Edmonton reclaiming the joy of winter!

Another great event exploring the potential of winter cities is happening in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada this week, the Winter Cities Shake-up 2015. Check out great photos #ExploreEdmonton.

When a CBC-Edmonton meteorologist prefaced his announcement of a blizzard by saying “I’ve got some exciting news…” Susan Holdsworth knew the conversation about winter was changing. This week, the dialogue continues with people from around the world who have gathered in Edmonton for the Winter Cities Shake-up 2015, a conference about “inspiring greatness in Northern Cities.”

As WinterCity Coordinator at the City of Edmonton, Holdsworth has been one of the forces behind this conference. She recently told us that Edmonton’s embrace of winter began about three years ago when city leaders acknowledged that Edmonton was missing out on opportunities by ignoring the season and decided to take action. A WinterCity Strategy addressing design, business and fun has been since been developed. Encouraging winter cycling is a part of this overall movement, and Edmonton has undertaken a pilot program meant to improve maintenance of on-street bike infrastructure. We love sharing inspiration from other winter cycling cities on this blog so here’s a bit of Edmonton’s story as told by those who are working to enable more winter cycling.

Brenda Dola is an engineer who specializes in sustainable transportation at the City of Edmonton and Christopher Chan is the Executive Director of the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters’ Society. Here’s what they have to say about the city’s recent efforts and their impact on winter cycling.

What is Edmonton doing to accommodate more winter cycling?

BD: A vision for Edmonton is to create a bicycle-friendly city where more people cycle more often. The reality is, we are a “winter city” and in order to meet that vision, we recognize the importance of providing year-round cycling facilities. Currently, our website provides information on winter cycling including tips on how to dress, mandatory lighting equipment for cycling in the dark, tyres, and technique. We also ask cyclists to help keep us updated on maintenance issues they may encounter along their route, and we provide information on how to report these issues.

Obviously, one of the important factors in accommodating winter cycling is maintenance of the routes. Cyclists must feel comfortable riding on the roadway surface and confident riding in close proximity to vehicle traffic. Snow removal is directed by the City’s current Snow and Ice Control Policy. There are two main types of cycling facilities in Edmonton: on-street bike routes and shared-use pathways/sidewalks adjacent to roadways. Snow removal from pathways along roadways is required within 48 hours and is often achieved far more quickly. The Policy directs that snow is ploughed from designated on-street bike lanes in accordance with the same service level designated for the roadway on which the bicycle route is located and does not provide direction for priority removal of windrows on bicycle facilities. We recognize that the current policy does not address winter maintenance of on-street bike routes in a manner that is conducive to accommodating more winter cycling. As a result, we are undertaking a winter maintenance pilot project on one of our on-street routes – 106th Street – to help determine how to best deliver a more effective maintenance program, and what kind of effort and cost this would entail.

Edmonton is using social media to change the story about winter. Check out #ExploreEdmonton on Instagram.
Edmonton is using social media to change the story about winter. Check out #ExploreEdmonton on Instagram.

Tell me about the pilot you are running on 106th Street? Can you share any initial results?

BD: The 106th Street Winter Maintenance Pilot was implemented in the winter of 2013-2014 in an effort to deliver a more effective on-street bike route maintenance program that could be applied to the entire Priority Bicycle Network in the future. Transportation Services’ goal was to provide a minimum 1 metre clear width of bare pavement in the bike lanes located along the entire 106th Street corridor from 29th Avenue to Saskatchewan Drive, which is approximately 7 kilometres or 4.3 miles. However, the last winter season was particularly challenging, as the snowfall was 25 percent above average, with almost double the average snowfall during the October through December period. This resulted in significant windrows early in the season. In January, a significant warm period created runoff and slumping of the windrows, and the subsequent return to below-freezing temperatures resulted in hazardous ice patches and uneven surfaces in the bike lanes.

In general, the ploughing was completed within 48 hours of storm events in accordance with the Snow and Ice Control Policy. However, ploughing was not effective in addressing the needs of cyclists. Ploughs sometimes left a thin layer of snow behind that migrated toward the edge of the roadway where the bike lanes are located. Bicycle tyres do not create enough friction to melt away this snow so when snow combines with sand and salt on the road, it becomes a material with a texture similar to brown sugar. It’s difficult to ride through and can compact to create an uneven surface. Efforts to broom the on-street bike route in these areas were not effective at clearing the roadway surface. Overall, the windrows along 106th Street were maintained well enough to provide a 1 metre clear zone for cyclists, but this was a challenge in areas where curb line sidewalk did not provide adequate boulevard space to store snow ploughed from the roadway.

