What Can Walkers Learn From Winter Cyclists?

Streets Me

The author, dressed to walk.

I live in a privileged St. Paul neighborhood with professional cyclists — men and women of varying ages who commute by bicycle all year round, including during the recent polar vortex.

Their financial investment, beyond the cost of the bicycles themselves, includes heavy gloves, facemasks, hard-bottomed boots, helmets and goggles, lights and reflectors, and reflective jackets or vests.

Pedestrians like me can learn two lessons from these pragmatic, all-weather bikers:

  1. Safety — being visible — is their top priority. They accept the reality that they would lose any duel with a motor-powered vehicle. It simply isn’t a fair fight.
  2. Rather than rail about winter weather, they dress for wind, precipitation and frigid temperatures. That allows them to relish the outdoors.
Streets Boots

These Keen boots were my holiday present to myself.

People who walk are not always so practical. I average 14,000 steps a day — more than six miles — commuting to and from my job at the University of St. Thomas, walking to and from bus stops and meetings around campus, and walking my beloved dogs every morning without fail.

I see pedestrians out on the streets and sidewalks who are under-dressed and ill equipped to brave the elements (yes, the dogs and I walked on January 30, when the air temperature, not counting wind chill, was minus 28 degrees). Winter walking gear may sound expensive — long coat engineered for below-zero wind chills, face mask and hat, various gloves and mittens, walking boots and moisture-wicking socks, Yaktrax and a reflective vest — though it is far cheaper than the cost of car maintenance, when you consider oil changes, tire rotation, insurance premiums and license plate renewal.

I know this firsthand, having recently given my aging Prius to my older son.

Being cold outside is miserable. Walking, therefore, becomes a chore, a death march to endure, rather than a low-injury but exhilarating form of transportation that requires patience, yes, but also inspires a sense of place, a feeling of being part of one’s community.

Cases in point:

  • I complimented a young woman’s retro pom-pom hat at my yoga studio the other day. “Yeah,” she said, touching it proudly, “having a hat finally lets me walk outside.” It would have been condescending to say “Duh,” and I see enough college-age women this time of year in flats with bare ankles, but still. How old do you have to be before flattened hair matters less than freezing?
  • The Saint Paul Pioneer Press is following six people throughout 2019 as they strive to realize their New Year’s resolutions. Two women, predictably, want to lose weight — but neither is willing to walk outdoors during the winter. Both have treadmills at home, but can they really keep off weight for a lifetime — or change their auto-dependent, suburban habits — if they refuse to exercise outside?

Support your health and safety

One of the core values of streets.mn is to “inspire happiness and wonder in all seasons and all times of the night and day.” Given our crowded roadways and widening girths, Minnesotans appear to have lost sight of the wonder of walking, especially during the winter and at night.

In our desire to fix an environment that is warming at an alarming speed, and to counter the shortsightedness and self-indulgence of contemporary car culture, we multi-modal advocates overlook a key benefit of getting around without a car: Walking is exercise, a pleasure in and of itself. Walking improves our minds and bodies.

No surprise that a recent obituary in the Star Tribune described the miles-long walks and “consistent exercise” of a woman who died on the cusp of 99.

Streets Sign

Walk farther to find a well-marked intersection.

But any benefit of walking is erased if pedestrians feel uncertain and unsafe. A recent thread in my Nextdoor.com feed dubbed “winter walking” — launched shortly after a rash of pedestrian deaths in St. Paul in early January — was unsettling for the vitriol between drivers and pedestrians.

The key question: Who is responsible for pedestrian safety?

  • “Wearing headphones and reading your phone while you walk across a busy street is just not smart,” said Dan from Macalester-Groveland. (I hear this complaint a lot about our college students.)
  • “Please be aware that you are harder to see when a driver has the lights of another vehicle in their eyes,” said Brian from Lexington-Hamline.
  • “First and foremost, we need to slow our streets down,” said Mike from Mac-Groveland. “It is on the driver, operating the deadly machine, to be responsible and in control. I now drive like there are pedestrians at every corner waiting to cross.”
  • “I know we’re all busy,” said the Mac-Groveland resident who began this online conversation, “and it’s easy to be preoccupied with where you’re going, but hitting a pedestrian would change our lives forever.” (Not to mention the pedestrian’s!)
  • “There are not enough stop signs or stoplights to make it safe for pedestrians,” said Marie of Summit-University. “We need a less car-centric world.”

Prepare for winter walking by investing in the clothing and equipment that will keep you visible and warm. Review your neighborhood: Where are the painted crosswalks (a debatable safety measure, but I find them to be of help), curb cuts, medians and controlled intersections?

If you live in St. Paul and care about walking, review the city’s draft of its Pedestrian Plan. Public comment is due by Friday, February 8, and a public hearing is scheduled that morning at City Hall.

See you outside!

Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

, , , , , ,

21 Responses to What Can Walkers Learn From Winter Cyclists?

  1. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell February 5, 2019 at 9:42 am #

    Excellent points Amy.

    While we can’t do anything about the need to wear special clothes to keep us warm, we should not have to wear special things on ourselves or bikes to be seen and be safe. While currently a necessary requirement, it is due to bad and dangerous road design. We need to push traffic engineers and politicians to give us walkways, bikeways and roadways that are safer without the need to dress up like a neon sign.

    Traffic engineers in other developed countries can do it, we need our traffic engineers to catch up.

    • Brian February 6, 2019 at 3:03 pm #

      Why do you believe that bikes shouldn’t need to have lights for night riding?

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell February 7, 2019 at 11:01 am #

        Bicycles should absolutely have standard lights (and reflectors) at night. This regardless of how well bikeways are designed.

