How Preparation and Maintenance Affect Winter Bicycling

Trisha’s post yesterday about the difficulty of riding in Nashville after snow has me thinking about the important role that city preparation and maintenance play in winter commuting. If streets are not cleared quickly after a storm, even a modest snowfall can ruin several bike commuting days.

Southern cities are getting more wintry weather this year than they’re equipped to handle. I heard on the news that Atlanta has 8 snow plows; in contrast, Chicago has hundreds. I assume road salt is in similarly limited supply.

Without salt and plows, Trisha has to walk her bike over large icy patches in Nashville

On top of this, Southern bicyclists are likewise less equipped to handle the weather, as there’s usually not enough snow to justify purchasing snow tires or studded tires. This results in more of Trisha’s commutes in Nashville being thwarted than mine in Chicago, despite the much greater snow totals in Chicago. You can see this happen with Bike Skirt Elisa’s commute in Alabama, too.

Meanwhile, this week in Chicago, I took one day off bicycling when the snow was actively falling on Tuesday. The next day, after 5 inches of snow, all but the small side roads had been cleared of snow and ice.  Plus, to handle any surprises, I have studded tires.

Streets are reasonably clear a day after a Chicago snowstorm

Unfortunately, the bike lanes are still a complete mess, which is something the city needs to work on improving, but at least I could ride in the main lanes safely.

Unfortunately, bike lanes are mostly ignored in the snow-clearing process

Therefore, it seems like so far this winter, snow and ice have been more problematic for bicyclists in the South than in areas to the north that regularly get snow.

Of course, I have not forgotten about the crazy blizzard action going on around New York and New England. How long does it take after one foot of snow falls before roads are reasonably clear for bicycling?

And for everyone else, feel free to leave a comment stating your location and how well your city has been dealing with wintry weather this year.

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51 thoughts on “How Preparation and Maintenance Affect Winter Bicycling

  1. cris says:

    on my commute this morning through Cambridge, MA, most of main roads west of Prospect St. were fairly clear and easy. I waved at a friend at the Harvard Square rotary and it’s always kind of fun how, even when bundled up in several layers, we can still recognize each other by our bikes and certain moves.

    east of Prospect, into Kendall Square, the streets got a little more hazardous. Most of Broadway in Kendall proper was still packed in sanded-over inch tall chunks of ice. So that needed a little bit of extra attention. Also, the new bike onramp to the Longfellow was still obstructed with snow which basically forced most of us to take the lane on the first 100 yards of the bridge. That’s never fun, especially during rush hour.

    Still, a beautiful clear day here, out East.

  2. Miss Sarah says:

    Don has been getting heaps of angry emails this week about the snow too. If the places that don’t usually get snow are having problems, imagine what it’s like up in Edmonton where we usually DO get snow. Now we’re just getting loads more. Check out this photo my friend Tom took:


  3. cris says:

    oh, another bright part of today — most of the drivers were pretty awesome. Everyone was taking it slow and easy and nobody was honking at any one who was just being a little cautious today.

    I’d still like to order a napalm airstrike on Broadway, though … you know, before the evening commute.

    • cycler says:

      It seems like the Broadway bike lanes have been particularly poorly plowed this year, distressing because they’re such a vital bike corridor. Worst is inconsistent plowing- Twice last week I was in the plowed bike lane on the Longfellow side of the 3rd street light, only to find I had to screech to a stop and wait for traffic to clear because there was a giant iceberg in the bike lane on the other side of the intersection.

    • Dottie says:

      Good to hear that the drivers are more cautious. Snow generally calms Chicago drivers, too, which is a plus. Although less so when snow is actively falling, for some totally illogical reason.

  4. It’s just cold down here in Austin. All of the rain left before the freezes hit, and it has not frozen hard enough to turn anything into ice. As it stands, I’ve spent the last two days in a car because I finally gave up on trying to keep warm.

    The temperature starts rising again tomorrow and I’ll be back on my bike.

