WINTER CYCLING: Snow and Safety

It’s New England.  It’s February.  We’ve had multiple snow storms and the enchantment of the white landscape is getting swamped by the aggravation of shoveling.  It’s time to think about safe cycling in winter.

This post contains my thoughts, but it is also an invitation for all of you to add your own insights.  We need to begin aggregating what we’ve learned about winter cycling because so many of us are still out there, day after day, even in the worst conditions.  What a change from even the recent past!  Without studded tires, I tend to avoid bicycling during or immediately after a snow storm, or when it’s raining on still-frozen pavement.  Snow makes the world enormously beautiful, but I feel better looking around at it all when I’m on foot.  Still, no matter how bad the conditions, I see people bicycling by!

The most dangerous winter conditions probably are on the sidewalks, where unshoveled snow makes life truly disabling for people in wheelchairs, the elderly, and also for children, people pushing baby carriages or even those carrying groceries.  The recent state Supreme Judicial Court decision making private property owners responsible for snow-related hazards on their walkways is very limited, leaving the responsibility of local government and state agencies unaffected.  Most of all, the SJC ruling doesn’t deal with the roads!  Roads are key — from social justice and urban efficiency perspectives the second most serious travel issue is winter-disruption of our public transportation system despite heroic efforts by many public employees.

But those topics need their own posting.  This piece is about cycling.  And unfortunately, the first concern is a troubling new policy by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.  DCR states that it will no longer accept responsibility for making the paths under its control safe for cycling once snow is on the ground – including the ones along the Charles, on the Minuteman Trail, and across the state.  These are major commuting routes and need to be treated as well as any arterial road!

So what are the other issues for cycling?  Temperature.  Visibility.  Snow Removal.  Parking.  Ice Patches.  And Global Warming!

(If you have the stamina, there’s a Coda at the end of this post:  “If You Can’t Bike, Ski!”)



TEMPERATURE:  To the surprise of most non-cyclists, down to the low 20s the cold isn’t a problem.  If you dress in proper wind-proof layers over your torso and legs, keep your head, face, and ears covered, wear good gloves and shoe protection – then I find the real problem is overheating and sweating.  Of course, there are limits: sub-zero  conditions create a frostbite danger for anyoutdoor activity.  But usually I have to deliberately under dress at the start of a ride – being willing to start out chilly, especially for longer rides – if I want to end up comfortable and dry.  And I have to go slower – which I should do anyway given road conditions; winter cycling requires every ounce of the Effective Cycling skills I’ve learned.

VISIBILITY:  My first concern is about my visibility to drivers in the early darkness or in the glare of the low-angled rising or setting sun which can be even more blindingly dangerous – my father-in-law was walking across a road when he was hit by a driver under exactly those circumstances.  Of course drivers should be going slower and paying more attention, but dealing with visibility is not entirely their responsibility.  In the winter, I am even more fanatic than usual about having bright, blinking lights in the front and back of my bicycle and wearing the brightest, most reflective clothing I can find.

Like wearing a helmet to reduce the severity of injury if we fall, being conspicuous is one of the few things completely under our own control and I think we have be accountable.  I am constantly dismayed, if not infuriated, at the large number of cyclists without lights and wearing dark clothes.  Unlike in Harry Potter, being invisible on a bike is not a form of protection!  And it – legitimately – makes drivers really annoyed at us for not doing our part.  It also perpetuates the image of bicycling as a high risk activity, which discourages people from trying it and thereby keeps our numbers lower than they could be – which undermines the “safety in numbers” strategy that is our most important hope for the future.

(Tangential suggestion about clothing:  if you are wearing a balaclava or face guard, keep your helmet on when rushing into a small store to demand a snack!  It’s also not a good idea to coming in yelling something about being in a rush.)

