Monday, 7 December 2015

Winter Cycling

Many people oppose cycle infrastructure in Edmonton, along with Calgary, Toronto, Saskatoon, and other Canadian cities (Vancouver is pretty mild, so they do not tend to have that discussion, they have very similar weather to the Netherlands anyway) on the grounds that they believe that it will not work in the winter.

Edmonton is genuinely colder than the Netherlands, but it is only -20 usually in December, January and February, and our average cold for January, the coldest time of the year (You probably think of December, but apparently from what I can find, it's not) is -14.8 Celsius. If you are watching from the United States or are a centenarian, please go here for Fahrenheit, a unit so weird that I did not know how to spell it without the auto checker.

Fun (or sad) fact: While researching this, the F4 tornado in '87 killed 27 people. This year, 33 people are dead because of something on the roads. You have a much higher chance of being killed by a car or motor vehicle than by a tornado. Especially given that tornadoes in general are rare in Edmonton and even more rare are F4s.

Yes we have snow in March, but snow is quite manageable. Shovel or plow it out of the way and you couldn't care less about it. Unfortunately, Edmonton fails in this category. Not for all roads though. Assuming it hasn't snowed in the last 24 hours, go take a look at the nearest freeway or arterial road. You will see that the city has conveniently plowed it, including intersections, all the way down to bare asphalt, or sometimes concrete. Edmonton also salts the roads to get rid of ice. This is also spread well, for main car routes.

But where the city lacks the most is clearing the minor (if you classify roads only by their importance for automobiles) roads and intersections that make all the difference for cyclists. This is exceptionally crucial to cyclists that they have at the minimum a cleared area, all the way down to asphalt or concrete. The city clears shared use paths next to roads reasonably well, but the big problem is when they clear intersections. Or should I say that they don't. At least not the crossing from the path to the other roadways. There is a bunch of dirt, grime, snow and salt piled up on these. Just go for a short walk to the nearest intersection (if you live in Edmonton during the winter) and see how this gets piled onto the wheelchair ramps. I even found in the news a couple days ago a person in a wheelchair who blogs about his experience just trying to get around in the wheelchair he has to have.

He does not have the choice to not use a wheelchair, and not everyone in the city has the resources to use cars. I have a learning license, but I need someone with a class 5 non probationary or better and the equals from other provinces and states and countries to sit in the passenger seat, which I am not always able to do. When I was 13 I couldn't drive at all. A person who gets epilepsy is able to ride a bike, but not a car. I know from a cousin who has that situation.

I has a fall on my bike last winter, it was on a road where the snow is cleared to 5 cm. I was limping for a couple weeks. It also happened to be on Christmas, the day when I got lights for my bike because I asked for bike things on my wishlist. It almost lead me to not want to even cycle this winter. People who drive under these conditions, stuck in the seemingly endless congestion, drowning in bills for insurance, fuel and realizing they are gaining weight, are not continuing to drive because they don't want to, but because they can't avoid it. Other methods of getting around are not practical yet.

The buses don't do crosstown links in a grid that well, and are just as prone to congestion and traffic lights as cars are, the LRT works well in the winter, but it is only a 21 km route, it can't go everywhere. Not everyone is able to find someone to carpool with, and that does nothing to reduce the sedentary lifestyle. Bicycles and walking have abysmal conditions in the winter, and while sidewalks exist next to most streets, they lack in some places, like linking Capilano mall to 72 St, and the traffic lights take ages to go to the walk signal for crossing a road with no traffic at the time, in the name of keeping the traffic moving. Cycling infrastructure does not exist in critical areas, and the final linkers to homes are not quite 30 km/h zones yet. Traffic lights slow your journey down a huge margin, you have so many stop signs, all leading to slow, inefficient journeys that only work for those with a lot of time and a lot of guts on hand.

