Why Canadians Can't Bike in the Winter (but Finnish people can)

Why Canadians Can't Bike in the Winter (but Finnish people can)

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Language: English

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00:06
Here in the Netherlands, our family routinely takes advantage of the network of safe cycling paths found almost everywhere. These are so safe that even our young children can cycle themselves to school, activities, and friends houses, and they have become an important part of the high quality of life we experience here. Unfortunately all of this is completely impossible back in Canada because there, we have winter. And of course, you can’t cycle in the winter. Or so I’m told. Repeatedly. By people who have never tried it. This is the city of Oulu, in Finland. It is considered the winter cycling capital of the world. This is a city where 22% of all trips are taken by bicycle, and where 77% of the population says they cycle at least occasionally. And yet despite their harsh winters, over half of these people cycle all year round. And it’s not just the young and the strong who cycle in the winter here. You’ll see even very elderly people cycling in -20 degree weather.
01:08
This is what the bicycle parking lot of a typical elementary school in Oulu looks like in January, because 52% of all trips to school and University are taken by bicycle. Somehow, even little Finnish kids can cycle all year round. So this does lead to the obvious question: why are Canadians such giant wimps? But maybe it’s not quite that simple. This, is the city of Tampere, also in Finland. Despite the fact that Finnish people call this a swimming pool, far fewer people cycle in Tampere compared to Oulu. So why is this? Fortunately we don’t have to guess, because researchers have studied and written papers about winter cycling. And the results are very clear: in cities with cold winters, there is almost no correlation between winter temperatures, and the amount of winter cycling. Let that sink in: the temperature and weather conditions do not significantly affect the level of winter cycling in a city. It is a complete myth that people do not cycle in the winter because of the cold.
02:14
So what does the research tell us? Well, there need to be two things in place to get people to cycle like they do in Oulu. First: is there a network of safe bicycle paths? Is it possible to get to where you want to go without having to share the road or regularly cross paths with high speed motor traffic? This is something that Oulo does exceptionally well. Oulu has 875 km of separated bicycle paths that connect every part of the city. That’s over 4 metres of bicycle path for every resident. In fact, Oulu has only about 600 metres of painted bicycle lanes in the entire city. Which makes perfect sense because when it snows, you can’t see white paint. But you can see images cleverly projected on the snow from above. Nicely done, Oulu. And this is not some kind of super-compact medieval European city either. Oulu has plenty of car-centric sprawl and many people live in single family homes. In fact, it has almost exactly the same urban population density as my home town of London,
03:17
Ontario in Canada. Like, this is creepy how close these numbers are. And why is it that every city has the ugliest flags except for Amsterdam? Anyway, there is literally zero reason why a typical mid-sized Canadian city couldn’t be like Oulu, if it was designed properly. Oulu just takes the effort to connect every resident to the places they want to go with safe paths for walking and cycling. And even better, many of these bicycle paths are designed to be short cuts that are faster than driving, encouraging people to cycle even more, just as is done in the Netherlands. If that wasn’t enough, Oulu also has over 300 underpasses that pedestrians and cyclists can use to avoid major roads. These make it possible to cycle entire journeys without ever encountering a traffic light, or even needing to stop. This should not be a surprise to anyone. A network of safe bicycle lanes is the single biggest predictor for the level of cycling in any city in the world. It's significantly more important than any other metric, including culture, distance, hills, and, in this case, weather.
04:20
After a safe bicycle network, the next most important element is snow removal. Is the bicycle network properly maintained in the winter? And this is the real key to Oulu’s success, as there are very, very, very few cities that do this well. Toronto, as an example, is a city with fairly mild winters, compared to Finland, and most of Canada, for that matter. Yet very very few people cycle there in the winter. When you look at the videos of winter cycling in Toronto, is there any surprise? Most of Toronto’s bicycle paths are painted bicycle gutters. These become dumping grounds for snow. They’re routinely driven over by drivers, leaving tread marks that melt and refreeze into impassable paths of jagged ice, forcing cyclists to share the road with cars. Even the proper separated bicycle paths often get snow dumped in them by snow plows. And only a fraction of the already miniscule bicycle network is maintained in the winter. The city says they don't even start plowing unless there’s more than 5cm of snow.
05:21
This is the reason why few people cycle through the winter in Toronto, or any other Canadian city. Not the weather. In Oulu, the priority bicycle routes are all plowed within 3 hours of a 2cm snowfall, and they will be plowed multiple times per day if necessary. Snow removal contractors guarantee that the depth of the snow will never exceed 4 cm, and they maintain the paths with hard-packed snow that is free of ice and debris, making it easy to cycle on. To put it simply, the bicycle paths in Oulu are considered important pieces of infrastructure that get people from point A to point B. So they don’t want cyclists to start competing for space on public transit - or worse - to drive cars - just because it snowed. They make it a priority. Oulu proves that cold is not the issue. Snow is not the issue. Winter is a lazy excuse used by ignorant people to make the discussion of safe road infrastructure go away.
06:21
