By Ian Gibb
Ben Buckwold is no stranger to potholes and snowy, unplowed bicycle lanes. Buckwold works at Bicycle Nova Scotia and commutes most days, across the Common and into Halifax’s downtown. He says that cycling infrastructure and maintenance in the city could use improvement in order to get more people on bikes.
“In Halifax, we don’t have much of a bike network,” says Buckwold.
It isn’t uncommon to see cyclists like Buckwold during the winter in Halifax, but there are likely less than during the summer months.
The Halifax Regional Municipality doesn’t collect any data on cyclists during the winter. That will be changing soon, says Ben Wedge from the Halifax Cycling Coalition. The HCC is partnering with the municipality to purchase a permanent bicycle counter, a device which will track cyclist numbers throughout the year. Wedge says the money has been committed by both parties and the purchase is just waiting for approval. The data gathered by the counter will help in decision-making about infrastructure improvements.
The Active Transportation Plan
In 2006, HRM produced the Active Transportation Plan, in order to encourage alternative forms of transportation. The plan cited research which showed there are economic, environmental and health benefits to cycling.
Halifax has increased cycling infrastructure since the plan was put into effect, however the majority occurred away from the downtown core. The Active Transportation Plan is under review, and a report shows that 95km of new bicycle lanes were added, with 6.2km on the Halifax Peninsula.
One of the Active Transportation Plan’s goals is to develop a network of bicycle paths. However, bicycle lanes have nearly all been added on roads that were being resurfaced, in order to keep costs down . The review notes that “a fragmented on-road bicycle network has been the result.”
An exception was the conversion of parking spaces into a bike lane along Windsor Street, in order to begin a North-South corridor of interconnected paths.
Wedge calls the move a huge shift in mindset towards cycling by the municipality.
“We could be a really good cycling city. We just need more decisions like that,” says Wedge.
Road safety an issue
Peter Henry, an architect and professor at Dalhousie University, says that many people cite safety as the main reason they don’t bicycle in the winter. Henry commutes by bicycle regularly during the spring, summer and fall. Once winter arrives he stops, save for a trip or two a month. The cold weather keeps him off his bicycle but also the lack of cycling paths that are properly cleared of snow.
Henry says, “If HRM were more committed to snow removal, I’d have a slightly different opinion [about winter cycling], but they’re not.”
HRM’s transportation and public works is responsible for snow removal, but the policy on its website does not specify if that includes bicycle paths.
Aside from snow removal, Henry also takes issue with potholes on the road. He says what could be an inconvenience for a motorist could be fatal for a cyclist. Henry says, “The municipality could always be doing more.”
Wedge uses Copenhagen as an example of a city that Halifax should emulate. Wedge says that Copenhagen and Halifax have similar wet, coastal climates and that weather is not an excuse as Danes still cycle in it. Forty years ago, Wedge says Copenhagen was developing car-focused infrastructure and few of its citizens cycled. The city began building more bicycle paths and Copenhagen now has more bicycles than people, with 50 percent of daily commutes done by bicycle in 2011.
To contrast with Halifax, Statistics Canada reported that 1.1 percent of Haligonians commuted by bicycle in 2011.
Buckwold will keep cycling across the Common to work although he doesn’t define himself as a cyclist. He says that it is the most convenient form of transportation for him, as long as the weather co-operates. And he will keep enjoying himself, saying “even in the winter, you can have some fun biking.”
Tips for winter cycling
Stefan Moulin, manager at Cyclesmith on Quinpool Road as well as Ben Buckwold, Ben Wedge and Peter Henry offered suggestions for safely riding in the winter.
- Traction is important so studded tires are the safest option.
- Fenders keep snow and salt from being flung onto you.
- Working front and back lights mean you can be seen easily, especially with less daylight hours
- Salt corrodes aluminum, use steel parts when possible.
- Regular maintenance to make sure that everything, especially the brakes, are working.
- For short trips, Wedge says if it is good enough for walking, it works for cycling.
- For longer trips, Buckwold suggests wearing waterproof pants and boots.
- Warmth is important. Feet, hands and head should be covered, says Moulin, and wear a helmet.
- Cycling in the winter means going slow and braking sooner than you would under ideal conditions.
- Snowbanks take away roadway shared with cars so cyclists should be more aware of their surroundings.