Atlantic Cities

Building a Bike Culture in a City That Gets 88 Inches of Snow a Year

Building a Bike Culture in a City That Gets 88 Inches of Snow a Year
Reuters

A lot of people like to complain about how the weather keeps them from biking. Until just a few years ago, a lot of New Yorkers insisted that the city was too cold for commuting by bike in the winter months. (And, of course, in the summer, it was too hot.)

These days, the city's bike season runs all year long. I used to be nervous about riding across the Manhattan Bridge on a cold winter's night because the span was so lonely that I feared getting jumped. Now, a steady line of blinking taillights marks the way across the river.

Lots of cities with colder climates than New York's offer steady year-round cycling – most notably, of course, Copenhagen. But in North America's snowiest cities, getting wintertime cycling to take hold is a work in progress.

One of the cities working the hardest is the Canadian capital of Ottawa. There, the city has been building and planning bike infrastructure at a steady clip. The new nonprofit Ottawa Bicycle Lanes Project is part of a robust grassroots effort to promote cycling as a reasonable way to get around.

Michael Napiorkowski, an Ottawa native, founded Ottawa Bicycle Lanes Project in August with his wife, Maayke Schurer, originally from the Netherlands. The two are using their backgrounds in filmmaking and social media to promote biking as transportation in the city, which gets an average of 88 inches of snowfall each year. "Creating a positive message around cycling, is a really important component to not only getting people onto bicycles but also in promoting infrastructure," says Napiorkowski.

So the Ottawa Bicycle Lanes Project has produced a few nifty videos to illustrate the potential benefits of cycling, including one in which a city's streets are compared to the human circulatory system. Car congestion can cause the equivalent of a heart attack.

Another, posted a few days after the city's first major snowfall, shows that it's possible to keep pedaling through challenging weather conditions. That's something understood in Northern European countries like Denmark, where plowing bike lanes is an accepted municipal responsibility. But it remains unthinkable to many residents of North America.

For now, it's mostly the truly dedicated cyclists who ride after the temperature starts to drop and the snow falls. But Eric Goodwin, who commutes in Ottawa year-round, sees the beginnings of a shift. "Winter cycling still feels a little bit fringe," Goodwin says. "But if current numbers hold, we're going to see a doubling over last year."

Plowing bike lanes is not routine yet in Ottawa, except in certain spots. One of these is the protected cycle lane on Laurier Avenue, a pilot project that will be turned into a permanent raised cycle track in the next couple of years. That lane is an example of just how successful well-designed and well-maintained bike infrastructure can be, logging 940,000 riders in its first two and a half years. It even has its own Twitter account, maintained by a local independent bike advocate who writes in "the voice of the lane."

But the city has put off funding plowing of most other bike routes until next year.  Goodwin says that's a disappointment. "We’ve got one more year," he says, a hint of resignation in his voice. "It's not so bad. We get by."

Now car-free for more than three years, and 50 pounds lighter than he was when he moved back to Ottawa from the suburbs, Napiorkowski says he's in this for the long haul. "If you want people to start moving a little more on bicycle," he says, "you need to make it convenient and easy for them."

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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