I'm a Winter Bicycle Commuter

I'm a Winter Bicycle Commuter
My winter bicycle, crushing snowbanks with studded tires.

In Praise of the Studded Tire

/ If you’re a regular reader of Straphanger, you’ll already know I’ve never owned a car. (Never wanted to, since the days I worked 40 hours a week as a delivery driver in my early twenties. That experience left me road-weary for a lifetime.) The money I saved by not buying, licensing, warehousing and fuelling a couple of tons of steel, plastic and glass—about $10-$12,000 a year—meant that I was able to set aside enough for a downpayment on our apartment in an old, highly-walkable, transit-rich neighborhood, on a street that probably would otherwise have been unaffordable to us.

I do, however, own four bicycles. I’ve got an old Bianchi road bike, probably of mid-1980s vintage, that I use for tooling around the neighborhood, as well as for longer trips across the city. I’ve got a fancy-ass Specialized Roubaix, with a carbon frame, that sleeps in the basement. When the weather is fine, I take it up Mont-Royal, the hill-girdling park in the city center, and then whip down at 60 km/h, sometimes several times in a morning. Then I’ve got a beautiful, jet-black Batavus, a Dutch omafiets (or “grandma” bike, though it seems to work for grandpas too), which I bought when I became a father; both of my sons did their time in a baby seat on the back, and, even now, they sometimes hop a ride on the rattrap, “dinking,” or doubling, which is a national pastime in the Netherlands. The Batavus is heavy as hell, and riding it feels more like being on a mule or a donkey than a racehorse: it’s a reluctant starter, a comfortable coaster, and not that good at stopping (those back-pedal brakes…).

With its massive fenders, and wide tires, it’s the perfect bike for riding around in the rain, although, with only three speeds, it doesn’t take kindly to hills; I never take it on long trips. Frankly, I can see the day coming when my knees get around to saying, “Later for you, Dutch boy.”

The best investment I ever made, in terms of transportation, was my Claud Butler mountain-style bike, which I bought about 15 years ago for the lordly sum of $300, from a funky used bike store, no longer open. A pair of taciturn Salvadoran mechanics fitted it out with slush-guards and studded tires, which, at upwards of $75-per wheel, were the most expensive parts of the bike.

Now, when my book Straphanger was published, some critics objected to the fact that I’d included a chapter on bicycles in a book about public transportation. (The bike chapter was largely set in Copenhagen, one of the cities, along with Amsterdam, where North American bicycle advocates pray they’ll go when they die.) Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit, was one of those critics: he told me, in his opinion, transit was a specific category of transport, and shoehorning bikes into that definition was too much of a stretch. I took Jarrett’s point, but pointed out the subtitle of the book was “Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile.” I think transit—from Bus Rapid Transit to a good metro and commuter train system—has to be the foundation of cities that want to continue into the future without freeways and cars. But bicycle infrastructure (especially protected bike paths), along with infrastructure that enables other forms of active transport (I mean walking, wheelchairs, mobility scooters for seniors and the disabled, and e-scooters) are crucial components of the transit city. Not only do they solve the last-mile problem—getting people from a stop served by frequent, reliable, and safe transit to their front door—they can become a full-fledged, heavy-hauling transporation system in their own right. For proof, look at the transformation of Paris into a Dutch-style bicycle city in less than a decade.

Montreal has lately become one of the best bicycle cities in Canada and the United States. Under Mayor Valérie Plante, a party called Projet Montréal has done a bang-up job of building out bicycle infrastructure, and now there is an extensive network of bicycle routes, most of them still just paint on asphalt, though a growing number are fully protected. It’s a massive transformation, especially compared to what the city was like when I arrived in the mid-90s—riding a bicycle then was an eccentric, and frankly pretty dangerous, endeavor. Now, if you plan your travels well, you can cross the city with little risk to life and limb. (Except for the nids de poule, or potholes, which no administration seems to be able to eliminate.)

One of the joys of car-ownership, in a winter city like Montreal. Definitely not my jam.

