The two posts linked in that last sentence were about winter biking gear. That’s a great and useful topic, but I want to talk about something else: space.
To me, the biggest challenge to winter biking isn’t temperature or, directly, weather. It’s space. Right now, across Minneapolis (I’d wager St. Paul too), snow or parked cars, or both, have taken over much of the space where people would otherwise bike. Major streets haven’t been plowed to the curb, so if next to the curb is where people on bikes are supposed to go, sorry. And if that’s where cars are supposed to park, sorry again. The cars have “no choice” but to instead park in the bike lane, if it happens to be clear of snow and ice.
Meanwhile, the “quiet side streets” haven’t been plowed at all. You can try to bike them, but it’s going to be rough, slow going, such that they really aren’t an option for trying to get anywhere.
That leaves two alternatives: trying to squeeze yourself into whatever space is usable on the street or not bike.
For me, I’m not going to bike if I have to put myself in front of cars. I don’t like and try to avoid it even in the best summer conditions, but I’m definitely not going to do it when I’m slowed and less stable because of winter conditions (thankfully, the bus is an option for my commutes).
This morning my bike commute started in our unplowed alley, continued briefly onto an unplowed city street, moved to a Park Board-maintained sidewalk (I needed the bridge to get over the creek) that I guess they’d say had been cleared, onto a Park Board path that was sorta clear and then onto the 17th Avenue “bicycle boulevard” that was cleared no more than any other side street.
That last bit struck me as an issue. We only have a handful of “bicycles boulevards” in Minneapolis. They’re really just side streets, sometimes with some extra treatments at busy intersections (but not always). Regardless, they’re meant to be part of the network of bike facilities that people can use to get around. In the winter, they just aren’t. But unlike the bike lanes on the busy streets that are filled with snow and cars, there’s plenty of space available on the bicycle boulevards. What if we plowed them as well as we do snow emergency routes?
From a purely technical viewpoint, I don’t actually know if it’s possible to get the same quality of road surface. I don’t know how much work car traffic itself contributes to clear pavement on larger streets. But we could at least get them as clear as the plows can do.
Finding the “bicycle boulevard” impassable, I turned as I usually do and squeezed into whatever space was available on 46th, turned again to do the same on Chicago and then again on Park. It was mostly okay (for me), in that I didn’t ever have to fully take the lane, but in places there wasn’t a whole lot of space (thankfully no one driving a car tried to crowd me either). It was a doable commute for the reasonably confident, but certainly not inviting.
Meanwhile, I could have been entirely out of those drivers’ way on the “bicycle boulevard” if it had been plowed.