  5. Thom says:

    Here in quaint old Santa Fe, we have relied mostly on the same snow removal system for the past 400 years – wait a while and it goes away!
    Actually only about three storms so far this year
    yielding about 24″ snow which has…gone away.
    This is a great place for winter cycling, after getting used to the 7000′ altitude.

  6. Trisha says:

    You’re right on about the salt. If it snows more than a couple of times a year, we run out.

  7. Sarah says:

    Here in Boulder, CO the main streets and bike paths are plowed quickly and usually ok soon after a storm (other than possibly the bike lanes, as in Chicago, and path/street intersections). However, neighborhood streets are not plowed at all, so even a few days after the snow I still have to go a few blocks on snowpacked streets to get anywhere (recently it has stayed below freezing after the snow for several days so the snowpack just stays. Once it starts melting, then it gets slushy which is possibly even more dangerous to bike in – very slippery). It is annoying, but I understand that it would take way too many resources to plow every neighborhood street!

    • cb says:

      Pretty much the same story in Denver. Most of my commute can be done on major roads, which are no problem. But I pretty much have to get off and walk my bike for the first and last couple blocks.

      • Axel says:

        I used to live in Lakewood. Tried to cycle on W.Colfax, but found it a bit scary then. This was in 1991. I belive Denver have gotten influx from alot of Boulderians with cycle culture since then?

    • Treesounds says:

      I agree about side roads. They don’t the attention of main roads. And they are horrendous to bike on, even deflated/studded tires are pretty much worthless. But when I get on main roads, studded tires are overkill.

  8. Scott says:

    The snow plows have been taking care of the bike lanes on Milwaukee Ave in Chicago better this year than in previous years. I was working from home on the day of our biggest snowfall this year, but have had no problems on riding on the other days.

  9. cb says:

    “Unfortunately, bike lanes are mostly ignored in the snow-clearing process”

    They’re not ignored by the city, Dottie! They’re obviously being utilized as the great snow receptacles that they are!

  10. […] we’ve finally got more typical L.A winter weather, let’s not forget our brothers and sisters still struggling to ride in the south and east. Evidently, among the other promises Obama has kept […]

  11. Axel says:

    to me that looks like a comfy ride, harldy any ice or snow…but im in sweden! ;)

  12. Daniel Evans says:

    Nice big pile of snow in the bike lane in your pic! Still, at least the road is plowed. The grass is always greener you know, (or maybe the snow always whiter?)… it was supposed to snow here but just rained (as usual) instead, and I am longing for some white wonderland! I know, I know, many of you would gladly send some of your extra:-)

    • Dottie says:

      I know how you feel about longing for a winter wonderland. I still get giddy about the white stuff, having grown up in eastern NC, while real Chicagoans grumble around me.

  13. cycler says:

    Didn’t ride today, because it was looking really mucky and gross-not necessarily unsafe, but the streets were full of dirty grey slush that was getting sprayed everywhere- blech. Also we had no electricity and thus no heat all last night, so I was kind of grumpy and chilled to begin with.

    I saw a lot of people riding though, and it looked reasonably clear on the major streets.

    In Boston, the snow gets pushed to the right by the phalanx of plows, which unfortunately means that the berm on the bike lane side is bigger than the other side. I also think that a lot of secondary private plowing ( parking lots, driveways, even pedestrian plazas) gets dumped into the bike lane- not legal, but hard to enforce, especially since a lot of the secondary plowing happens after the roads are clear and the city plows have stopped their work.

    • Dottie says:

      Yeah, that disgusting grey splattering slush turns my stomach. Reminds me too much of how dirty the city really is. A couple of weeks ago my cream wool coat fell off my back rack and landed in the bike lane – not a puddle – and it was covered in almost-black swampy grossness. Ick.

