Does Climate Decide the Strength of our Biking Community? A Look at Geography, Safety, and Psychology

In my previous blog post, Minneapolis’ Secret to Enticing Residents to Bike in the Tundra, I investigated the means by which Minneapolis has become infamous for its large biking community.  Sitting inside my drafty room five months later, with the weather indicator on my computer indicating a grueling -10 outside, I think it best to reexamine how our climate affects our view of biking, and how it differentiates us from other urban environments.

Snowy roadway inside of the University of Minnesota campus.

Snowy roadway inside of the University of Minnesota campus.

To pursue this, I met with Scott Shaffer, a volunteer of the Minneapolis Bike Coalition. Upon asking him why he personally started biking, he to my surprise stated something I suspected to hold others back, ‘laziness.’ Like many others, stop and go traffic of the city has added a daily nuisance to make the bicycle appealing. In Shaffer’s opinion, the many reasons that hold people back to continue bicycling in the winter are not typically because of the laziness of the person, but rather the ability of the city to make pedestrians feel safe. Procedures to ensure bicyclists feel safe include having greater access to bike parking, increasing the connection with public transportation, adding protected bike lanes, and providing maintenance such as plowing and use of rotary brushes to clear roads, as done on the University of Minnesota campus.



Moreover, when asking about the future of biking beyond the borders of the urban core, the issue of density comes into play. Particularly in the winter when extended rides are not desirable, the need for mixed-use developments, where one is capable of making 5 mile or less rides, is critical. As Shaffer pointed out, “It’s not necessarily that we cannot have biking communities in the suburbs, but rather that communities are built to afford pedestrian transportation…no matter the climate, if you live somewhere where you have to drive 20 minutes to buy something as simple as a bandaid, you are probably not going to bike anywhere.”

Sitting there in the corner café during the interview, I could not help but look outside and see as winter runners safely made their way down the sidewalks along Lyndale Avenue. Although it is evident that the psychology of the matter does influence the use of bike transportation in erratic climates, I started to think that maybe the safety of our environment’s infrastructure is symbiotic to our perception of biking in the city.

SE University Ave; Post snow plow and ice melting

SE University Ave; Post snow plow and ice melting.

Still seeking more answers, I looked for advice in a location many would deem as the inverse to Minnesota. In the city of Honolulu, Hawaii, because of exponential population growth, and an increasing demand on roadways, the Oahu Bike Plan has become of great importance to both urban planners, and residents who deal with the nation’s worst traffic congested city.  When talking to Chad Taniguchi,  executive director of the Hawaii Bicycle League, he reaffirmed safety as one of the biggest challenges facing the biking community. Even in the U.S’s most consistent climate, Honolulu still remains 12th among the U.S bicycle commuter cities, because as Taniguchi stated, “despite of [its] infrastructure.”  With only 5% of the population who own bikes willing to ride on roads without marked lanes, implementing similar infrastructure to Minneapolis, such as protected bike lanes, and connecting bike and public transportation lines, is crucial.  With the recent push for protected bike lanes from mayor Caldwell, the passing of the Complete Streets Ordinance and the Vulnerable State Laws, and the establishment of Hawaii B-Cycle, Taniguchi believes with improved infrastructure, they would be competitive with cities such as Portland, Seattle, and our own Minneapolis.

Urban Core of Honolulu

View of the Urban Core of Honolulu via Aloha Tower

Backroads of Manoa Valley

Backroads of Manoa Valley.

Maybe cities thousands of miles away are not as different as we think. In terms of pedestrian-based transportation in urban environments, it seems that while climate can be, as Taniguchi stated, a “natural asset”, to the psychology of encouraging bike ridership, the design of streets and the safety procedures taken by the city still remain the driving force. From investing in equipment to maintain snow filled parkways, to ensuring riders with connected island-wide protected bike lanes, all cities have diverse hurdles based on their climate and location, but with that, unique opportunities to show the power of pedestrian-oriented planning and design.

SE 15th Ave; Two sided bike paths; A direct path to the UMN campus and the como neighborhood

SE 15th Ave; Even in the middle of winter includes accessible north and south bound bike lanes; A direct path to the UMN campus and the Como neighborhood.

In what ways do you see a city’s infrastructure and ones mentality towards biking interacting? How have you seen our climate either help or work against pedestrian-based transportation?

Images by Abbey Seitz. Data linked to sources. 

Abbey Seitz

About Abbey Seitz

Abbey Seitz, Minnesota native, is a professional urban and regional planner based in Honolulu. Her experience in planning and community organizing in Hawai’i has played a distinct role in her writing, leading her to question why and how places, cities, and regions came to be as they are. She recently released her first book, Perseverance Flooded the Streets.