Yes, commuting by bike in the winter can be annoying, but it’s an absolutely vital step towards fostering a progressive cycling culture and creating a more sustainable society.
Why bike when it’s cold? The wind bites against your face, your hands can become so cold that moving them becomes difficult, and your bike can get gunked up with black slush. More personal benefits like saving money or keeping physically active are obvious answers, but there’s an issue of more fundamental importance here.
If cycling is going to be a viable, more sustainable alternative to traditional modes of transportation like cars or public transit, it must be able to transition to a year-round model. Cycling is just a means, ecological sustainability is the end.
Winter cycling’s not a huge thing in the US. While some avid cyclists may continue to go for leisure rides, scant few bike to work year-round—particularly in colder climates. In Chicago 1.4% of people bike to work, but 80% of those cyclists don’t bike during the winter. This means that only 0.3% of Chicagoans use a bike for transportation all year. Scant few, indeed.
Portland’s a city whose efforts towards promoting cycling are frequently heralded by the media. It’s fair. In a lot of ways their outlook on cycling is extremely progressive. But does that mean people bike in the winter? Kinda. Of the 6.1% who commute by bike, there’s a 43% drop in the winter. That’s less than half, but still a lot. And we should keep in mind that this is a city where the winters are comparatively mild. Another top-rated bike city is Minneapolis, where around 4% of residents bike to school or work. During their brutal winters, though, they lose two-thirds of these bikers.
For comparison’s sake, I should add that all of these cities are well above the well above the national average of 0.6% commuters biking to work. In Urbana, a Gold-level Bicycle Friendly City, 5.8% of residents bike to work. (I cannot find stats on the winter share, so if anyone has that, let me know!)
Suffice it to say, winter biking has not yet taken the US by storm. So what can we expect? Where are things going better? Why are they going better?
Enter Europe. In comparison to the US, it’s clear that in many European countries, the transition towards year-round cycling has been smoother. And we’re not just talking about the Amalfi coast. Scandinavia, whose climate is colder than much of the US, is a haven for cycling in both cold and warm weather.
In Copenhagen, for example, over one-third of residents commute by bike. And they only lose 20% of those cyclists to cars and public transportation in winter months.
Lund, Sweden is the shining example of cold-weather cycling working. Not only does 50% of the population commute by bike, 0% of those cyclists stop biking when it gets cold. Though it’s one of the warmer cities in Scandinavia, its average lows tend to be only ten degrees lower than what we deal with in C-U. And, I should add, in the winter they only get around 7 hours of sunlight a day.
So what are we doing wrong and what are they doing right?
When looking at winter cycling differences between Europe and the US, I think we can break it down to issues of culture and infrastructure. There is, of course, a strong relationship between the two, with one supporting and reinforcing the other.
In terms of culture, Scandinavians place a high degree of importance on both the outdoors and physical activity. Biking to school or work, then, is an easy way to integrate this into their daily life. That’s not to say that American don’t have it in them to become big-time winter cyclists. The recent trend towards cycling and active living is heartening and a sign of change. C-U, particular, is positioned much better than most of the US, with over 20% of Urbana’s residents walking or biking to school or work.
Beyond this, Europe already views the bike as a transportation method, not just a tool for exercise and fun, the mindset that predominates in the US. Recently, though, there’s definitely been growth in the number of Americans who the understand that bikes are a viable alternative to other modes of transportation. The more we show that bikes are something that are an alternative to cars and not something that can sometimes be an alternative to cars, the more rapidly we’ll see a shift towards this understanding. It’s all about nudging the culture in the right way to provoke the sort of snowball effect where cultural, legal, and physical changes continually reinforce and build on one another.
This can certainly be done. In recent decades, the UK has not kept up with cycling as other European countries have; however, there’s been significant growth recently, with the number of cyclists in central London tripling. This tripling led to the number of cars on the roads being cut in half. That means half the pollution.
This is why cycling is important.
In terms of infrastructure, the Scandinavian cities I mentioned take bikes seriously. Not only do they have bike lanes and paths, they actually take care of clearing them in winter months, unlike many American cities. Bike paths are salted before the snow falls and start being cleared very quickly. In Copenhagen, there’s an emphasis not just plowing a path, but actually clearing it, with plows sometimes going back and forth six times until the road is free of snow and ice. This is in contrast to the US, where some major cities can’t even bother to clear sidewalks for pedestrians.
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Despite the relative low numbers of cyclist-commuters in the US, the trend is undeniably towards more biking and more winter biking. While walking to work has decreased by more than 50% since 1980, the percentage of people who bike to work has grown, albeit only slightly. And a few weeks ago the Winter Cycling Congress was held for the first time in the US.
In short, Europe’s got a big head start on us, but we seem to finally have some momentum going.
If we’re serious about bikes replacing cars on our roads, we need to show that bikes are an always form of transportation and not just a when-it’s-nice-out form of transportation. If this doesn’t happen, bikes will never be a true alternative to other, less sustainable modes of transportation.
In some ways, biking in the winter will always be more of a pain than biking during warmer months. You have to wear more gear, you have to spend more time on bike maintenance, and you have to be a little more careful on the road. That said, if you have the right equipment and knowledge, you’ll soon realize that it’s less of a pain than you imagined. You might even find yourself addicted!
Now it’s your turn. How do we bring more cold-weather cycling to C-U? What are the challenges we face in terms of infrastructure and education? Would you even consider biking in February?
Join the discussion!
Note: If you’re interested in getting into cold-weather cycling, the internet is full of information on gear and techniques that ensure your sub-zero riding experience will be a safe and warm one. We’ve written a guide that focuses on the gear you’ll need for cold-weather cycling. And here is a good overview of some safety issues to keep in mind when riding in the winter months.