We are just as good as cars, if not better. Why do we get inferior snow clearing services, and yet the mayor gets 176 thousand dollars, and parking permits at city owned parkades, worth 3660 dollars a year, a city owned vehicle if he wants to use that and a bus pass every month of the year included with the job. 90 thousand will get you very far already, let alone if your transportation costs are for the most part subsidized by the public. We don't have enough money for snow clearing and yet the city at least a dozen, usually more, traffic lights per year, each worth about 150 thousand dollars, worth close to 2 million dollars in total.

Here is a good example of cycling after snow has been cleared. There is snow, and you could easily imagine there being much more snow where people don't drive, walk or cycle. As long as the parking, including those for bicycles, the cycle track, the sidewalk, bus stops and motor vehicle lanes are cleared, including intersections and crossings, it is fine to me how much snow remains elsewhere.

OK, the big rant is over. There are a few other things that make cycling in the winter possible.

Lighting is a crucial part of winter safety. If you don't have it in the middle of the night, you might as well be riding blindfolded. Not really, you do see, but there is just enough light facing the roadway and not the path that you cannot acclimate like you would in rural areas, but not enough that you can see where you are going incredibly well. It leaves you feeling isolated, in danger, and it can easily lead to danger, because you just can't see things like ice, which is normally reflective, stones, and other people have a harder time seeing you. Lights on your bicycle help, but the kind that work well in the winter, are reliable, don't depend on batteries and are harder to steal are not sold in bike shops except the really high end ones, and you need to fit them on at your own time and expense, which can be considerable. And if people make mistakes, or if a wire snaps, well how do you get home or to a bike shop to fix it if you are already riding in the dark? They also do nothing to improve how safe you feel because of other people.

People often don't know that this works in winter. I think the best thing to do is to get the infrastructure built, make sure it gets cleared, and once the summer cycling occurs, in the autumn, do a massive PR campaign about how easy it is to cycle in the winter on a cleared road or path. As people begin to cycle later and later in the year, revamp it when the snow begins to appear, and people will carry on doing it.

Normally I don't tell people what to wear while riding a bike. Now I am going to try and give you some information to go on, because a body without any protection from the cold gets hypothermia quickly.

You should dress in layers, a good winter jacket, keeping the wind off you. You don't need snowpants, but on a very cold day, two layers might be useful. Make sure to wear a good hat. This keeps the wind off your face, which is otherwise unprotected. Your ears also don't have much blood to keep them warm, so you have to do it by other means. You generate heat while riding a bike by the way, so that is why even with the wind whipping by, riding at a speed of 50 km/h or more, in a velomobile, you only need one t shirt to be warm enough and a blanket for the first couple hundred metres, plus a hat. Helmets really get annoying for this purpose. But I am saying that if it makes you feel safe enough to ride, then you can, and do ride, is is good exercise. But they should not be promoted, they just distract us from the real causes of danger and helmets aren't great protection. Designed for a crash speed of about 12 km/h, the energy is squared for double the speed. At 24 km/h, your helmet does 1/4 the good it does at 12. Plus, everywhere they have been promoted, even by a couple organizations in the Netherlands (thankfully not that influential nationwide) the cycling rate gone down practically overnight.

Oh, and wear gloves. I forgot one time and my fingers were a little numb and stiff at the end of the winter ride. Trust me, you want to wear those, even driving gloves will help on a cool day around 0.

Yes I know Edmonton is colder, but our winter average is about -13 degrees C, and many people take breaks at the coldest time of the year around Christmas and many people have grocery stores within 3 km. And nobody is obligating you to cycle, just that many people could cycle if the conditions were good enough, subjectively, socially and objectively safe, you can get around with as few stops as possible in a fast and efficient manner everywhere in the city, not just on the mostly recreational use oriented pathways. If we build it, and make it attractive enough and safe enough to cycle, and make it even faster and more connected than the road network, people will begin to cycle like they once did. And yes, in 1900, people cycled in the cold weather.

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