As someone who likes winter, I am obviously hoping for an April snowstorm. At the same time, I will concede that the winter cycling season is starting to wind down. Bearing that in mind, I decided to write about some of my observations from this winter concerning how well different types of active transportation facilities work for making practical trips once the snow has arrived.
My family and I are not religiously committed to winter cycling, and there is no question that we use our car considerably more between December and March than between April and November. At the same time, with some planning, the right equipment and the right clothing we’ve found that there are a considerable number of trips that are still well within reason to make by bike in the winter. Walking remains a reasonable option much of the time for short trips, and sometimes even skiing or snowshoeing can be useful and fun ways to travel.
We do, for example, continue to make a number of local journeys where we live here in Chelsea, Quebec such as to local shops, to cross-country ski trailheads, to bus stops (where, conveniently we can load our bikes onto local Transcollines buses), and to our daughter Leena’s daycare. Another fairly common practice is to put our bikes on our car, drive to somewhere reasonably convenient in the city, and then take our bikes from there to get to work and other destinations.
Over the winter, I made a point of considering the conditions provided by different types of infrastructure and took some pictures. I also spoke with people directly involved with winter maintenance of these types of facilities. It became clear that no matter how hard the dedicated maintenance crews work (and they do work very hard in challenging conditions), if the infrastructure it not designed with winter in mind it often makes the provision of good conditions almost impossible.
Overall, the main conclusions from my admittedly small exercise are as follows:
- Physical separation from the roadway provides more comfort for AT
Whether you are walking or cycling, facilities that physically separate you from traffic (by virtue of a curb or other grade separation, a physical barrier, adequate space, or some combination) have a much higher probability of providing comfortable conditions once snow is a factor. Furthermore, physical separation often means that there is some room for snow to be stored between the roadway and the active transportation facility. This makes the job of snow removal easier for maintenance, and sometimes provides an additional buffer between pedestrians or cyclists and the roadway.
On Old Chelsea Road the wide permanently protected multi-use path provided very good conditions for cycling (front of our cargo bike visible here on a trip to daycare) and walking this winter. My daughter’s daycare group (2-3 year olds) at Maison Montessori de Chelsea regularly walked along here to go to the library.
On Scott Road in Chelsea, the combination of a wide and well-maintained permanently protected multi-use path with a concrete divider (left side of picture, mostly covered in snow) provided good conditions for either walking or cycling, virtually all the time.
On Kingsmere Road in Chelsea, a painted bike lane (protected by removable plastic delineators – often called bollards in the summer) begins to disappear as winter arrives.
Meech Lake Road between Kingsmere Road and Gatineau Park parking lot #8. Buried under this snow is a bike lane that is separated from the vehicle lane by a double white line.
- Putting cycling lanes and walking areas at the same level facilitates snow removal
Facilities that put cycling lanes and walking areas at the same grade as each other (while keeping both separate from traffic) are evidently easier for maintenance crews to clear and are therefore more likely to provide good conditions after a snowfall. Examples of these types of facilities are permanently protected multi-use paths (already described) and cycle tracks with adjacent sidewalks.
If pedestrian and cycling surfaces are at the same height, one pass with the right equipment does the job for both. Well-maintained multi-use recreational paths also work very well for the same reason. In my experience so far, well-maintained separated better conditions for either walking or cycling than any other kind of facility during the winter months. In addition to simplicity in maintenance, the overall greater width helps when snow inevitably narrows whatever corridor is available.
A cycle track with adjacent sidewalk on Laurier Avenue in Ottawa before snow has arrived.
The new cycle track with adjacent sidewalk on the brand new Main Street “Complete Street” in Ottawa provides good conditions after an early snowfall.
By contrast, this traditional bike lane next to a sidewalk on Old Chelsea Road disappeared for most of the winter. These are much harder to maintain, and in consequence, rarely are.
- Pedestrian-scale lighting makes winter active transportation more appealing
One additional challenge to winter active transportation beyond snow, ice, and cold weather is darkness. Where we live here in the Ottawa region, it gets dark between about 4 and 5:00 during the winter months, meaning that a large number of people who use active transportation for commuting will necessarily be out in the darkness. You can certainly light yourself up like a Christmas tree and simultaneously improve your own view with the wide variety of powerful lighting systems on the market today. At the same time, there is no question that active transportation is generally more appealing when the facilities are well-lit and provide a welcoming and safe-feeling environment.
A multi-use pathway in Hull, Quebec with pedestrian-scale lighting that makes for pleasant walking on a winter evening.
Personally, I am convinced that it makes sense to design active transportation infrastructure with winter in mind. Whether for walking or cycling, taking the time to think about how a given design will work when snow is a consideration and planning accordingly will provide better and safer conditions. This is better for the people who walk and bike already, and also in terms of attracting the considerable number of people who will inevitably walk and bike more if better conditions exist. Furthermore, facilities designed to work well in the winter (with their extra space and permanent physical separation) have clear advantages during the rest of the year as well.
Particularly during the winter months, I think drivers also prefer to have walkers and cyclists given their own separate space so that they don’t have to worry about things like whether or not it is safe to pass.
One final note, this time on winter cycling specifically. People will frequently state categorically that nobody bikes in the winter, and then suggest that investing in appropriate infrastructure isn’t worth it. I would argue that the fact that few people ride bikes in the winter is importantly the result of the generally poor winter riding conditions found in most North American jurisdictions, and not of winter cycling being inherently unappealing. Oulu, Finland, for example, has winter weather that Canadians would be proud of, with more days of snow cover than Winnipeg. It also has about 4 times as many cyclists out in the winter as Ottawa has in the summer. Not surprisingly, Oulu’s success can be considerably attributed to very good infrastructure and very high standards for winter maintenance. If you are interested, a good overview of winter cycling in Oulu from a Canadian perspective is provided here by Anders Swanson: