WINTER BICYCLING (and WALKING): Safety, Comfort, and Public Priorities

Winter is coming.  Even in the midst of escalating ocean warming and climate volatility, that means tough weather conditions for New Englanders.  Night falls long before we head home from work.  The snow gets pushed to the side of the road, narrowing lanes, with the daily melt-freeze cycle turning the remaining slush into an invisible black-ice slickness.  Depressingly frequent MBTA breakdowns push people into rise share cars and on to our already over-crowded roads. Wet shoes numb our toes; cold wind hurts our ears.  Driving is hard; walking and bicycling even harder.  Even year-round cyclists take days off – I simply won’t bike when the temperature goes below 20. 

Now, before the climate-changed storms arrive, is the time to prepare.  We need to prepare ourselves and our bikes.  But we also need to demand that the public agencies in charge of our sidewalks, roads, and paths prepare as well – upgrading both infrastructure and operations to ensure safety and mobility through the winter.

Here are some of my thoughts on winter comfort and safety.  I’m sure I’ve missed some good ideas – what would you add?

FUNCTION OVER FASHION:  Clothing is Equipment Too

My family lived in southwest New Hampshire for a while.  Further up the mountain road was the Hill family’s farm.  Dan Hill, the iconic gruff but big-hearted rural New Hampshire father, used to say that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing.”

Dan’s message rings true even years later in Boston.  Proper gear is needed for safe and comfortable cold weather cycling during the season of early darkness, limited vision, freezing temperatures, and wet or frozen or partially snow-obstructed surfaces. 

The goal is to not get wet or cold while maximizing your visibility.  The complication is that once we start, even as the wind freezes our extremities, our bodies quickly generate both heat and sweat.  For our core, the normal desire for a warm beginning and weather protection with water-proof coverings become self-defeating.  The standard rule of thumb is that if you aren’t a bit chilly at first you are overdressed.  Unless the temperature is really hitting bottom, it’s better to wear light-weight, water-wicking inner clothes with a breathable middle layer, covered by a bright-yellow, highly-reflective, light-weight windbreaker (or something more water resistant if rain or snow is falling).  Once you’re pedaling, you’ll warm to comfort and you might want to remove the outmost layer to let moisture escape as your body heat naturally dries your sweat and even melting snow.  My legs seem less cold-sensitive, so I usually only cover my work pants with thin, barely water resistant leggings, capturing warmth (and avoiding grease) by tightening at the ankles with leg straps.

The ears, nose, eyes, fingers, and toes are another matter.  My hands and feet are always cold.  I have a series of increasingly warm, breathable, ear-covering caps, culminating in a balaclava that I use when the temperature is in the 20s.  In milder weather, I use ear-covers tucked under my helmet straps.  On my hands I prefer having two layers: a thin inside liner of silk or cotton covered by waterproof, wind-cutting, thermal outer shells (fingered glove, mitten, or two-digit lobsters).  For most of the winter I leave on a reflective bright yellow rain-cover, as much for warmth as water proofing.  On the coldest days I put my jacket hood over my helmet and pull up a breathable “tube” from my neck up over my nose.  Friends of mine wear goggles.

Winter conditions make it harder to ride to work wearing your work clothes – they are seldom warm enough and the odds of getting them dirty or wet are too high.  So the final clothing accessory should be waterproof saddlebags or a bag containing workplace clothes (unless you are lucky enough to be able to leave a wardrobe in the shower room at work).

Not to provoke another round of angry messages, despite my skepticism about the overall value of helmets, and even though I remain adamantly opposed to mandatory helmet-use laws, I think the increased dangers of winter cycling tilts the argument towards always putting one on – personally, I use one every time I cycle.  (Helmets significantly reduce the severity of certain types of injuries.  However, they have no proven positive effect on the likelihood of those injuries happening in the first place.  In addition, legally requiring helmets has been shown to reduce the total number of cyclists on the road, thereby undermining the proven “safety in numbers” dynamic.)



Massachusetts requires a front light and rear reflector.  I don’t think that’s enough.  On my bike I have blinking lights facing front, back, and sideways as well. People riding in suburban or rural areas may need road-illuminating headlights to compensate for the lack of street lighting.  In the urban area where I live, I stick to bright front blinkers on the theory that unlit streets are probably unmaintained and the shadows from a headlight won’t fully expose their hazards.  

I am fanatic about rear-view mirrors.  They are, in my opinion, the most important safety device you can install other than after-dusk bright lights and good brakes – which should also be checked each fall.  Some of my friends switch to studded tires each November and they seem to make a big difference on black-icy turns (whether or not there is snow) even if noisy on clean pavement.  Increasingly popular long-wheelbase cargo bikes need at least one studded tire from autumn through spring, if only to deal with stability issues when the bike is ridden without much cargo load, i.e., a studded front tire for front-box bikes / rear tire for long-tail bikes.  In any case, people should not be using super-skinny road tires. 



While it is always dangerously stupid, regardless of the season, to bike into intersections without being absolutely sure that there are no crossing cars or trucks (regardless of the light’s color), it is particularly insane during the winter.  Car drivers are distracted by the same obstacles we are – darkness, narrow lanes, slippery pavement, impaired vision.  Drivers have no desire to hit anyone; and crashes are not always their fault – sometimes bicyclists’ own recklessness is the cause.  President Obama’s dictum of “don’t do stupid things” has double relevance after the winter solstice.

