Winter Cycling

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Want to increase winter cycling in your city?  Then a winter cycling program must be actively undertaken.  Such a program has a number of components, including the cycling infrastructure (including the roadway, road lighting, winter road maintenance), End of trip facilities (including bike parking, clothes storage, change facilities, clothes drying), efficient trip time from home to bike parking and to the office, and a social marketing component.  The social marketing program should focus on selling the concept of winter cycling for commuting, for shopping, getting to transit stops with high service levels, and for other trip purposes.  The program should also focus on providing knowledge needed by potential cyclists including, among others, winter cycling skills, weather effect on cyclists, clothing, bicycle equipment and its maintenance.   Education and encouragement on winter cycling is also part of social marketing.

Calgary AB, Winter Cyclist Downtown©Photograph by H-JEH Becker, 2012

Calgary AB, Winter Cyclist Downtown
©Photograph by H-JEH Becker, 2012

Why am I so ambivalent about venturing into winter cycling?  Why not get out there in the cold of winter and do it?  Can this laggard get his act together and become a winter cyclists?

In February 2013, the City of Oulu, Finland is holding a Winter Cycling Congress.  For the Vancouver’s Velo-city Global 2012 Conference back in June, I had worked on featuring winter cycling as one of the tracks for the conference.  A number of speakers from various global cities spoke on the subject, usually focusing on approaches cities were taking for keeping the infrastructure cycleable?

The First Taste of Winter Cycling

My own experience with winter cycling started back when I was a teen and had a newspaper route, the Telegram.  The route was about a kilometer or so along the eastern shore of Lake Wilcox in Ontario.  I used my bicycle with a large carrier on the handle bar, large enough to lay the daily pile of newspaper flat in.  From ice breakup in the spring until the snow got too deep to handle the bicycle, I would cycle and make the deliveries.  Then it was time to walk as the temperature dropped to -20. -30, and even -40 degree Celsius.  When I switched from delivering newspapers to working in a grocery store, my venture into winter cycling came to an end.

Calgary AB

During the mid 1980’s, I often talking with another company employee located in Calgary.  A dedicated cyclist he was.  During the winter, he would tell me of his cycling trip to work on his bicycle, no mater the temperature.  In the fall, screws would be put into the tires from the inside making effective tire studs.  Apparently, a cyclist had devised a plough that would be pulled by a cyclist to clear the bike path along the river.  The first cyclist in the morning arriving at a designated spot would hitch the plough on back of the bicycle.  The cyclist would then clear the path of snow to downtown.  The first cyclist in the evening would take the plough back.  Eventually, the City of Calgary took over from these diehards and started to clear the bike paths of snow and ice.

Toronto ON

My next encounter with winter cycling was in my last 10 years living in downtown Toronto.  I had decided to abandon car ownership for renting cars when I really need one.  With a fantastic transit system (commuter trains, subways, trams, streetcars, and buses) and cycling in the non-snow months, there was only the need for a car occasionally, usually when I went out of town.

Sometimes I would cycle when the temperature was around the freezing mark and the roads were clear of snow and ice.  One time in March of a year, I was going to the Toronto International Bike Show, just about 3 kilometres from home along the waterfront and the adjacent bike path.  It was cold, about minus 8 degrees, windy, and damp.  There was about 10 centimetres of snow on the path with some underlying ice.  By transit, the trip would have taken about an hour.  The direct tramline that exists now was not in place then.

It was cold.  As I was cycling there, I was constantly unnerved with the thought of slipping on ice and the snow.  It was an experiment replaced quickly by transit and walking the next day.


In 1999, I moved to downtown Calgary for two years, a block from the Bow River bike path system.  During winter mornings, at about 7:00 am, I would see a tractor with a snow blade out on the path clearing it for the morning commuters.  Following it was another tractor with a sweeper mounted on the front leaving the pathway as clean as it would be in summer.

