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Why I Am Not Biking This Winter (at least not this month)

With the record snowfall in Chicago, many year-round bike riders are grounded.

During the last three weeks Chicago has received over 36 inches of snow - the equivalent of almost an entire winter! And the average daily temperature has been well below normal, among the coldest since record keeping began. Valentine's Day was a record high of 4 degrees!. The next time Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, I'm going to take it seriously. 

Bikes grounded everywhere in the snow.

The impact to my riding has been significant. My last day of biking to work was Jan. 29th. And even though the temperature hit a balmy 43 degrees today riding is still treacherous. Many bike lanes on city streets have snow plowed onto the path. Having been there for weeks, its become rock-hard and covered in soot. If you ever wondered how dirty our streets actually become, the snow reveals its true form. Inevitably, there is a need to clean the bike from the winter grime.

Compounding the situation is that drivers cannot maneuver their cars as close to the sidewalk and start encroaching on the bike lane. As a result, the parking lane shifts into the bike lane as snow accumulates over time. Unlike warmer weather months, when parking in the bike lane is done deliberately, many drivers have no where else to go.

My commute is along city streets and riding with traffic is already a challenging activity. With snow and ice blocking the disappearing bike lane, it's downright dangerous. Having fallen numerous times, I have no desire to go down again, nor be squeezed in front of a car by clear pavement disappearing in front of me. So, I'm grounded at least until some more melting occurs. After sloughing through sixteen winters in Chicago, this is the longest stretch I have gone without riding the bike to work.

Interestingly however, there is one location where biking is still occurring. Along the lakefront bike path. Why? Because it's plowed regularly. A dedicated through-way for bikes, the Chicago Department of Transportation maintains the bike path just as it would a city street. And they do an admirable job.

Biker commutes along the lakefront bike path in Chicago.

Thirteen of the sixteen winters I have bike commuted in Chicago have been along this path. Due to a job change, I don't' go this route anymore. In hindsight, I realize what a gift it was that the path was cleared regularly. Biking was almost always possible, even in the aftermath of significant snowfalls,

Outside of the bike path, most of the bike lanes in Chicago are on-street (lines painted on the street) or protected lanes (physical barrier separating cars and bikes). On-street lanes are plowed to the extent that snowplows can maneuver alongside parked cars. Basically, the snow builds up in the bike lane. Protected lanes are cleaned with specialized, smaller equipment however, coverage seems to vary.

All of this got me to wonder, how do other cities that have a sizable bike population and winter weather deal with clearing the streets. From my unofficial survey, I learned that Minneapolis is plowing protected bike lanes, as is Washington, DC even though the winters there are relatively mild. In New York, according to Streetsblog NYC, "It's Snow Problem for Drivers, But a Hot Mess for Cyclists" - it seems like a struggle all around. And according to Denver's Department of Transportation & Infrastructure, "crews will make every effort to plow through the bike lane to the curb whenever possible; however, during swift, heavy snowfalls, bike lanes may become snow packed." The city uses a smaller plow to clear the protected bikeways. Although local news reports maintain this is not happening consistently.

Given the number of cars to bikes, the current strategy is understandable. That said, the snow is a real barrier to biking in the winter. If cities are interested in increasing the number of year-round bike commuters, a more comprehensive approach to snow removal is needed.

For now, I'm looking forward to the stretch of warmer, sunnier weather that is coming our way.

Sunset on the puddles in Winnemac Park after a day above freezing!

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