Winter Bike Commuting Racks Up Miles

U.S. Bicycle Commuting Up 61% Since 2000

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Arthur Ross has been bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the city of Madison, Wis. Traffic Engineering Department for nearly 30 years and is a year-round bike commuter with a four-mile round trip.

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Posted: Wednesday, February 4, 2015 3:27 pm

Biking is not just for summer commuting. As bicyclists – and the cities they live in – are discovering, getting around on two wheels works when there’s snow on the ground too.

It just takes a little planning.

While winter cycling or “ice biking” can be challenging, especially in the North, not only are more cyclists hitting the streets year-round, but cities are increasingly more bike-friendly, working closely with any number of bike advocacy and community organizations.

In America, the country of car culture, biking to work winter and summer has increased by about 60 percent in the past decade, according to USA Today, but cyclists still account for less than one percent of all commuters. In Copenhagen, 50 percent of residents commute by bike and the city has more bikes than people.

During the years 2008-2012, about 786,000 Americans commuted by bicycle, up from about 488,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That jump is the largest percentage increase of all commuting modes tracked by the 2000 Census and the 2008-2012 American Community Survey.

Some large cities more than doubled their rate of bike commuters, according to Brian McKenzie, a Census Bureau sociologist and author of the survey. Portland, Ore., had the highest bicycle-commuting rate at 6.1 percent, up from 1.8 percent in 2000; Minneapolis saw its bicycle commuting rate jump from 1.9 percent to 4.1 percent.

The survey reported the Top 10 U.S. cities with populations of more than 65,000 residents with the highest rates of bicycle commuting are:

1. Davis, Calif., 19.1 percent

2. Boulder, Colo., 12.1 percent

3. Palo Alto, Calif., 9.5 percent

4. Eugene, Ore., 8.7 percent

5. Cambridge, Mass., 8.5 percent

6. Fort Collins, Colo., 7.9 percent

7. Berkeley, Calif., 7.6 percent

8. Santa Barbara, Calif., 6.9 percent

9. Madison, Wis., 6.3 percent

10. Missoula, Mont., 6.2 percent

Survey Population Measured

The survey measured the percentage of commuters who bike to work, as opposed to walking, taking public transit, driving or using another form of transportation, McKenzie said. College towns and cities ranked high as students and faculty of universities often live very close to where they work on-campus or close to campus.

GearJunkie writer Stephen Regenold said untold thousands of people in the U.S. pedal year-round to work or school, commuting on city streets and plowed trails.

“New cycling equipment, better apparel and a growing awareness of the feasibility of wintertime riding has caused a jump in participation. The attraction? Street parking is free. Gas prices do not apply. In a storm, two wheels and pedals can be faster for getting around a city than a car struck in a traffic jam,” he wrote.

“Winter riding is not without hardship. Evenings come early, forcing riders to pedal home in the dark. Snowdrifts squeeze streets, eliminating a comfortable side lane for bikes. Frozen fingers and feet are common issues for the unprepared. But dress right, use fenders and lights on the bike, maybe add studded tires, and commuting in the bleak months can be comfortable and efficient.”

Boulder and Madison are among the best cities for winter cycling, and ones where there is a strong partnership between local government, bicycle groups, civic organizations, environmentally friendly agencies and other champions of sustainability. Boulder is a platinum-level and Madison a gold-level Bike Friendly City, as designated by the League of American Bicyclists.

Boulder’s Approach

Marni Ratzel, senior transportation planner for Boulder for 13 years, said the city stresses and supports a balanced approach to commuting that includes walking, biking or using public transit.

“We want to recognize and celebrate the culture of the people who choose to live and work in Boulder. Cycling is obviously part of our culture,” she said. “As part of our master transportation plan, a long-term goal is to reduce single occupant cars to only 25 percent of our commuting total. More year-round bike use can help achieve that.”

Ratzel and her staff strive to raise awareness for and promote 60 miles of bike paths.

“That includes telling everyone what a great place Boulder is to bike in the winter,” she said, adding that many Boulder cyclists say their bicycles are faster than getting across town in a car held up by winter weather and traffic.

The city recently held its seventh annual “Winter Bike to Work and School Day”, Ratzel said, which attracted more than 1,000 riders and about a dozen local businesses serving breakfast and encouraging commuters. That same day, a new Bus-Then-Bike shelter was unveiled as the “crown jewel” of the redesigned Boulder Transit Center. This shelter includes 144 free, secure bike racks.

Bike to Work believes that riding a bicycle can be a fun way to get to and from work while increasing physical activity, reducing traffic congestion, helping the environment and saving money. While the yearly cost of owning and operating a vehicle is more $9,000, or 18 percent of the average household's income, owning and maintaining a bicycle can cost as little as $120 per year.

