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.