SNOW REMOVAL:  Visibility is even more important than usual because of the marked deterioration of road conditions after a snow storm.  I have nothing but sympathy for the DPW staffs who are somehow supposed to erase the effects of every totally unpredictable change in the weather.  I have no problem with them prioritizing snow removal on roads and sidewalks at bus stops and in areas used by vulnerable populations – schools, hospitals, elderly centers, etc.  Given that an out-of-control automobile is a ton or more of lethal metal capable of wiping out a whole group of people in one swipe, I don’t mind that the clean-up starts with traffic routes.  I even don’t blame them for dealing with the initial emergency by pushing the mess to the side of the road, blocking bike lanes and leaving two-way streets with barely more than one lane.  And I don’t blame them for initially missing some of the ice patches or for the huge numbers of pavement patches poorly installed by the utility companies that pop out after a freeze, leaving the surface as pitted as the moon’s surface.

But it seems really wrong that, too often, that’s where snow removal stops.  Once the emergency is over, public agencies seem to wait for everything to melt – a smart, budget-saving idea in April or even mid-March, but a dangerous idea when there are months of non-melting weather ahead in December through February.  I know that budgets are tight and under some conditions street-snow is actually considered a toxic substance requiring special disposal methods.   And it’s true that sometimes, if the snowfall is light and the subsequent temperature is warm, the blacktop in the middle of the street warms up and becomes clear – at least during daylight hours.  But it turns to invisible ice at night!  MassDOT spokesperson Adam Hurtubise told the Boston Globe (1/26/2011, p.B5) that “state roads are wide enough that we can continue to push the snow back” – which may be true for the Turnpike, but certainly is not true on most urban or municipal streets.  If the public goal of becoming more multi-modal is ever going to be realized, officials need to pay more attention to the “second effort” of widening traffic lanes and clearing off bike facilities….which leads to:

PARKING:  In order to keep traffic flowing, most municipalities have laws requiring cars to park no more than 1 foot or so from the curb.  But when the snow is heavy and the gutters are stuffed, parked cars end up further and further out in the road.  First, they start blocking bike lanes, or at least the space to the right of moving cars that cyclists tend to use on streets without bike lanes.  Then, if conditions get worse, they begin sticking out into the car travel lane.  On two-way streets this can narrow the passage to the point that on-coming cars have to wait until the opposite direction gets open.  Even worse, this can delay or even block buses.  It’s not hard to get furious at the arrogance of car owners who think their right to park outweighs the needs of everyone else – including other car drivers.  In his The Transit Fix blog, LivableStreets Alliance member Jeremy Mendelson says:

“Car owners are so arrogant that if their god-given right to a free parking space is ever at risk, they will just take even more street space, regardless of the impact on anyone else….In many cases such arrogance puts public safety at risk by blocking sidewalks, hydrants and emergency vehicle access….Two days after the last snowfall [parked cars forced the cancelation of]… one of two transit routes through the dense neighborhood of Charlestown. There a handful of people disrupted [bus] transportation for thousands of others, simply because they felt entitled to a parking spot.  It doesn’t matter if your usual spot is taken. Nor do I feel bad if you don’t know where to legally park your big steel box. If you cause your property to obstruct the public way, it’s illegally parked and should be removed promptly at your expense.”

This problem is actually an argument for separated cycle tracks.  As my LivableStreets Alliance Board of Directors colleague, Charlie Denison, has noted:  “This winter has totally won me over on cycle tracks. If a street with a bike lane isn’t plowed well, the parked cars soon block it, and the plows can’t easily fix it since they can’t get to the curb. With a cycle track, even if it’s not plowed right away, it can be easily rectified at any time by running a sidewalk plow down it. Parked cars will never block a cycle track!

ICE PATCHES:  It’s not just opening up the space.  The most dangerous road conditions occur in the late afternoon and evening after a warm day – just when commuters enticed by the sun have decided to start cycling again – when the wet pavement freezes into invisible ice.  If there’s a light snowfall, the situation is even worse.  I’m not sure of the best way to de-ice pavement – we know that over-salting is bad – but there’s got to be a solution.  In the meantime, I’m going to explore putting studded tires on my commuter bike.

DCR POLICY CHANGE:  One of the reasons I might want studded tires is a new – and extremely unfortunate – policy adopted by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) which is responsible for the vital multi-use paths along the Charles River as well as in other parks and along parkways.  These paths are essential commuter and recreational routes.

