Smart street design makes winter cycling an easy choice

Several recent news report indicate cold weather is proving no barrier at all to increasing winter cycling in Canada.

Some winter cycling tips include dress in layers, use lights and wear, reflective clothing, get winter tires and use quieter routes. CBC photo by Evan Mitsui.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on Feb. 29, 2024.

By Gaye Taylor

Winter cycling is on the rise in Whitehorse, Saskatoon, and Montreal, fuelled by robust camaraderie, a shared determination to exchange best practices, and the delight of navigating winter landscapes on two wheels.

Aided by a grant from the City of Whitehorse, a good deal of camaraderie was on display recently when two Finnish cyclists accepted an invitation from the Yukon capital to come and share what they know about cycling in winter.

Pekka Tahkola and Harri Vaarala had a great deal of knowledge so share, reports CBC News. Urban planner Tahkola and traffic engineer Vaarala are both from Oulu, Finland, which proclaims itself the “winter cycling capital of the world.”

Their meeting with city staff concluded that Whitehorse roads are “too wide” and too fast for safe cycling.

“Most of the streets feel quite unsafe,” said Vaarala.

But there are big opportunities in the design of those streets. “There is so much space, it would be so easy to build good infrastructure,” Tahkola said. “It’s just such… low-hanging fruit!”

The visitors urged city staff to “think about cycling infrastructure as a network,” with protection and connection paramount.

“Just 100 kilometres from the Arctic Circle,” Ouhu “has many of the same impediments to cycling as Whitehorse: there’s heavy snow at times, subarctic temperatures, and freeze-thaw episodes,” CBC writes. “There’s also sprawl, with many suburban neighbourhoods.”

But with 930 kilometres of connected, well-maintained trails, locals in Ouhu cover a lot of distance on two wheels: 22 per cent of all trips year-round are made on bikes, and nearly all kids cycle to school.

Their success owes almost entirely to good design, Tahkola stresses.

“It’s not that we are so tough,” he said. “We cycle because we are wimps—because it is the easiest way to get around.”

“If you build infrastructure that makes cycling fast, easy, and comfortable,” he added, “people will use it.”

Several recent news report indicate winter is proving no barrier at all to increasing the number of cyclists elsewhere in Canada. Last week saw Saskatoon celebrating its Winter BYXE Week

“BYXE week is a winter cycling celebration here in our city where we encourage people to get out and give winter cycling a try,” Danae Balogun, Saskatoon’s active transportation program manager, told Global News Morning. The event includes a scavenger hunt and a special bike-to-work morning, which sees local businesses handing out treats and high-fives to people on two-wheelers.

Avid winter cyclist Gord Holtslander, chair of Saskatoon Cycles, a year-round cycling advocacy group, cheerily disputed the notion that one needs to be especially hardy to bike in winter.

“I mean, people go winter cycling, and yet they’re the same people who are across the street from me in the school ground on the hockey rink,” he told Global News. “At 11 at night it’s 40 below and I’m going, ‘they’re crazy people.’”

Winter cycling is “just another act of outdoorsy kinds of things that Saskatchewan people can—and I really say should—do,” Holtslander added. “It’s fun and you can get around real easy.”

While it’s possible to do without studded tires, he added, the extra winter feature “definitely make it more fun to ride,” and “you’re just a little more secure” on snow routes.

Winter riding enthusiasts were also out in force in Montreal recently, delighted at the opportunity to introduce others to the practice.

“To do winter cycling, all you need is a bike and winter,” Chloé Baril, co-organizer of a recent Forum vélo d’hiver Montréal, told City News. Baril added that the “you” here could mean pretty much anyone, regardless of age or fitness level.

The forum offered safety tips, guidance on maintenance (oil your chain!), and gear upgrades. It ended with a family bike ride through downtown Montreal.

“It’s so much fun! You get to love winter again,” said first-time winter rider Catherine Beauchemin. And Beauchemin was not alone in her delight.

“I like to slide! I like speed! I like to be fast!,” said one pint-sized biking enthusiast decked out in a red dragon costume.

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