The Inequalities of Winter

I cycle all year round, whatever the weather. Winter cycling is not for everyone – it’s cold, frequently dark and occasionally icy. But for me, cycling is still the best way to get to where I need to be.

This winter I invested in some studded ice tyres for the cargo bike. They were expensive but are proving to be well worth the money. It’s hard to tell how much difference they make without taking them back off and cycling the same path in the same conditions, however they certainly make me feel more confident.

I hate ice. I am one of those people who totters about cautiously from the fear of slipping even when there actually is no ice. The fact that there might be is enough to give me the fear. When you ride an extremely heavy cargo bike carrying two children as well as yourself, this fear takes on another level.

It’s not that the children would get hurt if we skidded – they are actually pretty safe. I use quiet roads and paths, and I ride defensively, so the chances of slipping under a car are slimmer than the chances of skidding into another car if I drive. If the cargo bike tips, the bottom edge of the box hits the ground and all that happens to the children is that one leans on the other and the leant-on one shouts a lot about the injustice of it all. I know this because I once forgot I was on a cargo bike and tried to turn sharply to reply to the postman when he called out to say he had a parcel for me – the bike fell. Nobody was hurt in the slightest but there was a lot of shouting involved.

The trouble is that the cargo bike is incredibly difficult to get back upright if it tips, especially if you are skidding about on an icy path at the time. Probably very funny to watch, or describe with hindsight, but really not very dignified at the time.

This week I took the cargo bike out to an evening meeting, despite having no cargo, because it is my only bike with ice tyres. By the time I headed home, it was 9pm, dark and minus 5 degrees. I admit to feeling slightly smug about the drivers having to clear their windscreens…until I realised that I would have to scrape the ice from my bike seat or risk sticking to it (again, a possibility which lacks dignity). The paths on the way home that night were covered in ice and I briefly contemplated using the main roads, but couldn’t face the prospect of Edinburgh drivers (who are possibly no worse than drivers elsewhere, but they are what I am used to). I was delighted to find that with the ice tyres on, I sailed home with no problems other than my bell having frozen and become a clunk rather than a bell.

The next morning, the paths on the school run were similarly icy. I was pleased to be able to stick to the paths and not resort to the car or the main road. Hurrah for ice tyres!

The weather has got me thinking though.

Those of us who cycle generally have some sense of the inequalities on the road between bikes and motor vehicles. We are often used to close passes, aggressive driving and verbal abuse.

But winter seems to exaggerate these inequalities and this makes me wonder if it might be more than just the cold, dark and ice which prevent more people from cycling through the winter.

The Gritting

The greatest inequality cyclists face in the winter is shared by all those who choose (or are forced by circumstance) to travel by means other than driving. Very few paths are gritted.

Why, oh why, oh why is this not a priority for the vast majority of councils? I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to invest in ice tyres. If I was not I would be faced with a choice between the sheet ice of the shared path or the gritted dual carriageway. If I take the path, I fall off. If I take the dual carriageway, the best case scenario is hooting horns and yelled abuse, the worst case scenario does not bear thinking about. Me being able to use the traffic-free shared path seems the best option for not only me, but drivers too. Yet gritting the paths is not a priority; gritting the roads is.

It’s not just about cyclists. That same path is used by high school children going one way and primary school children going the other way. It is used by dog walkers, pram pushers and the elderly (including the one elderly charmer who claimed that I had no right to be on ‘her’ path – I can’t say I am fond of her but I would hate to see her fall). All of these people are at risk because of the ice.

It’s not just the paths. For pedestrians there seems to be no priority to grit the pavements. The janitor at my children’s primary school does a fantastic job of gritting the school grounds, but he cannot be expected to also grit the surrounding pavements. It is simply ridiculous that the lollipop man is skidding about on the pavement trying to help children cross the road in front of the school.

Last year with the ‘beast from the east’, the local high school children had to resort to walking along the road because the pavements outside the school were lethal. The road had been gritted. This is deeply, deeply wrong.

The problem is even worse than a simple lack of gritting. When it snows, it is wonderful when the snowploughs are out clearing the roads….but not if they dump the snow off the roads and onto the pavements. Yet this is what happens. It seems that the roads must be clear for cars, even at the expense of all others. Yet the drivers are not the majority. How can that be right?

Before: there’s a pavement under there somewhere.

After: once you start clearing, it’s hard to stop…


The Level of Traffic

There seem to be so many more cars on the roads in the winter. I am guessing that this is because some of the folk who would otherwise walk or cycle resort to the car in winter. Perhaps if there was more gritting, this would not be so…

With the rise in the level of traffic comes the rise in traffic jams and in the blood pressure of some drivers. A friend of mine who cycles every day, year round, has had two appalling incidents on his bike this week – both of these could have ended very badly and were down to nothing but impatient drivers.

There also seems to be a breed of driver who feels that if they are not moving, neither should anyone else. Perhaps this in an Edinburgh thing – drivers who close gaps and block cycle lanes to ensure that cyclists cannot get through. The prevalence of these folk seems to rise in winter too.

At the best of times the roads can be a hostile place for cyclists, in the winter it seems worse.