Until recently, DCR policy was to clear the paths enough to allow the full range of intended uses: walking, jogging, bicycling, skating, etc.  To DCR’s credit, this was a high standard to set and – since unpredictable weather requires constant monitoring of path conditions, there are many miles of paths to deal with, and DCR’s budget is embarrassingly small – the department didn’t always live up to its goal.

But now, rather than ask for help getting the needed resources, DCR has decided to no longer accept responsibility for keeping the paths safe for bicyclists during snow conditions.   Bicyclists can still use the paths, but at their own risk.  The state is now committed to greatly expanding the state-wide off-road path network using federal Transportation Enhancement funds.  It will be a waste of money, however, if the growing Bay State Greenway is unusable for much of the year due to DCR neglect.  This is not acceptable – call your legislator:  tell him/her that this situation has to be dealt with!

BOSTON ISSUE:  On a similar note about off-road paths, if you live in Boston you should call the Mayor’s hot line (617-635-4500) and your favorite Councilor.  Ask that the city begin plowing the Glen Road entrance path in Franklin Park.  This is one of the most active entrance pathways for walkers and bicyclists and a vital commuting route from the neighborhoods to downtown. It’s a short stretch of paved path that would not tax Parks Department staff or resources.

CLIMATE CHANGE: Dealing with winter cycling is important not only to continue transforming our transportation system away from an expensive, noisy, polluting, and increasingly congested auto-centric design.  Cars are also an important contributor to the greenhouse emissions that are driving climate volatility.  Seven of the past ten years have set new temperature records, creating severe weather events around the globe – floods in western USA, Canada, Pakistan, China, Australia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, India, and Brazil; prolonged drought in Africa, South America, and the U.S. Southwest; drought and wildfires in Russia.  Of even more concern than our increasingly extreme winter snow storms and our summer Nor’easter Hurricanes, is the impact of human-caused climate change on food costs, which are now – in early 2011 – already higher than during the food crises of 2008, when mass riots forced food export bans in some countries.  Rising prices will push millions of families closer to starvation, leading to more unrest and instability.  It’s going to get worse, both summer and winter, and we need to do what we can to both reduce the atmospheric distortions and adapt to what is already on its way.

Related Posts:

The Impact of Surfaces

Five Steps to Make GreenDOT Real: Transportation & Climate

Warm Weather Cycling: On the Open Road Again

Bikes Are Vehicles; But They’re Not Cars


CODA:  If You Can’t Bike, Ski!

One of the things I love about cross country skiing is how powerfully it reminds me that you have to slow down to go fast.  It’s a life lesson I often need to be reminded about.  If I want to gain that smooth glide that takes me beyond the reach of my own footstep and that is the key to gaining the speed and endurance of skiing, I have to stop running so hard, stop pounding my legs and arms.  Instead, I have to relax into the rhythm of my hips, letting them pull my leg as they swing forward, and then gently dip my knee towards my toes, and finally use my pole as leverage to rise in a way that positions my other hip for the next swing without raising my rear ski from the ground.  It’s a dance that reminds me of Tai Chi, combining exercise with meditation.  As we learn from jazz, it’s the swing that makes you sing!

Existentialist though I may be, skiing also teaches me that as much as I love the challenge of creating my own bushwhack path through the deep snow, it is also a pleasure to follow in someone else’s tracks, to simply trust them and follow where they lead.  They may have passed through hours or even days earlier, but we are part of a team.  On a bike, sometimes I take the front of the pace line and bear the wind; sometimes someone else does.  For all that I enjoy being on my own, we are better together than apart.

Skiing, both cross country and downhill, makes it clear that you have to accept that you are not always in control.  And that sometimes it is only by accepting that loss of control – not making sudden moves even though you are hovering on the brink of a fall, pulling back from the panic fear of injury racing out of your stomach into your muscles – that you can stay calm and ready enough to make the small moves that regain stability.

Finally, it is so damn beautiful out there.  It gives me enormous pleasure to have that long view through the leafless trees interrupted by the occasional green splash of fir, to be surrounded by the sparkling silent magic of the bristly dark trees sticking out from the astonishingly soft smooth skin of the white woods.

Enjoy the winter!

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