  14. Traci says:

    You’re right about Atlanta being ill-prepared. For the size of our city, we have practically no resources devoted to snow and ice. We got 5 inches of snow Sunday night and Monday, and the entire metro area was crippled. NOTHING except hospitals or emergency services were operational for at least 2-3 days. Many schools are going to be closed for a 5th day tomorrow. Since we had some sun today it’s better, but the temperature still isn’t above freezing, and it refreezes every night, so all the side streets are crap. I’m honestly petrified of driving when there’s any ice, but with such limited alternative transportation, we have very few options here. I live 2 miles from a MARTA train station, and very few bus routes are running.

    Oh, and the best part is that they use primarily DIRT and GRAVEL on the roads, rather than salt – I’m sure you can guess how much that helps. They supposedly mix salt in with some of the loads, but all we end up with is a nice mess of gravel spraying for days. Ugh…snow in the South is no fun after about the first day if you actually need to get out and about :)

    • Dottie says:

      Aside from broken glass, gravel sounds like the worst material for bicyclists they could choose to use on ice. Gee, take something slippery (gravel!) and put it on something slippery (ice!). Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

  15. Carolyn I. says:

    In Prince George BC, Canada, they clear the main arteries first. Sometimes it take 4 days or more for the side streets to be cleared after a big dump. I am glad that I can take a main route to work so it’s always cleared fairly fast.

    This morning I had to bike on the sidewalks as the big snowblowers, plows, and trucks were out in full force and I didn’t feel safe biking on the road alongside them. Most of the time it is easy biking on the road as I bike around 5 in the morning, so not much traffic. If there’s been a heavy dump, I will choose to walk to work and take the bus home as if the snow is too deep, it’s hard getting around on bike. I have no trouble with ice, the knobbly tires on the mtn bike seem to handle it good.

    I was happily surprised that the city plows the little bit of bike paths that we have. And I even know the guy who does it! They have the cutest little snowblower for that. But unfortunately, they don’t plow the snow in the bike lanes ever, so I have to take a lane.

    • Dottie says:

      Being able to bike the main route is a big help, I’m realizing while reading all these comments. Sometimes I take for granted how traffic-calmed (relatively) the main routes are in Chicago, making it possible to cycle along them when necessary, although not quite enjoyable.

  16. “Of course, I have not forgotten about the crazy blizzard action going on around New York and New England. How long does it take after one foot of snow falls before roads are reasonably clear for bicycling?”

    The blizzard in Boston was yesterday, and I did not feel comfortable cycling either yesterday after it or today. This is despite our neighbourhood’s doing a very good job of mobilising the snow plows immediately. Even after the plows, the roads yesterday were covered with a layer of snow. Today, chunks of snow and ice remain all over the roads (even after more plowing) and these are often difficult to see. So I walked, both yesterday and today. My husband however, cycled to work both during and right after the blizzard – just because he likes that sort of thing. Neither of us have snow tires, but we have heavy upright city bikes (me a Gazelle and he a Pashley).

    • Dottie says:

      Those chunks of snow and ice sound like the worst part. Even a small ice chunk in my way can divert my tire. I’ve never actually fallen or had a close call with an ice chunk, so maybe I’m too paranoid about it, but I consider it a nemesis, up there with train tracks and skateboarders.

  17. Luke Wilson says:

    Upstate New York, city/county/state workers are eagerly soaking up all the overtime they can.
    In other words roads are okay.

  18. My commute is in Flagstaff, AZ, where we really do have a winter. We had two feet of snow in December. The main arteries and bus and emergency routes get plowing priority. Neighborhood streets seem to get about one pass with the plow and the urban trail usually is plowed within a few days of the snow ending, although I know there are still many sections that still have a good bit of snow and ice on them. Bike lanes sometimes are plowed but mostly they just hold snow. I think the main issue is just inadequate funding, which every city is facing. I’m not very good at navigating ice and snow but I’m practicing. Part of the secret is to keep pedaling but I feel no shame and getting off the bike and walking it.

    • Dottie says:

      Definitely no shame at getting off and walking! I know that sometimes the best technique is to just keep pedaling, but I never do – I get too nervous.

      Lucky for me, budget problems don’t really affect snow plowing in Chicago because the politicians are too afraid of angry mobs of voters. The mayor tried to cut back a couple of years ago and he got so much hell for it.

