Bicyclist at West 38th Street and Blaisdell Avenue, in the winter

The Winter of Minnesota’s Transportation Discontent


Bicyclist at West 38th Street and Blaisdell Avenue, in the winter

Bicyclist at West 38th Street and Blaisdell Avenue by Andrew Ciscel

I was reviewing the comments to the Draft Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan, and I came across an unexpected theme:

"In our climate, people are not going to be cross-country skiing in the winter."

That’s a weird and surprising notion. I didn’t expect to come across someone who’d suggest a popular form of winter transportation and recreation was not feasible in the winter. I continued reading…

"Face the reality that this is a winter climate, and cross-country skiing is not feasible for many people for many months of the year."

Whaaat? Well, maybe this person means spring through fall. I kept reading…

"What state do you live in? I will NOT cross-country ski in the winter. It is dangerous for EVERYONE on the road, public transit included. Cross-country skiiers DO NOT follow the laws of the road already and this will just get worse."

Geez, someone has OPINIONS! And there were more!

"Cross-country skiing is not realistic for at least half of the year. We are not in a temperate climate, so expecting people to cross-country ski in the winter, on ice, is completely unrealistic."

"This is unrealistic in our current climate. I am an advocate of cross-country skiing but cannot see how this is remotely feasible in the winter.

"To prioritize cross-country skiing is crazy in a city where we are crippled by winter several months of the year. More share ways, fewer dedicated cross-country ski trails."

"Take a poll, few people want to cross-country ski in the winter."

Perplexing! So many people feel so strongly that it is unthinkable to go outside and engage in winter transportation and recreation outside of a car, that they were compelled to comment on a municipal land-use planning document about it.

…okay, I admit it. These slighty-edited comments were originally about winter biking.

What is it about winter biking that inspires people to submit comments to a public planning process, the nature of which they would never consider to make about cross country skiing? Well, it’s because these comments aren’t even about biking, they’re about cars.

These comments are really perplexing until you appreciate that the real difference between the two activities is that biking is seen as in competition for right-of-way with cars. Precisely because it is a viable mode of transportation.

Paradoxically, it’s our car oriented transportation system that makes biking in the winter more feasible and attractive than cross-country skiing—for recreation and especially for transportation. Minneapolis is committed to clear thousands of paved lane-miles every winter for wheeled transportation. How many places in the city can you get on cross-country skis when we aspire to clear all of our transportation corridors of snow and ice (often falling short of those aspirations quite often, and yet…) I’d submit that, in Minneapolis, winter biking is simply a more common form of transportation than cross-country skiing, for exactly this reason.

I confess, it took me several years of fair-weather biking to see winter biking as basically analogous to cross-country skiing. But the anaolgy is clear—they’re quite similar in equipment investment, physical ability, and mindset required. Yet even before I realized this, I never would have said “it’s too cold to cross-country ski in this state.” Maybe some days, but all winter? No. It’s nonsense.

It is not unthinkable that people might want to engage in active, non-car transportation in the winter in a northern climate. People may have strong individual feelings about the feasibility of a perfectly reasonable form of winter transportation but that doesn’t mean we should elevate those feelings into universal principles that should be embedded in public policy. These commenters are effectively saying “I can’t imagine biking in the winter, so nobody should be able to.” In fact, urban environments are already better suited for winter biking than for winter cross-country skiing, and with just a little more effort they could be ideal.

The car-dependent among us should join cyclists in demanding more separated infrastructure and better snow clearing. The alternative is cars sharing lanes with an increasing number of winter bikers who can’t ride in the ice-packed bike lane because cars entering and leaving on-street parking spaces have made the bike lane unusable. (This is why the “more share ways” comment, above, is particularly misguided. That person should be demanding more, better-maintained, separated infrastructure, not less. Unless they don’t really want to share lanes with winter bikers, but do want to use public policy to discourage biking by making it more dangerous…)

And if the thought of sharing a lane on the road with a winter biker causes anxiety, it might be time to recognize the unspoken truth: winter in Minnesota is when it is too treacherous to drive.

Christa M

About Christa M

Attorney. I do law stuff, ride bikes, and paint murals. Member of Hourcar & Nice Ride, and customer of Freewheel Bike and The Hub Bike Co-op.

21 thoughts on “The Winter of Minnesota’s Transportation Discontent

  1. Scott Walters

    It took me a second….
    I love cross country skiing in downtown Saint Paul and around the State Capital grounds during big snowstorms before the plows can get out, or when they can’t keep up. But then plowing happens, and I’m constrained again.