Obama’s advice is equally true for pedestrians, who seem to increasingly risk suicide by obliviously stepping into the street or meandering (often 2 or 3 abreast) down the middle of a path with their eyes lost in cyberspace and their ears inside private sound studios.   



Proper gear is vital, but in addition to what you supply for yourself, the city and state agencies responsible for our streets need to pass and then meaningfully implement Vision Zero policies and programs committing them to make the infrastructure improvements needed to drastically reduce the likelihood of death or significant injury on our roads.  This includes creating physically separated bike lanes on roads where the speed or volume of traffic, or the high percentage of trucks, create high-stress conditions.  Cities need to designate more residential areas as “slow streets” or “neighborways” and adopt 20 mph speed limits near playgrounds, schools, health services, old age residences, daycare centers, and more.  (Yes, it is the physical condition of the road rather than the speed limit sign that sets how fast drivers actually go; so street humps and raised crosswalks are also needed – but a lower posted limit doesn’t hurt!)  Moving towards Vision Zero also requires fixing sidewalks, raising intersection tables, installing HAWK beacons and “your speed is…” feedback signs,  changing “race-to-make-the-green traffic lights to 4-way stop signs, programming longer walk-sign times, pushing car parking away from corners, among other walking-safety measures.

Right after a snow storm is also a good time to document how little of a road or intersection moving traffic actually uses – helping you make a case for narrowing the lane, adding pedestrian bulb-outs or bike lanes, or installing bike-parking corrals.  Winter makes us more aware of excessively long wait-times for pedestrian phases in traffic signals, and the positive benefits (or negative impacts) of particular building forms in providing shelter from (or intensifying) exposure to wind and/or precipitation.



The increased stress of on-road travel during the winter increases the importance of developing a coherent and connected system of off-road paths, and given our escalating climate resiliency problems these should be designed as “greenways”.  The Emerald Network initiative that I’ve been involved with for the past several years proposes to create a 200+ mile long metro-area facility for walking, bicycling, playing, socializing, and access to employment and cultural resources.  While the state Department of Conservation and Recreation has made significant progress in upgrading its paths and plowing key sections, it retains the fiction that all parks close at sundown – including the pathways that now form a vital and necessary part of many people’s commute – thereby sidestepping the need to stretch its already pathetically inadequate budget to cover evening lighting as well as any responsibility (and related liability) for after-dark safety.  At some point, soon, if the Governor’s office doesn’t order DCR to treat key pathways like the transportation corridors they have become, the state Legislature needs to force the issue.  This includes paving key sections in order to allow snow plowing, especially inclines (even pressed dirt composites quickly corrode in heavy rain or snow run-off).

Speaking of lights – the state needs to require that all cars have permanently on “running lights” that let their approach be more easily noticed during the daytime as well as during those transitional hours when full headlights aren’t necessary but visibility is reduced.  Similarly, trucks larger than a van need to be required to have side turning lights visible to bicyclists who have passed the rear of the truck.



Of course, the big issue is the snow and its removal, or its melting/freezing into ice.  The old habit of pushing snow to the side has become a danger rather than a safety solution.  It makes bike lanes inaccessible.  When cars and bikes have to share the road (or pedestrians forced into the street by unshoveled sidewalks – another regulatory shortcoming in many towns), pushing snow to the side makes it dangerous for cars to pass a bicyclist, increasing the driver’s tension and the cyclists anxiety.  We need more explicit laws, signage, and public education explaining that cyclists have the right – and the need – to take the lane in these situations even if that forces drivers to spend a few extra seconds (or even minutes) getting to the next red light. 

Trucking snow away is expensive and slow; it is understandable that it is usually only done on the most important routes.  But major bike commuter routes should be included in that high-priority list – as a couple of towns are beginning to do.

State guidelines should begin requiring that well-defined snow storage spaces be included in all future road, bike lane, and path designs.  Roads, separated bike facilities, and even off-road paths should be designed with sufficient “verge”, tree lawn, green buffer, or storm-water absorbing swale space to allow for snow storage.  This connects to the need for every street rebuild to incorporate water-absorption and heat-island-prevention features – swales, trees, and evergreen shrubs (preferably between traffic and the bike/pedestrian areas to deflect particulate pollution).  Permeable pavement is still a developing technology, but road designers should be experimenting with the options.



Our cities are under increasing stress from the lack of trickle-down benefits from the current ultra-high-end investment-oriented develop boom, the resulting income inequality, and the inevitably coming economic (and housing) market retrenchment.  They’ve become vulnerabile to more frequent extreme climate/weather conditions, traffic congestion compounded by stagnation (or reduced) state and federal transit funding, and growing populations.  The growing number of people using non-car modes to get around is one of the many small good stories, one of the trends we need to build on to sustain our quality of life in coming years and decades.

Making it easier for people to walk and bike all year, with appropriate transit and share-vehicle backups when needed, should be a government priority.


Thanks to Jules Milner-Brage for feedback on an earlier draft.


Related previous posts:

Traffic is NOT Inevitable: Reclaiming the Lessons of Past Victories 

People Priority Streets: Neighborways, Slow Streets, and Safety Zones 

Green Routes: Combining Regional Vision and Local Initiative for an “Emerald Network” 

The Coming Storm: Transportation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and a Carbon Tax


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