From Russia With Love for the Bicycle

Janet Joy on an Electra rental bicycle (Moscow Parade). Photo by Vladimir Barmin.

Winter Cycling Conference

Report from Russia 

By Janet Joy Wilson, co-founder of The Reading Line

When I said I was going to Russia in February,  everyone said, “It’s cold there!”

Yes, it's cold in Russia, but I'm Canadian, and the allure of discussing transportation and health with hundreds of delegates from dozens of countries at the 6th International Winter Cycling Congress in Moscow was why I was there. 

These international leaders from 39 countries were there to discuss how people riding bicycles results in improved health and better transportation.

I have so many notes from this inspiring and extraordinary three days, that this report is truly just the tip of the Russian iceberg.


Let me begin with Anne Berner, Finland’s Minister of Transport and Communications, who outlined the three reasons for improving sustainable urban transportation:

  • Increases function of entire transit system
  • Air quality enrichment, positive effect on health
  • Climate mitigation

Peter Ericson, Swedish ambassador, said that riding a bicycle is a “joyful way to make this a quieter place.”  The Swedish experts are focusing on the preservation of the environment -- as it is "our common duty" to do so.

Did you know that there are 20,000 border crossings by bicycle in 2017 between Finland and Russia? Just imagine that for a moment. Twenty thousand people on bicycles crossing a border. And they plan to improve the bicycle border crossing. If it’s already at 20,000 what will it look like with better infrastructure?

Nikolai Asaul, deputy Minister of Transport of the Russian Federation, shared plans to “set the example for employees” to be able to choose to ride their bicycle to work. What are the constraints they face? Unsafe cycling infrastructure. 

One street off of Red Square that 10 years earlier had cars now had blocks and blocks of pedestrians enjoying a winter wonderland under twinkly lights. 

Jaw-dropping inspiration came from Christophe Najdovski, deputy Mayor of Paris in charge of Transports and Public Space in France. They have a 2015-2020 plan that will increase modal share [by bike] to 15%.

He said Paris is undergoing a cultural change. This will be on view in July 2018 when the iconic Champs-Élysées will have bicycle lanes!

Nothing happens overnight, and the evolution of Paris looked like this:

  • Statements like "the city must adapt to its cars" in the 1960s
  • They had “courtesy corridors or nurse corridors” which were not separated (aka sharrows) in the 1980s
  • 1995 separated bicycle lanes introduced
  • 2000s new sharing space with bike & buses 
  • 2008-14 pacification of streets & public space - reduce speed & bidirectional 
  • 2007 velib bike share released city-wide resulted in ‘bike freedom’
    So huge is the success of the Vélib' that Paris is proclaiming a veritable "vélorution", reclaiming the streets for two-wheelers.” – The Guardian Aug 2007
    300,000 subscribers with more than 100,000 uses per day
  • 5 year plan voted unanimously for increased modal share by 2020
  • $150 million euro budget
  • More than double bicycle trails - to give continuity to Paris suburbs 
  • Includes secured parking, helping to buy e bikes & cargo bikes , cycle express network, ie RIVOLI street transfers timed - more space with wide paths on main streets!!
  • Centre of Paris - share public space and more space to cyclists. Improve comfort and security for pedestrians. 
  • Via Georges Pompidou 3m wide bike lane provides junction with suburbs 
  • Quai de Seine took place for cars (and parking ) transformed to wide bike lane 
  • Blvd Voltaire with separate bike lane 2m wide for one way, can double each other. Safe and can pass. 
  • Riverside expressway 2013 transformation attracted 6,000,000 visitors in first 3 years on the left bank of River Seine 
  • 60% of Parisians support pedestrian transformation.
  • Bike parking increased fostering inter modal commutes
  • 30km share road zones to be developed with priority to pedestrians. & cyclists. No car parking allowed. 
  • NEW velib 2 will expand with 20,000 new bikes (30% ebikes)  and 38 new metro territories 
  • More cyclist friendly traffic rules and safety measures to eliminate road conflicts
  • Policies developed for increasing bike culture and free bike share system for young children, support bicycle repair services and travel planning services.
  • 2016 had 650km of car free space
  • 2017 car free day
  • 2018 16 September CAR FREE DAY covering whole city!!

I had a conversation with Christophe Najdovski later while we rode on the expansive and efficient Moscow Metro.

I asked Christophe about the World Cities Summit Mayors Forum which focues on Liveable & Sustainable Cities and Embracing the Future through Innovation & Collaboration. I suggest Toronto Mayor Tory attend and return with best practices exploring how cities can better govern and build up resilience through policy, technology and social innovations. Toronto needs innovative and integrated urban solutions for a liveable and sustainable future.

Morten Kabell, mayor of Technical and Environmental Affairs of Copenhagen, Denmark & COO of COPENHAGENIZE DESIGN said “What this about? It's not about bicycles but about people!”

A common theme throughout the conference was that you need dedicated infrastructure. It must be winter proof and that means clearing the bicycle lanes first.


Can you imagine this in Toronto?

It would be a huge cultural shift and clearly indicate priority to the vulnerable road user. Personally, I would put the order this way: Sidewalks, Bicycle Lanes, Streetcar & Bus Routes then personal vehicle routes.