  2. Josh

    I think I read the “quotes” about five times before I moved to your explanation sentence haha.

    I was seriously thinking that maybe the plan had ski zones proposed in the plan that I hadn’t seen.

    That would be kinda fun….

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Sorry to be a downer, but climate change is gonna really destroy any hopes of regular XX skiing on snow that isn’t artificial. I already get depressed about this.

  3. Russ Booth

    About time we get groomed ski lanes beside the bike lanes! Why do they need to clear ALL of the snow anyway? That’s just ridiculous – and costly.

    I hope the width of the right-of-way will also allow packed-snow kicksled lanes beside the tracked ski lanes that will be alongside the bike lanes this winter.

    Oh, and classic skiers need parallel tracks. Skate skiers could share the wide-packed snow trail with the kicksledders, leaving no room, unfortunately, for motor vehicles on snow-travel designated streets. Every second street should be plenty. Thanks.

    1. Devin HoganDevin Hogan

      I second this! Especially in the midtown greenway, where you could still clear the main paved trail and groom the “unbuilt” gravel half. The MPRB consolidates separated bike/walk paths over the winter for “maintenance” – why not groom one and clear the other?

    2. commissar

      emergency services need to get through, and if you leave snow on the roads, it just compacts to ice.

  4. Trent

    Sorry this is a foolish premise to use to advocate for more bike commuter support. Even with more bike lanes, cleared of snow and ice, there are people who will not want to be exposed to the elements for the duration of their commute. The environment is as big if not a bigger factor vs infrastructure for people deciding if they will be taking a lot of trips by bike in winter in Minneapolis. Most of us are commuting at least one way in the dark in the winter. Even some enthusiastic warm weather bikers will park it on a rainy day or in the winter.

    1. GlowBoy

      “foolish premise” … “there are people who will not want to be exposed to the elements”

      Well, of course there are. No one is suggesting that EVERYONE who bikes in summer will want to do it in the winter. It’s kind of a given that many people won’t.

      But many people will, so I think you misunderstood the premise. The conversation is about doing a better job maintaining our bike infrastructure in the winter, so that those who do bike in the winter – or the potentially much larger group who would like to – are able to do so safely.

      Maybe on the -20 windchill days, or the first day after a 6″ snowfall, not many people will ride. Humans being heavily vulnerable to availability bias, that’s what springs to many people’s minds when we talk about winter. But objectively, that does not describe most winter days. On the *majority* of winter days there is no immediately fresh snow, the pavement is clear, and it is warm enough to ride in the same clothing people use to go sledding or x-c skiing. We shouldn’t let a failure to plow properly keep potential cyclists in their cars on those days.

      1. GlowBoy

        One more point about Minnesota winters: they have changed.

        Although i grew up here, I lived in the Northwest most of my life and relocated here 4 years ago. None of those winters had more than about 20 days of severely cold weather. And only one of them one of those four winters (the last one) would really qualify as snowy, where there would be even the slightest challenge trying to figure out where to put the snow if we plowed the bike lanes fully.

        Guess what! One out of four winters with more than two feet of snowfall, only one cold enough to support more than five weeks of safe ice skating, and none of them with more than 3 weeks of severe cold? That’s the new normal, folks.

        The climate is now a lot more friendly to outdoor winter activity than it used to be, and we should plan for that. (Ironically, the conditions that are making it easier to get out of our cars in the winter are precisely due to the fact that we use our cars too much.)

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      There are people who won’t bike commute in the winter no matter what. And there are people who would with safe infrastructure.

      Hi, my name is Adam and I’m the latter (and I’m going to try to more this winter anyway).

    3. Rosa

      Yes but there are also people who don’t want to drive in icy conditions. I’m one of them. And yet that’s never used as an argument for not having car lanes.

    4. jeffk

      I always found the “it’s not viable every single day so it’s not worth doing or enabling” line of argument particularly perplexing.

  5. Karl

    The bike lane issue seems to be very similar to allowing fourplexes- people thinking “allowing it for those who want it” means “mandatory for everyone.”

    Since you were looking at comments on the 2040 plan, was there any mention about car2go? I guess the reason for their exit (being taxed like rental cars) is more of a state issue but those things were vital for those looking to go car-free/car-lite. It should be a priority of the city to bring them or other “dockless cars” back.

  6. Alina T

    I commute by car quite a bit, but after snowstorms, I will always ride my bike. The fresh snow is beautiful, and I don’t have worry about getting stuck in snow or getting into a car crash. More bike infrastructure would mean I will also have fewer worries about getting hit by a driver.

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