Progressive policies help get people on their bike, even in below-freezing conditions
Peter WalkerSat 8 Feb 2020 08.00 GMT
In London, where I live, the idea of winter cycling generally involves little more than remembering some gloves and making sure your bike lights are charged. In Joensuu, the compact city in eastern Finland, where I am now, it’s arguably a more serious business.
When I got off the train from Helsinki the temperature was -16C (3F), and hasn’t yet risen higher than -6C. Every roadway, pavement and cycle route is covered in a layer of compacted snow.
Yet, one of the first things you see on the city’s streets are bikes. About 20% of all trips in Joensuu are cycled. This drops by about half in the depths of winter but that’s still far better than most Finnish cities, let alone almost anywhere in the UK.
I’m in Joensuu because I was invited to come and see the Winter Cycling Congress, an annual gathering of researchers, academics and city officials, which is hosted by a different chilly municipality every year.
After a couple of days of speaking to people here, two main lessons have emerged. Firstly, while winter cycling does bring its challenges, these are not always the ones you might expect. Secondly, and this is perhaps more predictable, if you want more people on bikes in winter, it’s less about individuals than infrastructure.
In terms of the practicalities of riding on snow, Joensuu-like conditions of compacted snow are pretty easy. Almost everyone I’ve seen pedalling around this week has been using everyday bikes with ordinary tyres.
Ari Varonen, the city’s chief roads engineer, told me that Joensuu’s bike routes are ploughed with the same tractors used for roads. They have a blade to push away fresh snow and add grooves to the surface to make it less slippery. The lanes are then gritted, rather than using bike-corroding salt.
If the weather stays below freezing, all is fine. But as Matti Koistinen, head of the Finnish Cyclists’ Federation, explained to me, more varied temperatures are what cause the biggest problems.
“If it’s really packed snow, like it is now, it’s comfortable to ride on. But when the temperature goes above 0C it becomes hell. It becomes very slushy, and then when it freezes again it’s pure ice, and really bouncy.”
At this point, the consensus seems, it is best to only venture out on a bike with tyres fitted with metal studs, given you can never be sure if a newly refrozen track has been freshly gritted.
Joensuu has several advantages as a cycling city. It is relatively small, almost entirely flat, and its wide streets were mainly built in recent decades – as recently as the 1950s it only had a population of about 7,000.
But it also has a comprehensive system of separated cycle routes, some just for bikes, others as part of a wide footway. This is particularly crucial, Varonen told me: “A bike lane just painted on the road wouldn’t work here in winter time. If you have packed snow, you can’t even see the marks. So no one would use it.”
Again, we come back to a perennial theme of the bike blog: if you want a lot of people to cycle, you need consistent political will to spend money on proper cycling facilities over the long term.
That politicians in Joensuu are committed to cycling, and active transport more generally, is clear from the Winter Cycling Congress. The city’s mayor, Kari Karjalainen, not only greeted delegates at an opening reception but took his turn pedalling the static bike used to power the event’s PA system.
There are good reasons for this. Joensuu has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2025, a target it will not manage without significantly reducing transport emissions, which make up 70% of the total.
The Finnish government appears equally committed, with a funding programme in place for active travel as part of a target to increase walking and cycling by 30% by 2030. The country as a whole has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030, 20 years before the UK’s deadline.
While cycling groups in Britain are generally marginalised by the government, Koistinen sits as a representative of the cyclists’ federation on the official committee tasked with coming up with ways to reduce emissions.
A pitfall of endlessly detailing forward-thinking policies in places such as Joensuu is that people in other countries can be tempted to shrug their shoulders and just assume, well, the Finns do things differently.
And to an extent they do: North Karelia, the Finnish region of which Joensuu is the capital was the base for one of the earliest and best-known public health experiments in history, when 20 years of efforts led to a drop in historically high rates of heart disease, caused by rampant smoking and a diet largely based around animal fats, by about 80%.
But you could take another lesson. The opening event of the Winter Cycling Congress took place at the city’s main school where, the teachers say, about half of pupils still ride to school in winter. On the morning in question, it was -13C and snowing. But the school’s bike racks were full.
That’s perhaps something to think about next time you wonder whether you can face a bike ride in winter.
Why Finland leads the field when it comes to winter cycling | Environment | The Guardian
Progressive policies help get people on their bike, even in below-freezing conditions Peter WalkerSat 8 Feb 2020 08.00 GMT In London, where I live, the idea of winter cycling generally involves little more than remembering some gloves and making sure your bike lights are charged. In Joensuu, the compact city in eastern Finland, where I… [Read More]