In years past, it was only the most hardcore cyclists who could be found riding the streets of Winnipeg in the winter.
That’s not entirely surprising considering Winnipeg is one of the coldest cities of its size in the world. Knee-deep snowdrifts and frostbite-inducing winds make the city a less than ideal place to be outside on your way to work.
Due in part to advances in technology, a growing awareness of environmental issues, and an emerging network of cycling infrastructure, winter biking in Winnipeg has gone from a fringe activity for hippie holdouts to a more accessible and accepted way to get around.
More cyclists year round
Mark Cohoe, executive director of the advocacy group Bike Winnipeg, remembers his early days pedalling through the snow.
“There was one set of tracks on the way out and one set of tracks on the way back in, and that’s definitely changed,” he says.
No long-term studies have empirically confirmed Cohoe’s observations, but several other winter bikers have seen similar growth.
Andrea Tetrault, known online for her blog, Winnipeg Cycle Chick, has noticed more cyclists on her morning commute, even over the last five years.
“It used to feel a little crazy to be out there in the winter,” she says, “but now it feels a little less crazy because there are so many more people doing it.”
Tetrault’s passion for pedalling didn’t begin with riding to work. She started out racing bikes, and it was only after several years that she considered commuting with one.
“I work in an office, and I have kids and a dog and busy days, and I wasn’t sure if I could fit that into my life, but I could, and it was actually a lot of fun,” she says. When winter rolled around, she pulled out an old mountain bike and kept commuting as a way to get outside and stay in shape.
Other winter cyclists point to their bank accounts, convenience, and sheer pleasure as rationale for riding to work or school.
“Just getting out there and being more active is important for your winter psychology,” Jocelyn McLean of the UWSA bike lab says. “The endorphins that come from exercise alone will make you feel better and more positive instead of just staying indoors and taking the car.”
Cohoe explains that bike culture has positive impacts on the city more broadly as well.
“If we can reduce the amount of spending that Winnipeggers are putting into their transportation, that frees up a lot of money that will recirculate into things like restaurants and entertainment and their homes. Those are the things that really build up and multiply in the economy,” he says.
“No one’s driving a Manitoba built car. We’re not really driving on gas created in the province. That’s all money that’s lost to our economy.”
Cohoe also points out that a more active population is generally a healthier population, which can reduce healthcare costs for the province.
Whatever their motivation, it’s certain that the number of bicycle commuters in Winnipeg has climbed over the last decade.
The 2011 National Household Survey showed a 32 per cent increase in commuter cyclists compared to 2006. Similarly, counts at 100 locations throughout the city each spring have shown a 20 per cent increase since 2007, with an estimated 14,790 commuters riding to work on an average June day.
Cohoe estimates that about a third of these commuters keep riding when the weather turns cold. In a telephone and online survey conducted for the City of Winnipeg, six per cent of respondents reported riding to work at least once a month throughout the snowy season.
Meanwhile, Winnipeg hosted the international Winter Cycling Congress in 2014, and annual events like Ice Bike, Actif Epica, and Winter Bike To Work Day have all made the world of winter cycling more visible to the automobile-bound.
There’s also plenty of potential for growth. It’s reported that 46 per cent of Winnipeggers wish to to cycle more, and 32 per cent say that a lack of bicycle lanes or a fear of riding in traffic are factors that prevent them from cycling more.
Build it and they will come
While it’s clear that more Winnipeggers have been brushing the snow off their bikes as of late, a new report published by Bike Winnipeg shows that increases in bicycle traffic over the last decade have been closely tied to investments in infrastructure.
The years that saw many new facilities built in conjunction with a federal infrastructure stimulus program, between 2009 and 2011, were the years that saw the greatest increases in bicycle traffic. On the other hand, a recent decrease in infrastructure investment has corresponded with a plateau in the number commuters on the road.
According to McLean, dedicated cycling infrastructure is especially important in the winter, when ice and snow decrease traction and visibility for drivers and cyclists alike.