But Montreal is still a winter city. In most years, there are three months—sometimes four and a half—where bicycle ridership plummets. Compared to Edmonton or Helsinki, Montreal is not especially cold. But it does get a lot of snow (and wind, and sleet); I’ve heard we rank with Sapporo, Japan, as the snowiest large city in the world. Winters have definitely gotten milder since I arrived, thanks to global heating. I remember girding myself for two to three weeks of -20 C every year; now cold snaps seem to be in the -10 range, and even in January the mercury goes well above zero. That comes with challenges of its own.

I’m one of the winter cyclists, out on the streets in almost all conditions, except full-on blizzards. (There are some that brave even those, wearing ski goggles.) When people see me on my winter bike, they express a number of things: admiration, pity, wonder, puzzlement, sometimes a mix of all of the above. And many, of course, think that I’m risking my neck. My answer to that is I feel far safer riding in the winter than I do walking. Here’s why: at least two or three times a winter, I hit a patch of black ice on the sidewalk, and go ass-over-tit, usually landing hard on my coccyx. (This is something to be feared the older I get.) But my bike has four rows of studs on each tire; you could say it’s equipped with crampons. I can ride uphill on ice with those things. Even with conditions as bad as they are this week—a layer of fresh-fallen snow over black ice—I may slip a little, but I always stay upright. The cars are my biggest worry, but honestly, they move pretty slowly in downtown neighborhoods in the winter, especially after a snowfall. I stay out of their way, sticking to the bike paths as much as possible.

It helps that Montreal plows its streets (and salts and gravels them, and then trucks away the snow, an operation that costs tens of millions of dollars after every storm). They also plow the bike paths—other cities, I’m told, tend to plow snow into the bike lanes—sometimes before the car lanes get plowed. This year, Montreal’s bikeshare system, Bixi, one of the first in any Canadian or American city, introduced a pilot program that keeps its bikes in the stands (a reduced number of stands, compared to fairweather months, it’s true) all year round. Before, the stands were plucked off the streets by trucks in mid-November. Now, you can pick up a bike all year round, and they come with studded tires in the winter.

Keeping the bike lane (right) plowed is one key to encouraging year-round cycling.

I shared a video clip on social media this week about Oulu, Finland, a city where 12 percent of trips are made by bicycle in January and February, when temperatures routinely get down to -20 C. Stable, subzero temperatures are actually an advantage for winter cycling. In Oulu, riders can count on a hard-packed layer of snow, which the city plows and compacts with snowplows with grooved blades, making for a surface you can ride on even without studs on your tires. They also promote cycling by projecting symbols of bicycles onto the snow to let people know where the lanes are—a really graphic way of letting people know Oulu is a winter biking city.

Cycling on hard-packed snow in Oulu, Finland: note the grooved surface, left by plows.

I know riding a bike in the winter isn’t for everyone. But for me, it’s been a great decision. It does wonders for my mood, which used to take a serious plunge when the days got short. Building a little outdoor activity into my day, no matter what kind of day it is, keeps me smiling. I guess there’s a little Schadenfreude involved, too, as I watch drivers on my block shovelling out their cars, cursing under their breath as they scrape ice off their windshields, and spinning out as they fail to get out of a parking spot. I just wipe the powder off my saddle, hop over a snowbank, find the plowed center of the street, and get to pedalling.

By the way, there’s a Winter Cycling Congress happening in Edmonton this year, from Feb. 22-24. Given that the current temperature in northern Alberta is -31 C (you don’t even want to know the windchill…), that might challenge even the most hardcore snowbikers. Bring your tuques and mittens, eh!

This is my first full post on Ghost. I'm here because Substack didn't take definitive action on banning white supremacists, Nazis, and Fascists. (Many of them, by the way, are real Nazis, complete with Swastikas on their newsletters, and 1930s-vintage "ideas" about racial purity.) I was encouraged last week when the founders appeared to have blinked. It turns out they took down just five newsletters, none of them significant revenue generators, with a collective readership of barely one hundred. The worst offenders continue to publish. That’s what you call acting in bad faith.

I'm a big supporter of freedom of expression. But I'm also free to choose to be on a platform that doesn't publish Nazis. For more on my thinking about this issue, you can read one of my earlier dispatches...which I'm happy to note is now hosted by Ghost.

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