Things We Build Even Though Use May Be Seasonal

One of the arguments I hear frequently against investment in bicycle facilities is that people don’t bike in the winter (and winter is eight months long). We know that some people certainly ride bicycles all year regardless of weather, and we can probably guess that if we did a better job maintaining our bike infrastructure in the winter people would use it more. And some folks are doing very important business on bikes all year long. But, fair enough, for many people bicycling is a seasonal activity. I’ve seen some data collected locally that suggests bicycle use nose dives in December, and picks back up again in April. Does this mean we shouldn’t build bike infrastructure?

Data Courtesy of Saint Paul Smart Trips.

Data Courtesy of Saint Paul Smart Trips.

I’ve never really understood why this is a compelling reason not to invest in bike facilities. We invest public money in a lot of things that we know may be used seasonally. Such as:

  • swimming pools
  • splash pads
  • picnic shelters
  • pavilions
  • basketball courts
  • tennis courts
  • professional baseball fields
  • golf courses
  • ice skating rinks
  • playgrounds
  • boat docks
  • cross-country ski loops

These are all recreational things, and I’m not trying to cast off bikes as recreational toys. But I’ve never heard someone argue that we shouldn’t build a playground because it wouldn’t get used much in winter. We seem to understand that even if it doesn’t get used in winter, it’s worth the investment for the other three seasons.

The private sector understands this, and routinely invests in seasonal things. Restaurants build outdoor patios or seating areas. Ice cream shops exist in the winter despite what I suspect is pretty slow business. Most houses have garages, though I bet they get used a lot more in the winter than they do in the summer.

Even motorized traffic is subject to seasonal variations.

Monthly ADT on highway 53 near Virginia, MN.

Monthly ADT on highway 53 near Virginia, MN.

A lot of things are seasonal, and it doesn’t make them less worthy of investment. Our objective should still be to promote bicycling as a year-round transportation option, but in the mean time, I don’t think seasonal variation in usage makes bicycle facilities less worthy of investment.

13 thoughts on “Things We Build Even Though Use May Be Seasonal

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    That highway 53 chart is particularly interesting. Also, this reminds me of the ‘black friday parking’ discussion, where lots of parking infrastructure is designed for peak use that might occur only once or twice a year.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Excellent post. I like the highway chart — emphasizing that cycling, even if only during the summer, is a nice complement to automotive accommodations, relieving highway traffic when it’s highest. (In addition to providing exercise, connecting communities, saving gas, and so on.)

    Do you know if that’s typical on, say, metro freeways? (Anecdotally, they seem as bad or worse during the winter, but weather may be coloring my views.)

    1. Monte Castleman

      I don’t have any data to support this, but I believe Highway 53 is an bad example, or at least an outlier. There’s a relatively huge amount of recreational traffic in the summer, and not a lot of year round residents in the winter in that part of the state. I’d believe metro traffic is the highest in the winter when schools are in session and people are back from summer vacations.

      1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

        MnDOT’s Continuous Traffic Recorder reports give monthly breakdowns for those spots where they have continuous/automated traffic recorders (about 90 statewide, with about 40 of those in the Metro). The 2013 report is here:

        Taking a quick look through the charts suggests that, while Hwy 53 is pretty extreme in the difference between winter and summer, the general trend (higher volumes in the summer) is the norm and not the exception. There are plenty of examples of this (I-35 Ellendale, US 52 Oronoco, I-35W Minnesota River, US 10 Anoka, etc etc).

        1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

          I think this is actually a perfect analogy. The highway’s existance is built because it’s needed for local residents. It is used more for recreation, but its primary purpose (why it is a need and not a want) are those 3,000 daily trips in January. However, it is built as a divided, grade separated highway (at least where I google dropped for StreetView). 3,000 vehicles a day is tiny for that. (actually, 6,000 is too).

          Bike lanes are built and used for transportation, and while they get more use in summer, from recreational style transportation (maybe some extra time to get to work, etc.) they are parts of the transportation network. Maybe they could be adequately addressed for the total transportation needs by having sharrows and a few lanes, but we build for the higher user time, and have more bike lanes, protected bike lanes, cycletracks (eventually) and bike paths to accommodate.

  3. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    Undoubtly bike traffic decreases in the winter no matter how or where it is counted. However, because bike infrastructure is not maintained during the winter many winter riders avoid it. For example, I never take Summit in the winter because it is a single lane and cars can’t pass me. I typically take Grand or University in the winter. And now that the Dinkytown Greenway exists, I avoid crossing the river at Marshall and take the Transit Way even if it is out of the way. Would those numbers be a little higher counts were down in different places?

    I recognize the desirability of counting at a single spot each time and that most riders would avoid University in the summer, given a choice, causing another distortion. Ah, the challenges of an accurate count of us wiggly, slippery, sneaky bicyclists.

    1. Thomas Mercier

      Counts would likely be higher, but the ratios of monthly volume to yearly volume have been found to be fairly consistent across various facilities in the Twin Cities where automated counting has been instituted.

  4. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post!

    In Shoreview I ride my bicycle from my office to lunch and for other short distance errands (less than about 5 miles round trip) throughout the winter because Shoreview has good physically segregated bicycle paths and do a good job of keeping them clear.

    In Vadnais Heights I don’t ride during the winter because they don’t have such good infrastructure.

    The difference is not out of concern of falling (I have studded tires on my bike) but because I know the difference in a car sliding in to me at 25 mph if I’m in my steel cage of a car vs on my bike. And there were nearly 500 such incidences in the metro area yesterday. As well, on Shoreview’s paths I don’t get splushed (sprayed with slush/snow/rain by passing cars) and the paths remain better from a snow build-up standpoint.

    And while I never see anyone else riding a bicycle during winter in Vadnais Heights, I see many every day in Shoreview throughout the winter (and it seems to be increasing each year).

  5. hokan

    I guess I don’t much like that the list of summer-only facilities in your list are all recreational.

    Bike lanes have value in the winter; they are good places to store snow.

    Bike traffic certainly is lower in winter, but within that, there’s a lot of variation that depends on the ridability of the road surfaces. Better road maintenance means more bikers.

  6. Michael Kuchta

    Don’t forget private investments in boats, snowmobiles, ice fishing houses, and the trailers to haul them. Or around the home: decks, gardens, grills, snow blowers, lawn mowers, holiday decorations … and roof rakes.

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