For the two years I was there I would go out during the winter and cycle when the temperature was above freezing and the path was clear of snow and ice.  Those two years were abnormally warm. One mid-January, the temperature was 9 degree Celsius.  Nose Hill was brown and topped with smog.  No snow in sight.  When the temperature worked down to the minus 30-degree range I would watch the dedicated winter cyclists as I waked to work.

Vancouver BC

Vancouver BC, Winter Storm cannot keep Cyclist and Dog off the Bicycle
Courtesy of the Vancouver Sun and the PNG Photographer

Vancouver BC, Winter Storm cannot keep Cyclist and Dog off the Bicycle
Courtesy of the Vancouver Sun and the PNG Photographer

Winter cycling was something I do in Vancouver.  Living in the downtown peninsula by the water and by bike paths, bike lanes, and neighbourhood cycling streets, it rarely got that cold to not cycle and not for many days.  Usually, the area that I live in is sheltered from the cold, snow, and ice except for maybe a few days to a couple of weeks.  When the ice and snow moves towards my normal daily cycling routes, then I pull back how far into the suburbs that I cycle.  Normally, I try to do 40 kilometres a day.

With the oncoming of separated bike lanes a couple of years ago, the City heard our desire that cycling facilities should be kept clear of ice and snow.  So, they got interested in it and contacted other cities, which have winter clearing experience, such as Calgary and Montreal.  Now, early morning, they are out there laying salt on city paths and clearing snow for the occasional days when that is needed.


Back in Calgary

Now splitting my time between Vancouver and Calgary, I am back here part of the year.  Some of it is during the winter months.  So, time to stop being a wuss.  Now, how does one get into it?  Hardy as the Calgarians, I am not with my Vancouver thin blood.  Freezing temperature accompanied with dampness results in cold cycling feet and fingers.  I admire my partner.  She has been out there when the temperature drops to – 20 degrees C.  How to get into it?

One can watch the hardy winter commuters with their faces covered by ski masks and shawls wound around to minimize the amount of their exposed skin.   One can admire the cyclists who wear shorts as soon as the temperature approaches freezing.

The first step to winter cycling was last year when I had stud tires installed on the bicycle providing increased control when cycling over ice.  The next step was to try to figure out what clothing to wear as the temperature drops and the winds howl.  Last year unfortunately was not a good year for true winter cycling.  Fortunately for me, it was a very warm winter with little snow.  So I never did really get into not being a wimp.

This year, it is closer to being normal.  As soon as I arrived a few days ago, the priority was to install the stud tires.  Equipment knowledge for winter cycling is important to know.  I have no idea how long studded tires last, one year, two years?  So, gingerly I cycled a couple of days ago trying to figure out how well the bicycle handled on ice.  Next came the clothing.  Today, I ventured out at minus 11 degree Celsius weather with a wind factor of minus 17.  First, I realized that I needed to wear liners in my cycling gloves.  The layering of clothing seemed to work.  Now what happens when the -15, -20, -25 and colder weather sets in?

Calgary – snow cleared paths

The City of Calgary now maintains kilometres of bike trails with an annual $400,000 budget for keeping the infrastructure cycleable.  There is constant demand for increasing the number of kilometres of bike trails, paths, and lanes being maintained.  There is demand and the city is trying to meet it.


So, What does it take to increase winter cycling?

Well, will and determination to do it is quite important.

Calgary washrooms

A cycling infrastructure needs to be there that is conducive to cycling in winter along with snow and ice clearing for bike trails, bike paths, bike lanes, and neighbourhood cycling streets, maybe even some heated toilets.   As a lot of the winter commuting is done during hours of darkness, cyclists do not want the unexpected – black ice in intersections, build-up of water and ice at the side of roads, being forced by cars towards the curb with ice and snow build-up, and so on.  Adequate street lighting for commuting in the dark is a condition so that the challenges of the road can be seen in advance and in time for corrective action.