        What should not be needed, and this is the case with bikeways and walkways properly designed to CROW standards, is reflective vests, reflective gloves, flashing lights, flashing lights on helmets, numerous gobs of lights all over, massive reflective triangles, or reflective poles stuck out 3′ to the side.

        • Walker Angell
          Walker Angell February 7, 2019 at 11:28 am #

          A bicycle in Europe will have a front white light and red rear light, both usually powered by a dynamo (flashing lights are illegal btw). A small red rear reflector, yellow reflectors on pedals and white reflective tyre sidewalls. Nothing else is needed.

          Someone riding a bicycle need not wear any ‘safety gear’. Whatever street clothes they happen to be wearing are just fine. Nothing reflective, no helmets or gloves. This: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mellbin/

          Cycling in the snow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=164&v=SYwUUyz6CDA

          More: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC67YlPrRvsO117gFDM7UePg

          BTW, some people will put a studded tyre on the front during winter and a very few will do front + rear studded. In most communities like Amsterdam, Utrect, or Groningen (or Copenhagen, Stockholm, …) the snow clearing and brining is good enough that no studs are really needed. FWIW, I have a studded front tyre on my omafiets that I ride in Shoreview.

  2. Jenny Werness
    Jenny Werness February 5, 2019 at 9:52 am #

    Thank you for this post, Amy! I love that you tied in “delight cultivating” and climate change. Walking is one of life’s simplest and deepest pleasures.

    It’s worth noting that many of the steps we take to prepare to safely bike/walk here in the US are not needed in other countries. I hope we can improve our streets and infrastructure here, which would make it much easier and more appealing for people to walk.

  3. jack February 5, 2019 at 10:29 am #

    Great points!

    I walk five blocks to and from the light rail station every workday (then two more to my job) and even I under-dress at times. I really need to get something for this ice. The sidewalks are like skating rinks and boots aren’t working! My next winter coat is going to be mid thigh length.

    I really need to up my game with walking the dogs even on a cold day.

    I can’t believe the number of people waiting for the train with no hat in minus 0 weather!

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller February 5, 2019 at 11:22 am #

      I’m gonna shop for Yaktrax or similar at lunch.

  4. Trent February 5, 2019 at 12:57 pm #

    Thank you for touching the third rail here in this forum, that of the responsibility of walkers and bikers to make themselves visible and to commit to the right equipment like shoe grips.

    It’s also not just to protect from automobiles, with walkers and bikers sharing paths this time of year a ped- bike collision would also be more likely and painful for both parties.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke February 5, 2019 at 3:50 pm #

      Not sure if that is the third rail…

      • Rosa February 8, 2019 at 8:12 pm #

        it ought to be. I’ve been out shoveling a LOT recently and the number of car drivers who will not even clear their windshields or turn on their headlights is just enraging. And yet how often do we hear about it?

  5. mike February 5, 2019 at 1:44 pm #

    Privileged, key word here. Walking and the bus are my only forms of transportation and I see people that are not dressed for walking outside in these conditions. The main reason? Many people I know can’t afford warm enough coats and good boots. Elementary schools all over the city have winter clothing drives for children to have coats, hats, mittens….

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke February 5, 2019 at 3:49 pm #

      Certainly true that lots of people do not have winter gear. The things I have seen on that front… oof da.

  6. Elizabeth Larey February 5, 2019 at 3:21 pm #

    I just wanted to thank you for the well written, thoughtful article. It was a delight to read!

  7. Allen February 6, 2019 at 6:45 am #

    I live and work downtown. My work commute is a walk, most of my errands are a walk or maybe a bike ride. I’ve done this for most of a decade.

    I am, to be blunt, still a fat . I would encourage everyone to get more exercise. There’s a lot of evidence that it’s needed. Just don’t get discouraged if you don’t see some ( magical ) changes in weight.

    • Jen February 6, 2019 at 11:33 am #

      I am in the exact same situation, thank you for your comment!

    • Rosa February 8, 2019 at 8:14 pm #

      Two decades here, same. And still just as alienated by the anti fat talk in bike/walk advocacy as ever.

      • Allen February 10, 2019 at 3:48 pm #

        The author did not write anything anti fat. Please do not conflate “if you move, you loose” with some how being prejudicial against the obese.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller February 10, 2019 at 8:34 pm #

          We shouldn’t pretend like moving more makes everyone skinny. It’s more complicated than that.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke February 11, 2019 at 9:35 am #

          I was hoping this was a debate about fat-tire v. skinny tire bikes.

          • Elizabeth Larey February 11, 2019 at 10:09 am #

            😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂. Made my day

  8. Melissa Wenzel
    Melissa Wenzel February 6, 2019 at 8:14 pm #

    I appreciate this article too. I will say that now that I’m a regular year round (increased winter) cyclist, I am much more equipped to walk warmly, comfortably. I remember going on a weekend vacation to Winona 2 years ago during the coldest weekend of the year. A few degrees warmer than last week (temps below zero for highs, wind chills -20 to -35 below zero). I had brought layers and more layers, ski goggles and my lobster claw cloves. It sure made it easy to be car-free in Winona (we took the Amtrak there and back) during such a cold time of the year. I think we walked about 15 miles over the 55-hour trip! (-:

Leave a Reply

Note on Comments

streets.mn welcomes opinions from many perspectives. Please refrain from attacking or disparaging others in your comments. streets.mn sees debate as a learning opportunity. Please share your perspective in a respectful manner. View our full comment policy to learn more.

Thanks for commenting on streets.mn!