If you build it, they will come.
It is a standard trope where I live in Toronto that nobody uses the bike lanes in winter and it is a waste of space that could be used for storing or moving cars; the city is still in the thrall of the late Rob Ford.
Now, Tamara Nahal and Raktim Mitra of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University have completed a study, Factors Contributing to Winter Cycling: Case Study of a Downtown University in Toronto, Canada, which looks at the issue and finds that bike lanes are used all year and they make a big difference. From the abstract:
Cycling rates in many North American cities decline significantly in winter months, which is a major challenge for practitioners and advocates in advancing active transportation-related policy, planning, and programs. Research on winter cycling in North America is sparse; even more so in Canada. Beyond weather and climate, a cyclist’s socio-demographic characteristics, travel preferences, residential location and access to cycling facilities may influence whether they continue to cycle in the winter months. This study statistically examines the above-mentioned factors in relation to all-season cycling among staff and students of Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada
I should make clear that I am an adjunct professor teaching Sustainable Design at Ryerson University’s School of Interior Design, and I bike there all winter. I did it yesterday, taking photos all the way for this post, but it was a ridiculous 46°F without any snow left on the road so it was not a good photo shoot. However, it did demonstrate one of the conclusions of the study: there are a lot fewer cyclists on the road.
Only 27% of cyclists continue to commute by bicycle through winter months. Women and transit pass holders were less likely, while students rather than staff were more likely to cycle during the winter.
Some of the conclusions seem obvious but nonetheless, it doesn't hurt to have them reinforced by data. The most important finding is that bike infrastructure matters in winter.
The density of bicycle infrastructure within 500m (1/3 mile) of the shortest route was associated with all-season cycling. . The potential of using cycle tracks or bicycle lanes where possible, at least part of the way to school, is perhaps more important than being able to travel all-the-way on a bicycle infrastructure, which sometimes come at the cost of an increased travel distance.
Another interesting finding is that urban design matters.
Our model results also indicate that current cyclists who lived in areas where the housing stock was older were more likely to cycle in the winter. These older neighbourhoods are typically representative of Toronto’s inner urban communities, which are walkable and have easy access to shops, schools and other non-residential uses. Such neighbourhood characteristics would conceivably enable residents to do their shopping and errands without relying on a car.
The authors conclude:
-Good bicycle infrastructure really encourages cyclists to continue cycling through winter (though I would note that it has to be maintained and cleared, and it often isn't)
-To promote winter cycling, universities might provide regular snow clearing on campus or around existing bike racks. (Which they don't).
-Universities should develop programs to encourage cycling among demographic groups with lower cycling rates, including women. (My students are mostly women, and not a single one of them cycles to school)
In conclusion, informed municipal planning and a greater collaboration between universities and their municipal partners could help mitigate physical and psychological/ social barriers to winter cycling and make cycling more enjoyable for those who already commute by bicycle throughout the year.
(Instead, in the City of Toronto, the municipal partners actively discourage the installation of bike infrastructure)
I might also suggest an additional recommendation: that the municipal government and police work to keep the bike lanes clear in winter, when people evidently believe that they are a fine place to park. Something also has to be done about the construction industry's provision for cyclists; this is a major bike route yet they are asking me to go single file in front of cars, as if they are going to slow down or not honk me off the road.
But it is clear from the study that people are cycling to school in winter, and that measures should be taken to get more of them. A survey of my students found that they almost all come by transit, which is seriously overcrowded these days. If more students rode bikes instead of squeezing onto the subway it might make a real difference in this city; it should be encouraged, instead of barely tolerated.