I'd never drive in the winter if the roads weren't cleared: Why predictable bike lane maintenance makes streets safe for everyone
By Keagan Gartz
I want to bike all year round. This will be my fourth winter as a Toronto biking viking, but to me, this phrase means something different from being a ‘hardcore’ cyclist. Yes, I can adjust my clothing and dress like a Canadian with the best of them - I get out my ski mitts, pull up my scarf, change my winter tires, throw on the extra layers, and even take out my goggles on those especially frigid days, but one thing I don’t change is the level of risk I’m willing to take to arrive safely at my destination.
When I was fortunate enough to get a job a mere 1.5 km away from my home in 2013 (full disclosure, it was at Cycle Toronto), I made the switch from using my bike primarily for errands and social trips, to biking every day for every kind of trip. It was amazing. Never had I felt like I could reclaim so much of my time. No more 3 hours a day getting to and from work on transit. No more lugging heavy groceries home after work without my trusty bike basket to shoulder the load. Things like getting to work on time, after-work errands, and stopping to meet friends on the way home all became a breeze.
I got so hooked on this feeling of convenience and control over my time, that when winter weather came around, I didn’t want to go back to waiting at the bus stop. I wanted to try winter cycling. I knew that I would have to change my route from sticking mostly to side streets to biking on arterials that would be plowed. It was a concession I could make, because even though those roads were less comfortable, I lived right by the Harbord St bike lane and close enough to work that I could walk on days that felt a little too slippery for my comfort level. It was a low-risk and high-reward decision. Even though it was a pain at times to lock up and it took a few minutes to warm up, it turned out that for the majority of days, it really wasn’t that bad at all and to my surprise, I kept biking all winter long.
This is me on a particularly cold day in my first year (winter of 2013-2014):
Since then, I haven’t looked back. We’ve had some pretty mild winters over the last few years, so I took advantage of it, but I also took for granted how clear the roads have been by virtue of mother nature. This is not to say there weren’t some rough times. I had experiences on Harbord and other streets where I’d bike beside the bike lane because it was not cleared of snow and slush, and this is precisely when drivers would speed around me, roaring their engines while they passed, telling me I was in a place I shouldn’t be.
I struggle to accept aggressive driving in part because it assumes that matching that aggression via vehicular cycling (taking the lane and acting no different from a car) is by default comfortable for people. It’s not my confidence as a cyclist that makes me fearful, it’s my lack of confidence that people will be patient enough not to overtake me and recognize that I don’t have two tons of metal wrapped around me like they do. It sends a message that I don’t have a right to move around, and I certainly don’t have a right to do so safely. When there is a clear path right next to your dangerously slushy lane, do you take it? Of course you do.
When our office moved this year, I knew I wouldn’t have the luxury of walking to work on those especially bad weather days, but I wasn’t ready to take transit every day and I now had a few years of winter biking under my belt. I knew I could do it. My concerns were also partly alleviated because I’m lucky enough unlike many people, to live and work along many cycling priority snow routes that the City has committed $650,000 per year to clearing. I figured, if anyone can do this, I can - I’ve got Harbord, I’ve got College, I’ve got Shaw, I’ve got Beverley / St. George, and most importantly, I’ve got the newly installed Bloor bike lane pilot, which is being held to high scrutiny by both businesses and city council for how much it will be used year-round. What’s more, the City’s new #PlowTO monitor would provide me with up to date information about what kind of snow clearing conditions to expect. I thought: ‘Finally, Toronto - we’re taking winter cycling seriously. This will be the year we can really get people en masse to show that if they clear it, we will come’.
But how can I encourage people to use the Bloor bike lane this winter when on a day like today, more than 48 hours after the last snowfall, the roads are bone dry, but the bike lane *with priority clearing* looks like this?
And Harbord St looks like this:
How can we tell people to keep biking when calls to 311 indicate that the City is in fact not clearing many of these priority routes? How can we know what year-round cycling potential is out there if the message we’re getting is that only the driving lanes will be cleared predictably? While I recognize that we had multiple snow events in the last week, and that the City has been plowing some parts of some of the bike lanes some of the time, the network is only as strong as its weakest link. If we cannot predictably plan a safe route, many people are not going to ride. If piles of snow are going to send cyclists out into the arterials unexpectedly, there is that much more danger of a collision and aggression grows.
I want to keep riding, but on days like today when I’m getting run off the road by aggressive drivers because there are either parked cars or snow and ice in the bike lanes instead of cyclists, I question whether it’s worth risking my safety and why I’m in the position where it’s being risked in the first place. Snow does not have to change people’s ways of getting around - we know this from many winter cycling cities all over the world such as Copenhagen, Minneapolis, and Montreal. But cities do have to make clearing bike lanes a priority and everyone needs to be invested in treating each other with care and respect on the road. How will we ever get Toronto moving if we don’t give cyclists at least that much?