      • NancyB says:

        And, if you go even further back to the “Blizzard of ’79” it cost one mayor a reelection! That year was actually a turning point in snow removal in Chicago and it’s been much better ever since.

        • Carolyn I. says:

          They sent out a survey in Prince George recently about options on cutting back on snow removal, there was a BIG backlash! I mean after all, we live in a Northern city…snow is normal. What were they thinking?

  19. Amy says:

    Here in Johnson City TN we don’t seem to have plows. We have some pick up trucks with a tractor plow attached to the front, and I think that I saw a dump truck with the same rig! :) Least to say, today was the first day in week that I got to ride. It’s not too bad though, they took care of the main roads and interstates. It’s all the back roads (which is what I mostly need to use) that were the real adventure!

    • Dottie says:

      A dump truck with a plow on the front – I admire the ingenuity. I imagine in places where main streets are not traffic-calmed and therefore dangerous for cycling, the lack of plowing on back roads is a big problem. Hopefully the sunshine will come soon and clear everything up for you.

    • Traci says:

      Ha – sounds exactly like Atlanta! In fact, I think they are actually referring to those dump trucks when they say “snow plow.” :) Now that we’re at the FIFTH day with most schools being closed, and even MARTA offering limited service, they are finally admitting that they should have been more proactive when they knew this storm was going to hit days before – hmmm…you think?! Now their problem is that people abandoned their vehicles on roads, including interstates, so they can’t adequately clear them – sheesh!

      • Amy says:

        Sheesh indeed! That happened once when I liven in Asheville, NC. A BIG snow storm came through and they hadn’t done anything at all to prepare for it. There were accidents everywhere and people were abandoning their cars in the middle of roads. It was nuts.

  20. Jeanette says:

    I’m in Brooklyn and work in mid town Manhattan. I didn’t ride today or yesterday because of piled up snow and worry about black ice. It’s supposed to be frigid tonight, but I’m thinking I’ll be ok to ride tomorrow — the streets looked fairly clear, and I’ll stick to wider streets with bike lanes as much as possible. The bike lanes I saw today looked manageable–ie, not obliterated by ploughed snow. I think I’ll have to allow extra time, though. NYC definitely did a better job clearing snow this time than they did two weeks ago — and the snow was lighter this time (sorry, New England, for sending it your way…)

    • Dottie says:

      I saw on Streetsblog that the new separated lanes were not cleared as of yesterday. I’d be interested to know whether they are by today. You’d think the city would have invested in properly-sized plows specifically for those paths.

      • Jeanette says:

        The bike lanes I used this morning were fine….a bit narrower due to snowbanks, but fine. I did not use any of the separated bike lanes this morning (except for the Brooklyn Bridge, which was pretty clear except at the edges, but since there were no pedestrians in the morning cold, the decreased width was not an issue). NYC has already used up its snow budget for the year, which doesn’t bode well for additional equipment…..

  21. SM says:

    I did not ride my bike yesterday. The main roads were clear, but the shoulders where I travel were packed high with snow and what shoulder was visible, had balls of snow, which would mean weaving In and out of traffic, with barely any room between the cyclist and the car, to avoid all the large snowball obstacles. I did see one rider though in the morning on his mountain bike. I love this guy, I see him commute often going in the opposite direction from where I’m heading, but I was surprised to see him yesterday. He never wears a helmet, rides with a backpack, and in nice weather I see him drinking coffee and pedaling away with no hands (great balance skills). One of these days, I’m going to follow him and ask for an interview :)

  22. Coreen says:

    Here in E-town, we had a the biggest snowfall in 20 years last week, and the current temperature is -26 (-34 with windchill). I’m still riding, but on the sidewalks (80 blocks on sidewalks sucks) as the windrows on the streets are so large that they’ve reduced the 4 lane arterial streets I usually ride on into 2 lanes. The biggest problem I’m having, though, is all the snow that’s been packed down into hard bumps is really hard on my back.

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