Ice cycles: the northerly world cities leading the winter bicycle revolution - The Guardian

It happened for me three years ago in Turku: the moment I realized that cycling in the snow was going to become normal. I was winding my way up Finland, en route to the world’s first ever Winter Cycling Congress, hosted by a city called Oulu some 400 miles north. It had been snowing non-stop for a week.

I thought I had already found somewhere quite special. Earlier that afternoon, I had watched what I believed to be an impressive number of people riding their bicycles on Turku’s main shopping street in the falling snow. I remember thinking, as I ran around with my camera taking as many pictures as possible before sunset: “Oulu must be like this.”

When I arrived in Oulu that year, everything suddenly became clear. I had found it: a real winter in a real winter city. It was the kind of city I knew – a snowy one with just the right amount of ugly buildings, box stores and strip malls. It had American-style suburbs full of single family homes, it had the hockey rinks, it even had the right kind of trees. It was just like Winnipeg, Canada – except for the properly connected bike paths which stretched for miles in every direction and the thousands of people riding bicycles in the snow.

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What Oulu makes up for in moderation due to its proximity to the ocean it loses in lack of sunlight thanks to being 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The mercury in Winnipeg is higher over the summer and dips lower in midwinter but experiences average daytime winter temperatures within four degrees of Oulu. At 160–175 days of snow coverage each year (pdf), Oulu’s number of days with snow on the ground is higher than Winnipeg’s average of 132. Yet the differences in bicycle usage between the two cities are stark.

Measuring bicycle trips is not easy. Kids under 18, for example, are almost always left out. However, the most cited reports put Oulu’s overall bicycle modal share at around 22% (32% in summer, 12% in winter). If Oulu were located in North America, its winter bicycle share alone would make it a shoo-in for the continent’s most bike friendly city. It would leave the summer ridership numbers of places like Portland, Davis or Minneapolis trailing. By contrast, even though cycling is currently the fastest growing form of transportation in Winnipeg, the 2011 national census pegs us at 2.1%. Two winter cities, with two remarkably different stories.

Snow is an identity issue. Winter stakes out a special physiological and psychological space in those supposedly hardy people who think they are adapted to it. Some of the hype is fair – a really cold winter day can, after all, kill you fairly quickly. But some of us like to overemphasize our own bravery.

Most assumptions about winter cycling are based on the same myths no matter where you are from. Those -30C days do happen in Winnipeg, but they are pretty uncommon; yet we allow the deep freeze days to characterize an entire winter. We also conveniently forget that cycling keeps you warm – comfortably so. In an urban environment, the risk of being harmed by the weather while cycling is reduced to nil with a basic scarf and jacket. We assume that winter cycling is dangerous but somehow we forget that vehicle speeds are the real issue, and that they drop in the winter. It shouldn’t be surprising when a study shows that cycling in the winter months with steady conditions is relatively safe compared to cycling in June.

In a city, the risk of being harmed by the weather while cycling is reduced to nil with a basic scarf and jacket

When we wonder out loud “why anyone would ever want to spend more than a few minutes outside in a place like this”, we forget about its beauty. Winter is a glorious spectacle of glittering fractals complete with a soundscape and atmosphere entirely its own. Some of us have forgotten the bright side of winter: the simplicity, the efficiency, the pragmatism. In transportation terms, winter is all smooth, clean lines and quiet sounds. Bikes fit right in. Perhaps sitting in cars has dulled our senses.


I still find it amusing that pictures of children cycling in the winter elicit amazement in Canada – even skepticism. You’d think that a country famous for winter sports, and which scores D- on its own children’s physical activity report card, would be about ready to see them outside getting a little exercise. In Oulu, where 30% of children under 12 (pdf) ride a bicycle to school year round, you will find packed bike racks outside primary schools in January. In Joensuu, 50% of people of all ages continue riding once the leaves fall. A similar scenario will reveal itself to you in numerous cities in Sweden and Finland. Places like Linköping, Uppsala, Umeå, Örebro, Karlstad, Rovaniemi, Jyväskylä and Luleå demonstrate that cycling in the snow is not just possible but popular. It is enough to make any bike-friendly planner living in a city with cold winters completely rethink the idea of weather as a barrier.

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