Morten emphasized, “Infrastructure is key and having a network in place provides an extensive grid which equals safety.” Thus the reason Cycle Toronto continues to advocate for a minimum grid.

The Mayor of ALMETYEVSK, a city in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia with a population of 150,000 had political will and installed 83km long grid with winter clearing, lights on paths and separated lanes. Why? For simple reasons like bicycles would improve their health and extend their life. 2020 goal is 200km and 7% modal. Their goal is to have happy and healthy employees. It's about motivation. The mayor noticed one day after the installation that at the Kindergarten school there were 30 plus wee bicycles parked – astounding.

Vincenzo Trevisan, sustainable mobility consultant at Verkehr mit Kopfchen in Germany said “Cycling tourism is booming.” He then shared the economic benefits of incorporating innovative bicycle infrastructure into sustainable mobility management in urban areas.

Toronto Pearson International Airport & Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport take note of this story:

Frankfurt has the worst congestion, which has a negative impact economically. Understanding sustainable mobility management is an asset for business development so they wrote a Frankfurt airport case study called Vision 2030.

Frankfurt airport is accessible by train and motorway. There is a huge employment zone with 1,700 cyclists a day who make it to the airport for work.

They initiated a cost benefit analysis looking at sick leave days when the employees switched from car to bicycle. Cycling is far cheaper than cars and obviously take up less space. The future for the airport will have 100,000 people working at airport by 2030. Many municipalities with these employees are within 10km, which is accessible on bicycle. Encouraging a commute on bicycle will save 1.10 tons of co2. Employees will save money on parking costs. The Frankfurt Airport will be installing bicycle lanes, bike parking & bike repair stations to be prepared for the future.

Adam Bodor, advocacy and EuroVelo Director at European Cyclists Federation, Belgium, said that EU Bicycle Touring is better than their steel job and mining industries. It is growing as fast as the cruise ship tourism.


The first workshop I attended was called “Involving local stakeholders in decision making.”

Transportation projects often affect a variety of stakeholders and public engagement can help decision makers better understand what is important to stakeholders. Purposeful public engagement can lead to better project decisions, stronger relationships between stakeholders and trust between governments and citizens. Inclusive engagement provides opportunities to better understand stakeholders' needs and values as well as collaborate with groups that may be difficult to reach.

The Canadian team were excellent workshop facilitators: Katherine Glowacz, active Transportation Planner at the City of Calgary, and Blanka Brancic, senior Transportation Engineer for the City of Calgary, and Jamie Hilland, Sustainable Transportation Planner with Urban Systems in Winnipeg, Canada.

In small groups, we took a collaborative group learning approach and combined it with discussion and brainstorming. We wrote a preliminary plan for public engagement on a multi-modal transportation project, considered perspectives of multiple stakeholders, shared public engagement challenges and explored innovative solutions.

My international group had so much fun because of the larger than life Konstantin Ponomarev, referent of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftungin Novosibirsk Russia. Katherine, Blanka and Jamie kept the exercises succinct, challenging, and unpredictable providing an opportunity to dig into a project. The “Empathy Exercise” was an excellent tool. Putting yourself into someone else’s shoes provides that perspective we sometimes forget, as we had to ensure we met the needs of the young mom, a senior and a teen skateboarder for our fictional Let’s Go Festival at Kids Icycle School. They also reminded us to “be nice to your municipal workers.”

A cycling congress is not complete without getting on a bicycle and they offered a choice of five mobile workshops. I chose the bike tour on the soviet avant-garde architecture led by Airat Bagautdinov, author of the project “Moscow through the engineer’s eye.”  

A group of 20 international delegates met at Electra Bicycles in the Muzeon Park opposite Gorky Park. We cycled on the sidewalk, side streets and on park trails. It was a variety of conditions as the weekend before had seen Moscow receiving their “snowfall of the century”. The snow in Moscow is removed by trucks into areas near Paveletsky Rail Station and dumped into the Moscow River. They also have sweepers that truly clean snow away at bus and tram stops.

You can’t have a WCC without an afternoon of presentations on using Salt Sweeping in Sweden to Brine in Edmonton.

My next workshop was “Campaign Planning and Strategy" facilitated by Thomas DeVito, Director of Organizing in Transportation Alternatives , USA.

“The way you structure your organization and your approach to campaigning really matters” says Thomas. A solid foundation is key to your ability to successfully advocate for bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and more people friendly streets. Transportation Alternatives has a long record of accomplishment of successful hyper-local campaigning. At this training we learned more about their staffing model, model for engaging volunteer leaders, and how they have applied their theories to real fights and real campaigns.

One fantastic tool Thomas shared was the Strategy Chart (seen below). It’s a clear guide to help you set up your goals, resources, allies/constituents, decision makers and tactics. Along with clarifying your work then we received tips on how to keep it going with New York City examples for inspiration like Queens Blvd. which was known as the “Blvd of Death”. They knew if they could change Queens Blvd then they could implement change everywhere else in the city. Sounds familiar to the fight we had for Bloor Bike Lanes.