The Uninvited, Ill-Informed Opinions

I am used to shouting, head shaking and comments on my sanity and level of intelligence at regular intervals when riding a cargo bike. Most of this comes from drivers. However, it seems that in the winter, everyone has a comment to make about your choice of transport…if that choice is not a car.

Last winter, one of my neighbours felt the need to comment on my cycling the children to school. I had zero crashes despite cycling all but a couple of days. I lost count of the number of parents who told me they had skidded into other cars when driving the school run.

Ninja Buff face cyclist

One morning this week I had a taxi driver shake his head at me in disapproval…as he drove headlong at me on the wrong side of the road. I would love to know what was going on in his head. Actually, maybe I wouldn’t. I think the contents of his head might just terrify me.

Regular winter cyclists will also now be hearing the “You’re brave,” comments from non-cyclists even more often than during the rest of the year. There seems to be a general assumption that to cycle in the winter is to be somewhat a tyre lever short of a wheel change. Granted, it can take me up to 5 minutes to remove all the layers I wear on the bike in winter and I also look a little odd with my ninja cyclist buff face, but I think I am probably warmer than if I had just got out of a heated car. I am certainly burning off the Christmas indulgences faster.

The Future

I need to cycle in order to feel sane. With ice tyres on the cargo bike and a cupboard full of warm, waterproof layers, I see no reason not to keep on cycling every day, all year round.

Bravo to everyone who does the same. I would encourage anyone who packs their bike away for the winter to give it a go despite the cold and dark – it’s really not that bad.

But how great would it be if paths and pavements were given the same priority as roads? Even better would be if they were given a higher priority than roads – that way vulnerable users can avoid the skids and crashes of those in their metal boxes.

And if you must drive…try to chill out. I’ll let you know if I need your opinion.

14 Replies to “The Inequalities of Winter”

  1. So completely true! I’m feeling pretty good with our steep Yorkshire hills on the recent icy days thanks to the metal studded tyres I put on our cargo tricycle but there is a point every day where I have to make a decision between staying on the gritted main road with the cars and lorries or turning onto the ungritted shared use path which takes me part of the way to school. So hard to choose the lesser of 2 evils.

  2. I sure hope that Edinburgh has some delegates coming to Winter Cycling Congress in Calgary this year! Knowledge sharing on maintenance issues would be beneficial from the sounds of it.

    So glad the studded tires are working in your favour. They give me a great sense of confidence, too.

  3. Great read, we don’t have snow.. yet, NE England, I cycled to work one day last week on a road bike and the ground was very icy. I got the husband to pick my bike up and got a lift home. Winter cycling scares me tbh. Low winter sun, as a driver myself I struggle the sun blinding me, so worry about my safety when the sun is out. I will stick to my turbo trainer and pray for an early spring.

  4. I totally hear you about the inequalities regarding gritting! Why are only the roads gritted? Really makes me cross to see so many pedestrians slipping about.

    Funnily enough when it comes to winter riding I am hugely put off by the dark not the cold… I’ve still never ridden in full darkness although this last week I have ridden in dusk and light fog!

    1. The dark can be quite intimidating but it’s not so bad if you have the right kit. I gone one of those grey / silver reflective jackets this year which make me feel more noticeable. There are some really great, affordable bike lights on the market now too.

  5. Studded tyres are great. Last year I swung around a corner onto sheet ice where the top layer had melted – nothing is slippier. The tyres held. I was gobsmacked.

    There is a lot of talk here about ”equality” in snow clearing. The theory goes that statistics show a higher proportion of injuries to peddstrians due to snow and ice, thus Stockholm city prioritise pedestrians over vehicles. One technique that is gaining traction is a mixture of salt and brushing that keeps the tarmac free of ice and snow. This does however require a basic level of pedestrian and cycle infrastructure and it becomes painfully obviius where shortcuts have been taken (on road lanes where cars drive over to get to parking places which end up being bumpy ice fields are my bugbear).

    That said there is a growing number of winter cyclists here which only the worst snowstorms can stop…

  6. I have winter tyres for my commuting bike and love riding on the cold crisp mornings. I would choose riding at -5 on a crisp winter morning to a damp/windy/gloomy morning when it’s 15 degrees warmer.

    Sadly I can’t justify the cost of studs for my child transporter though as I only need it once a week. If there’s frost in the air that leaves me joining the queues out of the Gyle with tired hunger children.

    It is a similar story to public transport. At the risk of sounding like a child in a toppling cargo bike it’s plainly unfair that drivers only pay the small incremental cost for each trip they make while train users in particular are paying the entire cost for everything from the track bed upwards when they make a journey.

  7. So true all of this Diana. You’re spot on with everyone thinking it’s brave to cycle in the winter – when they’re getting into metal boxes that skid everywhere.
    About a decade ago I used to live in a cul-de-sac where a few of the house had occupants well over the age of 70. The moment it snowed they’d be out with their shovels, clearing and gritting the footpath in front of their house, and a path up to their front door. When I spoke to them about it they said that the winters used to be much harsher when they were younger, and everyone used to take responsibility for clearing the area outside of their own house, and younger people would clear older and less able neighbours. Then the tables had turned, and they were the only ones doing it.
    Seems now people spend the time deicing their car windscreens instead. Karen

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