The two key lessons learned by Northern European cities.
U.S. cities aren’t the easiest places to navigate by bike even on a perfect day, so it’s not a surprise that many cyclists send their wheels into hibernation come the snows and slick roads of winter. Mobility wonk Steve Raney of Joint Venture Silicon Valley keeps a running list of seasonal cycling drop-off in various metros, based on local bike counters. The mode shares, already low by global standards, suffer considerable shrinkage in the cold:
Nature takes its toll on a will to ride (or to generally leave home) everywhere. But there are parts of the planet that still maintain respectable bike shares even in the dead of winter. Here’s a few choice examples from the chilly borders of Scandinavia and Northern Europe, again via Raney:
These data are far from perfect, often relying on single counts or reports, but if the precise figures vary the larger point rings true. So what’s the key to success in places like Umea, Sweden, which preserves a 24 percent bike commute share even as it endures 130 snow days a year, or the great cycling capital Copenhagen, which sees just a slight mode-share decline in winter?
Timo Perälä, organizer of the Winter Cycling Congress and a keen student of seasonal cycling trends, tells CityLab that contrary to popular belief, it’s not the cold that has the biggest impact on riding decisions. Take Perälä’s own Oulu, Finland, which endures more than 100 days of snowfall a year. During winter, cycling levels are relatively steady even as temperatures range from 0 degrees Celsius to 20-below (that’s 32 to -4 Fahrenheit). It’s only past this arguably insane point that a cold-induced decline of 15 percent sets in.
Instead, the main factors he’s found to influence winter cycling rates are the strength of a city’s bike network (ideally made up of protected bike lanes) and how well it maintains this network during the cold and snowy months (ideally as a top priority). “People who stop cycling as the winter comes mention two obstacles—no safe infrastructure, no winter maintenance—as the most important ones,” he says via email. “Once there’s no proper cycling infrastructure nor winter maintenance, cycling through the year becomes an extreme sport.”
Perälä touts the practices of Linköping, Sweden, as a great success story. The city not only boasts more than 60 miles of prioritized bike routes, but provides them with year-round maintenance; they get plowed if there’s one centimeter of snow on the route, he says. That’s a critical threshold, he says, because even three centimeters of snow cover can discourage people from riding.
Then there’s Copenhagen. Though Perälä isn’t terribly impressed with the city’s “really sissy winters,” he admires how well it treats cyclists during the cold season. Copenhagen salts bike lanes before it snows then makes clearing them afterward a priority—even ahead of clearing the general roadways for car traffic.
Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize, back in 2010, posted two maps to show how Copenhagen cares for its bike network come winter. The one on the left shows all the cycle tracks in the city, and the one on the right shows the cycle tracks that get priority for winter maintenance—they’re identical. “During snowstorms I've seen these bike lane sweepers roll back and forth past my flat six times before any snowploughs cleared the street,” Colville-Andersen wrote at the time.
Snow Removal on Copenhagen's Bike Lanes from Copenhagenize on Vimeo.
In Oulu, the snow accumulation is often so great that it’s not really possible to clear it. In these cases, Perälä has said, the city will sometimes simply pack it down and layer it with gravel to give riders extra traction. Although a third of Oulu riders use studded tires in the winter, he’s found that the packing-gravel combination is good enough for bikes with regular tires, too.
The U.S. lags behind, but some of its most progressive bike cities might be catching up. As of this morning, two days after a historic snowfall in New York, plows had obviously tried to clear this protected bike lane on Broadway, near CityLab’s New York office. (Street clearance has made life much worse for pedestrians, but that’s another story.) The slushy effort probably isn’t up to Scandinavian standards, but it’s perhaps a sign that lessons from that region are being learned.
“If you build it,” says Perälä, “build it for year-round use.”