End of trip facilities for winter cycling makes the trips more doable.  A very secure place to park a bike save from the threat of theft or damage; save from the elements of weather; a place to store sodden cycling clothes away from the cleanliness of work places; a place to dry them; a place to store work clothes; a place to clean up and slip into work clothes; an efficient time from parking the bicycle to walking into the office ready for work all contribute to overcoming the natural momentum towards taking a car instead of cycling in winter.

Social marketing has an important role in bringing the idea of winter cycling to those who occasionally cycle or could be persuaded to cycle instead of driving.  A marketing program on the concept of winter cycling in the fall and winter is an ongoing need.  There is lot of information to pass on for dressing for the winter and for preparing a bicycle for the ravages of winter weather.  Then there is the process of upgrading hesitant cyclists’ skills for handling bicycles on conditions of winter road.


So, why should people cycle in the winter?  What is in it for the city?

More people cycling, the less the number driving or taking transit during the peak demand period.  There is peak demand for vehicles and drivers.   Trip time is lengthened due to weather conditions.  With more winter cycling, the cost of operating transit vehicles at peak period cost levels will be reduced.  With winter conditions, the cost of policing, fire unit response, emergency services, and insurance payout increase as car collisions, personal injuries, and mishaps increase.

So, will I wimp out is winter?

Cycling to the Calgary Farmers Market

This morning it was minus 11 degrees Celsius, with wind-chill at minus 15 degrees as I was preparing for my outdoor venture to the Calgary Farmers Market, an 18 kilometres trip.  A block from home I accessed the Bow River Bike Trail that would take me within 2 kilometres from my destination.  From there, bike paths along three streets would lead me right to the door, or almost.

The City of Calgary does have an extensive bike trails and bike paths network along its rivers leading to big box-type of shopping areas in the suburbs.  So, an 18-kilometer shopping trip is quite feasible.  When the conditions are too much, one can always bail out and take the C-Train partially back.  While an extensive bike trail network exists, the network design and the cycling infrastructure design toolkits need an extensive update for attracting significant growth in cycling and in appealing to a broader range of drivers, as potential cyclists.

Along the way, geese were enjoying themselves on the ice along the riverbanks and on ice float.  Around one bend, I came upon a coyote, not too far away.  The coyote was just crossing the path in front of me.  He moved quickly across into the woods.  Unfortunately, the coyote was camera shy.  Guess he was checking out his supply of geese for the Christmas meal.  He looked like the coyote that I saw on another section of this bike trail three days ago.

Further along the way, a hill was to be climbed from the riverbank to a plateau overlooking the river, industrial and commercial lands, with the Rockies as background.  The hill requires energy to get to the top in summertime, more in cold winter air.  From the vista, one can see the next hill that needs to climbed, longer and just as steep.

So, will I wimp out is winter?  Well, come back mid-February when I will have the answer.


For Inspiration:

Image from Oulu

Winter cycling – City of Oulu, Finland

 from ELTIS, the UrbanMobility Portal

Oulu Finland, Winter Cycling, 12% Mode Share
©Photograph courtesy of

The City of Oulu is a well-known cycling city within Finland. The residents of Oulu don’t leave their bikes at home even when the weather conditions get more challenging. The modal share of cycling is 12 per cent in winter, a figure that many cities don’t reach even during summer time.

Cycling is seen as normal in Oulu. The active cycling culture is fostered by the excellent condition of the cycle network, well-organized maintenance of the roads during winter and long-term systematic development work.

The City of Oulu is well known for its high share of winter cyclists, despite the extremely cold and snowy winter conditions: the Oulu region has an average temperature of -9 degrees Celsius in February and about 160 – 175 days with snow cover each year. The thermal winter period lasts from early November to mid April. Of all the trips made in Oulu, about 12% are made by bike even during the coldest winter months. During summer months the share is 23%.


Oulu (65°01 N, 25°48 E), the capital of Northern Scandinavia, is located 200 km below the Arctic Circle. Oulu is the sixth largest city of Finland with 141 000 inhabitants.