The Bike to Work website is maintained by the Pedestrian Bicycle and Information Center (PBIC), a national clearinghouse for information about health and safety, engineering, advocacy, education, enforcement, access and mobility for pedestrians (including transit users) and bicyclists. The PBIC serves anyone interested in pedestrian and bicycle issues, including planners, engineers, private citizens, advocates, educators, police enforcement and the health community.

Winter Riding Tips Workshop

Community Cycles, a non-profit organization of Boulder bicycle enthusiasts, also held a workshop offering tips about winter riding as part of the Winter Bike to Work event.

“Luckily, we live in a town in which citizens have funded, supported and valued a wonderful bikeway system that can keep cyclists off the road a majority of the time,” said Sue Prant, executive director of Community Cycles. “As I've seen during the recent cold snaps and snow, these paths are cleared early and often.

“Winter commuting by bike is not an all-or-nothing deal. You can start slowly, build confidence and skills, and even cherry-pick good weather days. What you'll find is that it is invigorating and very doable,” she added. “We educate the community about bicycle safety, and advocate for the use of bicycles as affordable, viable and sustainable transportation.”

Another excellent example of what bikers mean to Boulder is the annual June Bike to Work Day, held since 1977, Ratzel said.

Madison, Wis. is a very bike-friendly city and is proactive in supporting winter cycling, said Arthur Ross, pedestrian-bicycle coordinator for the city of Madison. “We take biking seriously," Ross said. "We recognize that bikes are out there and Madison strives to do the best it can for people who ride.”

According to, Madison’s successful bicycle infrastructure has made getting around town by bike such a feasible venture that many Madison bike commuters do continue on through the winter months. Currently, the town has 87 miles of bike lanes and 43 miles of off-road bike paths that are quickly cleared of snow by the parks department. Many Madison cyclists claim the bike paths are often cleared before the streets.

Website Supports Bikers

The city’s website devoted exclusively to bicycling is a great resource and support for year-round bike commuters, Ross said, and “all Madison Metro buses are equipped with bike racks available on a first come, first served basis.”

Ross has been the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in Traffic Engineering for nearly 30 years and is himself a year-round bike commuter with a four-mile round trip. He “guesstimates” that as many as 20 percent of Madison’s commuters ride bikes.

Madison has created a master map of all facilities, roads, highways and other transportation links designating which city department is responsible for snow removal.

“Our Pedestrian/Bicycle Commission works closely with the Streets Department to ensure there is no duplication with snow removal. This allows us to clear bike paths quickly. We have good lines of communication and work consistently to improve our ability to support bikers with efficient snow clearing,” Ross said.

Equally important, he added, is the positive impact biking has had on Madison, citing the 2010 study, “Valuing Bicycling’s Economic and Health Impacts in Wisconsin,” done by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.

“The study estimates the value of recreational bicycling in Wisconsin and the potential health benefits from increasing the state’s bicycle commuting at nearly $2 billion,” he said. “For Madison, it means that bicycling can contribute substantially to our health and economic well being. And because the study helps us understand the demographics of current and future cyclists, we can better target future investments in winter and year-round biking infrastructure.”

Five Categories Included

The study divides the value of Wisconsin bicycling into five categories: economic impact of manufacturing, sales and services ($598 million), economic impact of tourism and recreation ($924 million), value of additional physical activity ($320 million), value of air quality improvement ($89 million) and value of greenhouse gas reductions ($1.1 million).

According to the study, “Bicycling enjoys a long history in Wisconsin. County construction of bicycle paths was authorized by the legislature in 1901, and bike lanes on roads have been in use since at least the early 1940s.”

Chicago is a major hub for winter cycling and is home to Bike Winter, an all-volunteer, grassroots project that began in 1999 and has since spread to other cities and towns. It also sponsors events in Madison.

According to its website, "The idea of Bike Winter is simple: with a little inspiration, education and determination, it’s easy to stay in the saddle year round. Add in the camaraderie of hundreds of riders and dozens of exciting events and there’s no reason to put your bike in the basement when the temperature dips and snow starts to fall."

Dozens of volunteers organize events and promote Bike Winter, which has an email discussion list of more than 300 for planning and swapping tips and stories.

Chicago’s Chainlink

There is also an active discussion group on The Chainlink, which offers a variety of resources to help local cyclists safely and comfortably bike through Chicago's tough winters.

“For years, The Chainlink’s forum has allowed members to share tips, tricks and suggestions for successful winter biking,” Editor-in-Chief Brett Ratner said. “In our calendar, it's never been hard to find educational events such as winter bike clinics. In addition, you can usually find social 'snow rides.'

Many of the people involved in the early days of Chainlink and Bike Winter met through Chicago’s Critical Mass rides. Over the years, these rides have fostered a community of bicycle activists who have launched projects such as Break the Gridlock (BTG), a non-profit umbrella organization promoting appropriate transportation and reducing automobile dependence in the Chicago area.

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