The snow might explain why “only” 22% of trips in your city are taken by bicycle, instead of say, 42% but when less than 2% of your population rides a bike, it’s not because of the weather. It’s because people don’t feel safe cycling. Period. The truth is, cycling in cold weather is really not bad at all. Toronto routinely gets cold days but without much snow, where the roads are perfectly clear. So after getting sick of waiting on transit vehicles that were constantly stuck in traffic because Canadian public transit is stupid and counterproductive {breathe} I decided to try cycling to work in the winter … and ... it was fine. There’s nothing “hardcore” or “extreme” about cycling in winter. I did it, and I assure you, I am not a particularly “tough” person. Just ask my brother. “You mean my brother? He’s a total wimp.” At first, I had some problems with ice, but then I discovered studded winter tires.
07:22
These things are like magic on ice. I never slipped once when using them. It’s interesting to note though, that most people do not use studded tires in Oulu, because when you plow your bicycle paths properly, they’re not slippery at all. And the same goes for sidewalks. Seriously, winter maintenance of the sidewalks and bicycle paths in Oulu is incredible. This is complicated and expensive, but it’s still a fraction of the cost of maintaining wide roads and highways for cars. Oulu shows what is possible if your city isn’t bankrupt from maintaining too much car infrastructure. Oulu tracks data on cyclists very well, with automated bicycle detectors like these. What’s interesting is that the number of people cycling in winter stays pretty consistent until the temperature goes below about -20 degrees, and even then, it only drops by 15%. This may surprise you, but one thing I consistently hear from people who try winter cycling is that they’re a lot warmer than they thought they’d be. I thought cycling in the winter would be frigidly cold, but you warm up surprisingly quickly.
08:24
And cycling in the snow is actually quite pleasant. Drivers typically drive much slower, the noise pollution of the city is muffled, and it’s easy to maintain a comfortable temperature in all but the coldest weather conditions. I definitely prefer it - by far - to cycling in the rain. Some people like to talk about the “gear” you need for winter cycling. So I’ll share what I would typically wear when cycling in the winter: First, I recommend a “jacket”. This is like a big warm shirt that you wear over your clothes. Next, you’ll need “gloves”. These are kinda like shoes, but for your hands, which is why both the Dutch (French) and the Germans (Belgians) call them handshoes. I’d also recommend one of these woolen head coverings. People call these by many different names, but they are all wrong. It’s called a touque. Now that you’ve got your specialized gear, you’re ready to go cycling in the winter! Now when the temperatures get really cold, like below -20 degrees, you’ll want to wear more layers, and a scarf.
09:25
But it’s exactly the same kind of clothing that Canadians routinely wear when skiing, snowmobiling, or doing any other kind of winter activity. You can even get pogies for your bike to keep your hands warm, just like they do for snowmobiles. These are great. Thankfully, several frigid Canadian cities have stopped giving cyclists the cold shoulder and are warming up to the idea of winter cycling, though progress is still glacial. [Insert joke about snow] Edmonton, Alberta recently built a network of protected bicycle lanes downtown, and now plows their protected bicycle network with the same priority as major roads. When I was in Yellowknife, which is here, I was impressed by the quality of the new bicycle infrastructure they were installing. And Montreal saw an 83% increase in winter cycling in 2020, over the previous years’ average, likely due in part to the addition of more separated bicycle lanes. They’ve also started to use not just snow plows, but ice crushing machines like this one to clear the bicycle paths. And I really enjoy the dramatic music in the manufacturer’s marketing video.
10:31
But while this is good progress, all of this pales in comparison to Oulu. Edmonton only plows a small 8km bike network downtown, and only within 24 hours. Most of Yelllowknife’s bike network is still painted bicycle gutters, and Montreal puts away their bike share bikes for the winter. Unfortunately, winter is still used as the number one excuse for inaction in Canadian cities. Even in cities that get very little snow in the winter. Meanwhile Oulu gets more snow than almost any major city in Canada. Canadians also love to exaggerate about the cold but most Canadian cities only get a handful of really truly cold days per year. Just like Finland. But when your only exposure to winter is the walk across the parking lot to your car, you never get used to the weather, and you get an exaggerated sense of how cold it gets. Ultimately, like everything else with cycling, it just comes down to safety and convenience. And cold weather doesn’t significantly change that. A great place to learn more is the Winter Cycling Congress that happens every February.
11:35
This event brings together advocates and professionals with a goal of making year round cycling a normal and practical activity. A viable transportation option for people of all ages and abilities, regardless of winter weather conditions. This year the congress is being held online on February 11th, so it’s easier than ever to attend. More information on that, is in the comments, and at wintercycling.org. But whether you attend the Winter Cycling Congress or not, we need more people to learn the truth about winter cycling. It’s not the cold. It’s not the snow. It’s a proven fact that people of all ages will ride a bicycle in the winter, but only if the city is designed for it. And more places should be designed this way so that cities can be as healthy, productive, convenient, and sustainable, as Oulu. I’d like to thank my supporters on Patreon, who pay me to call out wimpy snowflake Canadian who can’t handle a little bit of cold. If you’d like to support this channel, and get access to bonus videos, visit patreon.com/notjustbikes. [very silly music]
12:47
[It’s 20 below] [It’s cold on the ear] [It’s so cold, I can’t hear] [I need my touque]
14:00
[I need my touque] [But it’s on too tight tight tight tight tight tight tight tight]

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