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.

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

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Don’t you think those photos with palm trees are a bit on the cruel side? 🙂

    Great post. As you alluded to, there are some limits for most of us on how long we’re comfortable being outside in extremely cold weather. I can ride a mile or walk three or four blocks in just about any temps, and do, but any further ain’t gonna happen if it’s below zero. Fortunately, winters like this are only about once every 30 to 40 years.

    For me, aside from such really extreme temps, it’s having safe facilities to ride on and that are kept clear of snow in the winter.

  2. Morgan

    My theory is that it is how hot is gets that influences bicycle culture and not how cold it gets. I think that there is an easily identifiable correlation between cooler climate cities and bike culture. It’s Minneapolis, Portland, Montreal, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Beijing, NOT Miami, Los Angles, New Orleans, Rome, Madrid, and Hong Kong.

    The summer I moved here, 2008, there were only four days where the temperature was above 90 degrees. That is very comfortable biking weather! On the flip side, I went to Austin for SXSW in the spring and was shocked by how hot it was biking around. I said to myself that I could not imagine biking there in the summer. People could literally die of heat exhaustion.

    1. Cameron ConwayCameron

      I definitely agree. At least with winter riding you have the option of moderating your temperature to some degree. In a 95 degree summer… you’re just hot. I wonder if shade cover enters the equation to any degree?

      1. Morgan

        I think that it’s Dubai that is building covered bike trails. Basically a canvas tunnel. They probably also need a water main with frequent fountains.

  3. Jennifer

    Weather and geography are definitely factors, but safety is an even more important factor in deciding when/where to bike. I bike 3 miles to work in DT SP on side streets & the High Bridge until the snow flies – after that I don’t feel safe on the bridge, even after it has been plowed, it just loses a good portion of the bike lane. I’ve thought about just biking the ped sidewalk but there are a surprising number of peds on the bridge, even in the winter (yea for St. Paul walkers!). And I agree, I’m less likely to bike in the extreme heat – no showers at work make for a long, sticky day. I’m lucky though, I do live 3 miles from my job (okay, lucky by design, I quit DT Mpls to be in SP) and most of the streets leading from WSP are pretty low traffic. I’d just really like to see more people biking, even if it is only 6-8 months out of the year. It’s so FUN!

  4. Monte Castleman

    Interesting statistic about how only 5% of bicycle owners will ride on streets without marked lanes. I won’t ride on a street under any circumstances, bicycle lane or not. Are there any statistics about how many will use off-road paths or cycletracks only?

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