In defence of fair-weather cyclists: how do you keep a city cycling, even in the worst of winter?

One of the most persistent criticisms I hear levelled against investing in cycling is that as soon as the weather becomes inclement people stop riding, therefore making it an unreliable way of moving people in cities.

Cyclists in a recent rush hour snow storm in Copenhagen, via the Copenhagenize / Viking Biking Tumbr.

Whilst the difference between summer and winter cycling levels in London have been decreasing year on year, the number of cyclists on the road over the winter months is markedly lower than in the long, light and warmer summer days.

If a journey by bicycle is tolerated for the sake of convenience, rather than comfort, it is true that poor weather can serve to increase the perception of it being sketchy.  I personally dread cycling around Old Street roundabout or through Holborn Circus in heavy rain with reduced visability.  No matter how good your waterproofs, you'll still be soaked through with the sweat of anxiety by the end of your terrifying trip.

Cyclists in the snow, Bethnal Green, London, 2010

Of course, it is not the actual rain, snow or darkness that I fear but the chance that my fellow road users are not paying sufficient attention to the conditions, and do not modify their behaviour appropriately.

In successful cycling countries this problem is solved by separating cyclists from motorised traffic one way or another; perhaps with cycle tracks on main roads, or with closures, restrictions and one-way routes on lesser roads with lighter traffic.  But this in turn can pose its own problems: in the worst of the winter weather, how do you keep cyclists - and the city - moving?

When you have a high percentage of your population making their journey by bikes - as in Copenhagen or across the Netherlands - making sure that cycle routes are clear becomes a very serious consideration.  In another fascinating new post, video blogger Mark of Bicycle Dutch fame recently recorded how his home city of 'S-Hertogenbosch kept people moving through a recent snow storm, and made journeys by bicycle possible in challenging conditions.  

He explains: "On a cycle way the ‘gritters’ brush the surface first, and then it is sprayed with a mixture of salt and water. That film of salt water does cover the entire surface and that means most of the snow melts instantly on the entire street surface even without [passing cyclist's] tyres to disperse the salt. The difference between routes that were cleared and gritted and those that were not (yet) was huge."

I know what you're already thinking: here in the UK we don't deal with adverse weather well.  That we struggle to clear our roads and pavements, let alone cycle paths.  That we can't even build all-weather year-round cycle routes. 

Mud, mud, glorious mud! It's not Middle Earth, but all the same you shall not pass... Via As Easy As Riding A Bike.

Indeed, As Easy As Riding A Bike blog recently highlighted a Sussex cycle route which could provide a safe and convenient bypass to the busy A2 is impassable to all but those equipped with mountain bikes and wellington boots for much of the year.  It's never been laid properly due to concerns about an "urbanising effect" on the countryside, which clearly doesn't consider the same effect car journeys have that could easily be replaced by trips on this path, were it a viable route instead.  Making this journey on the path in its current form on a dark night in wet and windy weather would be reserved for all but the hardiest of thrill-seekers.

The heavy snow fall of 2010 caught London unprepared.  My street, seen here, remained uncleared for over a week.

But as the Dutch example demonstrates, winter weather need not be an insurmountable obstacle for successful cycling.  People always tell me that "there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes" but I'd argue that there's more to it than that... 

You can have all the fancy water proof kit in the world, but if you're having to fend off thundering lorries and itinerant taxi drivers in addition to trying to stay upright through wet and windy weather you're not going to be having a very nice time.  And you could have all the cycle infrastructure in the world (and I'm thinking in particularly of the separated lanes we should start to see being rolled out in London over the next few years) but if the authorities don't have a plan for keeping them clear of mud, snow and ice they'll be next to useless.  Keeping your city cycling, even in the worst of weather, shows the special care and consideration people on two wheels need.

Further reading:
Bicycle Dutch: how to make cycling in the snow possible
Copenhagenize: the ultimate bike lane snow clearance post!
As Easy As Riding a Bike: Natural Character
ibikelondon: Cycling through epic amounts of snow, retro Norway style



Anonymous said...

I can understand the developers not wanting to urbanise all routes, but what about using the plastic green matting I have seen on parts of the Thames path? The grass grows through it so you can't see it but it provides a much better surface on which to ride.


Anonymous said...

I would disagree (to some extent) here. If you want people to be able to cycle in normal everyday clothes (and I hope you do) ten keeping them dry and warm is a challenge - it isn't just danger from other road users.

I would suggest that a lot of us want good quality breathable clothing, as well as user friendly (mudguards tec.) bikes to be easily available. for a lot of Londoners the cost is prohibitive, and I would argue that if necessary we deal with this by providing subsidised clothing etc.

The decline in cycling in Autumn months - and when it rains even among those who continue - is not a big matter for TfL etc., but if we want cycling to be a reliable everyday form of transport for those who want to cycle without getting wet/clammy or cold, we have to look at this.

Besides, I think we deserve support in this area.

I tried projects addressing this and other issues (like home secure and convenient cycle parking)in my work in a local authority. I think it's important.

Dr Robert Davis