Curb Your Enthusiasm: snow clearance in bike lanes

Plowed, ice-filled snow blocks the College Street bike lane east of Spadina in the winter of 2008. Photo by Martin Reis.


Toronto promises to remove snow from bike lanes, yet leaves hundreds of kilometres of gutter lane buried in the white stuff. Here’s how our city stacks up against other cold climates.

By Tyler Wade

Winter, however mild, has arrived, and commuters are faced with a decision: buy the cold weather gear and brave the cold, or pony up the cost of three months of transit passes. Your first thought might be those pesky mounds of snow that drift into bikelanes, many of which aren’t cleared by plows. Without knowing if your lane will be cleared and safe to ride on the decision sways more towards transit. What do you think that does to the city’s bursting-at-the-seams roads and transit system?

Winter is an important arsenal in the war against cycling. Councillors voting against cycling infrastructure often evoke the idea of a months-long cycling hibernation, claiming it will only be used in the short summer months. Any Torontonian can call bull on this statement–especially considering this freakishly warm winter season, which has encouraged fair-weather cyclists to stay on the roads longer.

In Toronto, only 1.7 per cent of commuters ride a bike to work (according to 2006 numbers.) Pitiful compared to the city of Copenhagen, where 33 per cent of their population cycle to work using the city’s 350 km of segregated paths. The city experiences similar weather, and employs a pair of machines to clear snow off roads: one plows while another follows using a big rotating brush to clear any left behind, ensuring the gutter lane is cleared. One wonders how congested their highways and transit systems would be if cyclists couldn’t commute all year round.

Photo by Martin Reis

Toronto, by comparison, contracts out its sidewalk and bike path clearing. Despite having similar machines (CanAm Side by Side), it is at the contractors’ discretion to use them says Peter Noehammer, Toronto’s director of transportation services. Bike lanes, on the other hand, are supposed to receive the same level of service as the road. Snow should be plowed to the edge of sidewalk thus clearing the bike lane, he says. Any Torontonian cyclist will know this simply isn’t true. Piles of snow in the gutter lane cover potential hazards like potholes, which could send a cyclist flying into traffic.

A winter cyclist’s worst enemy is ice, Noehammer says, and so the city uses a liquid salt brine to keep ice off the roads. Christina Bouchard, avid cyclist and assistant planner for communications at the city, says salt brine is based predominantly on the needs of motor vehicles: not cyclists. “If the forecast calls for flurries, then salt brine is sprayed on City streets,” she says. “This level of service works well for cars, but does not work particularly well for bicycles which are lighter, have small tires and represent smaller numbers of the overall traffic volumes travelling on most major arterial roads. The bikes cannot grind up the salt and liquefy the mush the way big, thick, heavy car tires can.” Not to mention that salt quickly rusts your bike’s drive train, just as it eats away the bottoms of your jeans.

In 2009, under Mayor David Miller, Toronto launched a pilot project for the Martin Goodman Trail to see if snowclearing led to increased numbers of cyclists. The path gets cleared and de-iced from Windemere in the west all the way east to Woodbine (map). The city received plenty of compliments from cyclists and runners, who happily used the path year-round. The catch? The pilot project is currently unfunded. The City of Toronto’s winter maintenance budget for 2011-2012 is approximately $83 million, and is used for roadway and sidewalk salting and ploughing for all public streets. Any extra money is spent on the pilot project–if there isn’t any money leftover, the pilot gets cancelled.

Risa Sargent rides along the plowed Laurier Avenue separated bike lane in Ottawa. Photo by Simone Rivers is part of our special cross-Canada Bike Spotting feature in this issue.

By comparison, Ottawa’s segregated bike lanes are maintained throughout the year. The bike lanes are plowed to the same bare pavement standard as car lanes, says Jocelyn Turner, Ottawa’s media relations officer. The city uses a mechanical sweeping broom, plow and snow blower to clear snow. After that a liquid anti-icing spray is applied to the bike lanes to minimize the use of environmentally-unfriendly roadway rock salt. The city’s 2011-2012 budget for road maintenance is $69 million.

There are alternatives to salt and brine, of course: check out Scotiabank plaza’s heated sidewalks. Some cyclists have taken to the problem on two wheels, rigging snow shovels to their bike in a snow-conquering V shape. Mind you, cities don’t ask cars to install shovels on their bumpers and we all pay the same municipal taxes that, in part, fund the road & maintenance budget.

David Peterson’s pedal-powered snow plow. Photo by Cindy Peterson.

Iceland taps the power of geothermal heating beneath their roads, which means plows aren’t necessary. Scotland is trying a new road energy system that allows the roads to heat water being piped underneath. Sunlight is absorbed by the wide, black road surface, which boosts the temperature of the water just beneath. This turns roads into massive solar hot water heaters. The idea originated in the Netherlands, where it has been used in flyovers and airports. If you want Toronto to catch up, fighting for snow removal is a good start.

Montreal’s winter cycling levels have risen from five to 14 percent since 2008, and the city insists its lanes are cleared all year long: the reality will fluctuate in different areas. Over the past two years, cyclists have won two court cases against the city. In first, the judge ruled that the city has an obligation to ensure the safety of everyone using the city’s infrastructure. In the second, the ruling found the city must fix dangerous situations for road users, including cyclists. Will Toronto wait until after someone is hurt to mandate similar rules?

Presently, the best way to handle cycling in Toronto’s winter is to be more aware be mindful of space and road conditions. You can call 311 (or email if a bike lane isn’t cleared. And let your local public official know.

Prioritizing the bike lanes is a great and necessary way to encourage people to ride bicycles all through the year. Unfortunately, Toronto is notoriously frugal when it comes to investing in its future.

One response to “Curb Your Enthusiasm: snow clearance in bike lanes”

  1. Warren says:

    Thank you for this. In all the discussion of the Sherbourne separated lane, this goes unaddressed. As I ride along the Jarvis lane, all I see is people shovelling their sidewalk snow into the existing bikelane. That’s not OK, that’s ‘plowing-out’, a bylaw infraction. But there IS a fine for not clearing your sidewalk … so what is one to do? This needs coordinated effort and an acknowledgement that bicycles CAN be a year-round activity. And that we ARE road users … it may came to some Montreal-style lawsuits to get the city to maintain infrastructure, and enforce bylaws.

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