Students in Finland Offer a Succinct Lesson in Commuting

Bikes are the main mode of transportation at this school in Oulu, Finland. Pekka Tahkola/Twitter

On a recent winter day in Oulu, FInland, the snow-covered lot outside Metsokangas Comprehensive School was lined with neat rows of bicycles, even though it was minus 17 degrees C (1 degree F). About 1,000 of the 1,200 students arrive by bike every day, even in the winter. About 100 to 150 walk. The rest commute by ski, kicksled or car. Students at Metsokangas range from 7 to 17 years old.

Pekka Tahkola, who took the photo above, isn't surprised. He's an urban well-being engineer for Navico Ltd. and a cycling coordinator for the City of Oulu. He organizes winter cycling master classes as well as tours focused on smart mobility.

"We organized a study tour for participants from southern Finland for them to see how cycling to school is taken care of in our city," Tahkola tells MNN. "We visited a couple of schools and also spoke a lot with local teachers and principals. I'm pretty sure this school is among the best ones. It is definitely not the only one, and there are numerous schools in Oulu where the majority of kids cycle and walk to school."

Although it may be hard for many parents in the U.S. to imagine letting a kid bike to school in any weather, it's the norm in parts of Finland, Tahkola says.

"It's normal; always been like that. I cycled and kicksledded to school when I was a kid, too," he says. "And it's the same thing even in minus 30 C." (That's minus 22 Fahrenheit, in case you're wondering.)

Where cycling is easy

Bicycling is easy in the area, even in winter, says Tahkola, who is also vice president of the Winter Cycling Federation. It has to be — in Oulu they typically have snow from November through April. The bike and walking paths are so well maintained that riders don't need special tires or gear to navigate them.

"You can usually just use your single-speed upright granny bike with summer tires all year long, even on snow," he says. "We have great infrastructure and winter maintenance, that make cycling fast, easy and comfortable even in winter conditions. The distances are often shorter than with a car."

When Tahkola tweeted the photo above, he was overwhelmed with the responses, mostly from abroad. People lamented that their communities couldn't be as bike-savvy as this one. But Tahkola admits that not all schools in the country are this progressive.

"We too are still facing challenges with parents who want to drive their kids to school. In this school they have dealt well with it, but in some other areas we have more challenges."