Тom Babin, author of “Frostbike: The Joy, Pain & Numbness of Winter Cycling” from Calgary, Alberta was the conference’s Keynote Speaker. His presentation was called Pedaling into Winter: Year-Round Cycling in the Public Mind.

He provided the “perspective of a citizen” and reminded us that in 5 years there has been a huge transformation in North American cycling culture.

Normalization of winter cycling is also changing as noted on a recent headline which was “Winter Biking in Montreal? No sweat.” Opposed to one a few years ago which noted identified anyone riding a bicycle in the winter was a lunatic or a “knob” if you live in Toronto.

The most powerful presentation of WCC was called “When A Fire Starts to Burn:
The Power of Cycling in Community Transformation” delivered by the electric Olatunji Oboi Reed, President & CEO at the Equiticity, USA.

EQUICITY is a new city . A movement for increased mobility. His goal is to “make our cities livable for black and brown people.”

Equity is not equality. Equity is distribution of resources. 

“BURN IT DOWN. WE BURN DOWN WHAT HARMS US. WE BUILD UP WHAT BENEFITS US. TURN ON THE POWER AND LET EQUITY FLOW. WE DO THIS WORK TOGETHER. E v e r y b o d y  stand up - we ride bikes to make our world a better place.”

Please check out his work at and at

On the Friday night of WCC I had the opportunity to perform a pechakucha (20 slides automatically moving forward every 20 seconds). I wanted to present The Reading Line in this format, as it would force me to distill our concept since we began in 2014 into a 6 minute and 40 second pitch.

I was one of 9 presenters for the “Educational Bike Party” described as a cultural and educational event about cycling, urban environment and traveling.

Our venue was on the Krymskaya embankment under the Krymsky bridge in a bar called the Good Café next to Gorky Park.

After each presentation, there were three questions. One question asked of me was how did this start? I was thankful I had the chance to tell the origin story of Amanda Lewis and myself at a Cycle Toronto meeting in the summer of 2014 when we thought “books and bicycles go together!”

Photo by Trent Watts. 

I met so many amazing people from around the world including Anders Swanson from Winnipeg who started the Winter Bike to Work Day! A day that is about empowering people with friendly competition between cities around the world. 

The 6th annual Winter Bike to Work on February 9, 2018, broke records with 14,262 registrations in 1551 cities in 80 countries.

They announced the awards at the WCC2018 for:

  • Volunteer organization - Novi Sad, Serbia
  • Communications - Edmonton, Canada CJSR FM88 bicycle traffic report & @coffee_outside #gatheringhub
  • Leadership & Politics - Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau and Catherine McKenna - Ottawa, Canada

TORONTO why are we not doing this?  Instead of a Cycle Toronto Coldest Day of the Year Ride, let’s normalize riding a bicycle in Toronto and get international coverage with riding to work as an entire city!

The WCC finale came from Saskatoon resident Felipe Gomez. He cycled from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, mostly at night because “it was safer”, and arrived with stories of Russian comrades.  He offered a pedal powered art adventure sharing music (6 string bass & amp) and stories with communities. Felipe is an award winning musician, adventure and public speaker whose Toronto connection occurred a few years ago when he was provided bicycle aid and more by Viktor at Espresso Cycles. Check out his website here:

A final highlight (albeit everything about this WCC was a highlight) was the 3rd Moscow Bicycle Parade. WCC provided free bicycles to the speakers. It was a snowy Sunday with the temperature around -5C and I was one of thousands – we thought near 3,000 – riding bicycles of all types and sizes alongside the Kremlin with many Russians wearing amazing costumes! It was a surreal experience!

Third Moscow Bike Parade. Photo by Andrey Burkov.

I first heard about WWC when I read Frostbike, and it’s been of interest to me ever since. When I heard that the WCC was in Moscow, all I could hear was Irina in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard saying “I want to go to Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!”

I wrote a pitch to be a speaker in the pechakucha format and they said yes! Then I had to convince the Russian embassy to provide me with a VISA, which was an extensive 12-page application. The Russians had my passport over the Christmas holidays.Was I nervous? Yes.

I paid for my trip, which translated to $170,688.40 Russian Rubles.

I received education, camaraderie and new international friends, which are priceless -- and I got to talk about The Reading Line to an international audience.

The advice at the top of the conference was to make friends and then to "do something" with what you've learned when you return home. The first part was easy as we were all like-minded in a goal to make our world a better place because bicycles benefit our health and our transportation networks.

Now on to the ‘doing something’ which takes resilience in Toronto but together we can cycle into change one gear at a time.

Congratulations to Calgary as the host for the Winter Cycling Congress in 2019.

You can find the 6th International Winter Cycling Congress program here: (Slides from all presentations will be available in a few weeks.)

Janet Joy Wilson is co-founder of The Reading Line and recently attended the Winter Cycling Congress in Moscow. She is seen above in Red Square wearing a red Roots hat.

Related on

The Coldest Day of the Year Ride

The Reading Line: Cyclists and Authors promote The Green Line (2014)

New research on winter cycling in Toronto from Ryerson

Freedom and biking in Kabul

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