Separated lanes, such as those on Assiniboine Avenue or Sherbrook Street allow cyclists to remain a safe distance away from other traffic. They also funnel many cyclists away from other side streets and on to one main corridor. Cohoe reports that the Assiniboine Avenue bike lane has actually reduced bike traffic elsewhere throughout downtown.
On the other hand, routes that are only marked by painted lines on the road can result in what Tetrault calls “a wild west kind of situation,” once the snow falls. Well-intentioned drivers can’t tell when they’re taking up a bike lane, and cyclists are forced to avoid piles of snow that have been pushed to the curb.
This sort of competition for space on the road arises in part because the city’s snow clearing policy was developed in back in 1993. Unlike cities such as Calgary and Montreal, the policy hasn’t been significantly updated to account for newly built infrastructure or changing flows of commuter traffic.
Within the current policy, Winnipeg streets are designated as Priority I, II, or III, based on the amount of vehicle traffic they receive each day. But active transport routes aren’t prioritized distinctly from the street they run along.
This means that sidewalks and bike paths receive a priority designation based on the number of cars nearby, regardless of a disproportionate number of pedestrians or cyclists.
Park pathways are only cleared “when adequate funds are available” and only after other sidewalks have been completed. And though curbside snow build up “shall normally be removed” from Priority I and II streets, there is no clause ensuring that painted-on bike lanes remain passable.
Considering that many cyclists go out of their way to avoid high-traffic areas in the winter, this policy puts some of the safest and most frequently used winter bike routes at the very bottom of the city’s priority list, while some rarely-used sidewalks are given top priority. It also means that, instead of staying out of the way of drivers, some cyclists are forced to ride on Priority I roads to get to work or school.
According to Cohoe, places like the path through Omand Park, a major thoroughfare connecting the West End to the southern half of the city, remain nearly impassible after a major snowfall.
“It’s a mild winter now, so you can kind of bike it, but you have to be pretty careful on it. Any heavier winter and it just becomes unusable,” he says.
Janice Lukes, the city councillor for South Winnipeg-St. Norbert and chair of the Standing Policy Committee on Infrastructure Renewal and Public Works, has taken it upon herself to ensure Winnipeg’s snow removal policy is updated to take active transportation into account.
“We’re a winter city,” she says. “We need to walk and we need to bike and we need to do it in a way that’s safe.”
Lukes is currently looking for feedback from Winnipeggers who use the city’s active transportation network year round. She will be holding an an informal public conversation to gather information on Jan.21.
“We’ve done so much good work in building more connectivity in the city in the last 15 years. Now it’s important that we look at this policy and see how we can bring it up to date,” she says.
Proposals that may come out of this research shouldn’t surprise anyone at city hall. After all, council approved a $334 million, 20-year Pedestrian and Cycling Strategy this past July.
Among dozens of other recommendations, the strategy called for the city to “Designate and prioritize a Winter Cycling Network for snow removal,” and “Design bicycle routes to facilitate snow removal and snow storage.”
Though many cycling advocates consider this strategy a step in the right direction, it’s important to note that the city hasn’t actually approved any spending towards the plan – that can only be done in each year’s annual budget. Transportation plans like this have been described as little more than wish lists that are dependent on funding.
It’s difficult to know whether winter cycling will become an increasingly realistic option for Winnipeg commuters. Policy revisions and new investments in infrastructure are essential first steps for ensuring that drivers and cyclists can peacefully coexist year round.
But these changes won’t come without opposition. Before the recently adopted pedestrian and cycling strategy was passed by council, five city councillors released radio ads decrying investment in active transportation.
“It just takes such a huge amount of effort at the grassroots level to make these changes happen,” says Tetrault. But perhaps the future of winter cycling in Winnipeg doesn’t lie solely in the hands of council.
“The biggest thing that people can do to help is just to get out there and do it. The more of us that are on the road, the more they have to make space for us,” she says.
Published in Volume 70, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 21, 2016)