Bike safety advocates warn against winter cycling

By Isaac Würmann

When it comes to winter cycling in Centretown, advocates say conditions still range from the good to the bad to the ugly.

With helmets on and neck warmers pulled snug up to their ears, the 50 or so cyclists who took part in Citizens for Safe Cycling’s sixth-annual winter bike parade on Jan. 15 experienced the full range of conditions.

“The good being the segregated lanes, which are usually cleared right down to the pavement,” said Felicity Borgal, who works with Languages Canada when she’s not volunteering as Citizen for Safe Cycling’s event coordinator. “The ugly would be that there’s a giant pile of snow in the middle of your lane.”

At a number of sections along the O’Connor Street bike lane, participants in the parade had to dodge ice chunks blocking their path. Volunteers stopped to clear the large slabs, some of which measured a metre or more in length.

Following the parade, four city councillors spoke during a panel discussion about winter cycling conditions in their wards. The conversation was dominated by concerns about clearing bike paths.

Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Tobi Nussbaum said he, along with Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury and Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, will be meeting with staff responsible for snow plowing to discuss improvements to bike lane clearing.

“Clearly we need to do a better job on that,” Nussbaum said.

Although McKenney was not at the bike parade or the panel discussion, she told Centretown News there are some sections of bike lanes that are “missed regularly” when Centretown’s streets are cleared of snow.

“We want to sit down with staff and make sure that there’s a plan and that we have a full understanding of what is supposed to be winter-maintained and how it’s supposed to be winter-maintained,” she said.

She added that keeping bike lanes cleared during the winter has been a “key contributor” to the increase in the number of winter cyclists in the ward.

“Anybody can see that just more and more people come out in the winter,” McKenney said. “And our own stats and where we have counters certainly confirm that.”

For Kathryn Hunt, who works downtown at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, irregular clearing of bike paths is the key issue for winter cyclings.

“You might be riding along, thinking that you’re going to take the route that you normally take, and discover that it’s not snow cleared and it’s not passable,” said Hunt, who bikes to work every day during the winter.
However, Hunt said winter cycling infrastructure has gotten “much better” since she began biking through the season in 2008.

“The Laurier lane didn’t exist when I started riding,” she said. “Centretown has the O’Connor bike lane now, so it’s completely changed my winter commute.

According to the City of Ottawa’s 2013 Winter Cycling Plan, the city maintains 50 kilometres of cleared paths during the winter months. Borgal calls Centretown the “golden circle” for winter cycling, because the segregated lanes on roads such as O’Connor Street and Laurier Avenue are generally well cleared.

Despite the challenges, Hunt said cycling is still the best way to get around Centretown in the winter if you don’t have a car — but it takes practice.

“Learning to ride on ice is a skill,” she said. “That’s a thing you have to learn. It took me ages.”