Is it safe to cycle in the winter?

When the snow starts to fall and the frigid Ottawa winter begins, most people think it’s time to store their bike away until the season is over. But this isn’t the case for everyone.

Winter cycling is becoming an increasingly popular mode of transportation in Ottawa, and this is bringing more attention to safety issues for cyclists brave enough to bike through snowy winter streets.

In recent years Ottawa has taken many steps to promote cycling. They have implemented segregated bike lanes on many of the roads such as Laurier Avenue and O’Connor Street, and have connected bike paths across the city for commuters in the spring, summer, and fall.

In 2013, Ottawa released a cycling master plan that allocated $200,000 for bike lane clearing each winter season. But many winter cyclists are still held back because of poor bike lane conditions that push them into car lanes.

Craig McCauley, a bike-taxi cyclist, said he appreciates the city’s efforts to clear the bike lanes from the winter snow.

“When I’m cycling in the summer I don’t have to worry about hitting black ice, I don’t have to look for lumps of frozen snow,” McCauley said.

Citizens for Safe Cycling (CfSC), a volunteer organization in Ottawa, helps advocate for the cycling issues to keep cyclists like McCauley safe on the city’s streets.

Heather Shearer, vice-president of CfSC, said she has suggested the city use a machine that brushes the snow rather than a plow, and liquid salt as opposed to rock salt.

Jeff Leiper, city councillor for Kitchissipi Ward, said he recently attended a cycling congress in Montreal where he heard similar ideas for snow clearing.

Ottawa has made many improvements over the years to help winter cyclists, but things are far from perfect, according to CfSC board member Cassandra Fulgham. She said she uses a bicycle as her main mode for transportation, and has been winter cycling for five years.

“They’re not really consistent with their lane clearing,” Fulgham said.

She added she wishes the city would “communicate what their standards are for the clearing” in the winter months.

The risk of getting in a bike accident is only increased in the winter—lanes are smaller because of snowbanks, roads are icy and slippery, and lines are covered by snow.

Winter cycling increases in popularity each year, and this requires more action from the city to ensure everyone’s safety, according to Shearer.

For those interested in commuting on their bikes in the winter, Fulgham recommends trying it out on good winter days, and taking small trips to get used to the winter climate on a bike. She added biking later in the autumn and earlier in the spring is a good way to progress into winter cycling.

– Graphic by Christophe Young