In order to obtain a better sampling of what can be achieved in a “normal” snow year, the pilot was extended to the current winter season of 2014-2015. The Roadway Maintenance Section also committed to provide additional maintenance above and beyond the Snow and Ice Control Policy in order to meet the goal of 1 metre clear width of bare pavement for the bike lanes along 106th Street. The Sustainable Transportation Department completes weekly observations and evaluations that are provided to the Roadway Maintenance Section so that additional snow removal or other maintenance can be completed as required. We are currently halfway through the winter season and will have a complete report on the pilot project in late spring. We are also sending out surveys to gauge public perception of the effectiveness of this season’s snow clearing and spring sweeping efforts. These surveys will be live in March, and again following spring sweeping.

What are the biggest challenges to accommodating more winter cycling in Edmonton?

BD: The biggest challenge we have is that we are a relatively young city that was built during an era heavily influenced by the automobile. We are still very car-dependent, and most commuter trips are undertaken in a single-occupant passenger vehicle. What we struggle with is people – both citizens and within our Administration – understanding the value of providing and maintaining infrastructure for cycling, and having misconceptions of what cycling in the winter is really like. This challenge is further compounded by the fact that we struggle to maintain our existing bike lanes in the winter. It is difficult to convince people that cycling is a viable transportation option worth investing in, when existing bike lanes are regularly not passable during the winter season.

How has cycling been impacted by the growing acceptance of winter underway in Edmonton?

CC: Edmonton has, in a lot of ways, been coming out of its shell over the last few years, and embracing its realities and potential. Winter cycling in Edmonton used to be the exclusive domain of the hardy and the hard-core: check out this video from 1996 about winter cycling in Edmonton (see below). I didn’t live in Edmonton back then, but the interesting thing is that I know or am not far separated from almost everyone involved in that video. It was a small, dedicated community.

And with winter cycling specifically, even just 5 years ago, when I passed another cyclist on the trail in -20° Celsius (-4° Fahrenheit), chances were good that I knew them. That’s certainly not the case anymore.

This year especially, coinciding with the growth in popularity of fat bikes, a lot of people are happily realizing that they can continue riding for both transportation and recreation in the winter. Now, I’ll see two dozen people on a group ride, snaking their way through snowy trails at night in the river valley, and I won’t know a single one. And it makes me really happy.

To think that winter cycling has so easily shifted from being perceived as a “crazy” activity to a “fun” activity in such a short span: I admit, after working for so many years to promote it, the rapid change caught me a bit off-guard.

From the infrastructure side, one of the changes that we’ve seen is how the City of Edmonton maintains paved shared-use paths, the off-street network of pedestrian and cyclist routes. In the past, many paths were essentially unmaintained and left inaccessible for the winter. In Calgary, it was the cyclists that started clearing their own paths. In recent years, however, Edmonton has made strong, mostly-successful efforts at maintaining its shared-use paths year-round. We haven’t had as much success with on-street bike routes, but they’ve started thinking about those, too.

What’s the best anecdote you’ve heard about winter cycling in Edmonton?

CC: I think cycling in winter is like cycling in the summer. You get on your bike and pedal. The enjoyable things about it are still mostly the little things, like this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 11.06.44 AM
One of the sweetest benefits of getting outside in the winter.

It’s being active outside and being able to observe and appreciate the sunlight, the smells, the sights and the sounds. I think, as someone who bikes in winter, it’s tempting to trot out a story about helping push a car out of a snow bank or alley. Most of us have done it, and it makes you feel a bit guiltily smug about the irony of it. But aside from just being a decent thing to do, it really ties back to the best parts of cycling: when you’re on a bike, it’s easy to stop and get off. You’re more connected to your environment, and you can slow down to appreciate it – or to help dig someone out.

Riding a bike is fun. But it’s fun not because of the machine itself, but because it’s just you and the world around you; the bicycle is just the tool propelling you through that world at a reasonable speed. And that’s the same in the winter as in the summer.

Keep up the good work, Edmonton and check out Leeuwarden’s story for proof that sustained effort over time can pay off in terms of high mode share for cycling. Better yet, come and experience Leeuwarden for yourself at the Winter Cycling Congress, registration closes 1 February.

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