Cities and Society 2013
[4] Bergström A, Magnusson R. Potential of transferring car trips to bicycle during winter. Transportation Research Part A 2003;37:649–66.