Fair Weather Pedaling: Winter shouldn’t stop you from using your bike to commute

When that first snow falls in winter, many believe that’s the end of using a bike to get around until temperatures begin to rise again in the spring. Even many cyclists themselves fall for this narrative – snow and the cold are commonly listed as the main reasons to not hop on a bike. Yet, cycling in the winter is not only possible, but can be a lot of fun and a great way to get around.

“Biking is a great way to shake off the winter blues: the fresh air and physical activity help a lot,” says Jonesy Mann, Operations Director at AS220 in Providence and year-round bike commuter. “Biking when it’s snowing is really fun! Zooming through the flurries is exhilarating, and you don’t get wet. [It’s] way better than biking in the rain.”

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be prepared if you want to commute by bike this winter. “Layers are key in cold weather. I start bundled up, and as my body heat builds I’ll shed the scarf and unzip my outer jacket,” says Mann. “To figure out how many layers to put on, I’ll look at the temperature and dress as if I’m going to take a brisk walk in the park.”

“Skinny racing-style tires don’t grab the road very well when it’s slick,” Mann adds. “Wider tires, especially knobby ones, make me feel much more stable when there’s ice and slush on the road. Adding fenders to your bike will keep your clothes dry as your wheels kick up water.”

Mann is hardly the only one who uses his bike to get around no matter what time of year: Biking during the colder months is actually more common than one might think. The Winter Cycling Federation, an international organization dedicated to making winter cycling more accessible, has many projects to promote the activity, including a winter bike-to-work campaign and an annual February Winter Cycling Congress that’s been taking place since 2013. While the 2022 conference was unfortunately postponed due to COVID-19 and the surge of the omicron variant, the Winter Cycling Federation is already preparing for its 2023 conference.

The main reason cycling in the winter can be difficult is not because of the cold or snow as many assume, but instead inadequate maintenance of bike infrastructure. 

“This is our first snow with our new bike lanes,” shares Susan Mocarski, referring to an early January storm. Mocarski is the founder and designer of Cleverhood, a local Providence company that designs waterproof athletic outerwear for biking, walking, and traveling in all weather. “Providence is new to all of this, it might take a little time for them to understand why it is important [to properly clear bike lanes].”

Oulu, Finland, for example, has far more intense winters than most major North American cities, yet cycling barely declines at all when winter rolls around due to the city’s dedicated and creative maintenance of its bike infrastructure. When bike lanes are given less consideration than car lanes in snowy weather, biking can be a lot more difficult. 

“We have to keep trying to make our local legislators and politicians see that roads are not only for cars but they are for people,” adds Mocarski. “People that are walking, that are waiting for buses, that are in wheelchairs or walkers, people that cycle…These people all pay taxes too and should be considered and included in our road plans.”

While it hasn’t stopped Mann, the maintenance of Providence bike infrastructure leaves room for improvement. “The protected bike lane on Olney Street is too narrow for Providence’s snow plows, so it essentially doesn’t exist for much of the winter. I don’t believe our bike trails get cleared either,” says Mann. “It would be nice to see the city invest in a special plow that can handle these narrower spaces. If the city really wants to support year-round bike commuting, then the Department of Public Works has to take the upkeep of bikeways as seriously as they do for cars.” 

If you are thinking about commuting by bike this winter, don’t let the snow or the cold put you off. If you know that where you’ll be biking will be clear and maintained, give it a try!