Is it Impossible to Plow a Bike Lane?

This year excepted, winter can really make life difficult for people who use bikes for transportation. It's hard to ride in the winter! People that pull it off are impressive, fearsome, climactic gladiators. They help give Minneapolis (and St Paul?) its fearsome reputation as a capital for biking.

But winter biking isn't difficult for the reasons that a lot of people imagine. The problem really isn't the cold. Once you get biking, you warm up pretty quickly. You really don't need a lot of equipment, either. All I wear is a lot of wool, in layers.

The problem with wither biking is the poor condition of the bike lanes, which are often (not this year) variably covered in ice and snow. It's bad! Ice really destabilizes a light, two-wheeled vehicle.*

When the bike lane is icy or snowy, it forces cyclists to ride out in the traffic lane with cars. That creates a whole other set of problems, as most cyclists I know feel really awkward and uncomfortable 'taking the lane' on most streets. This is particularly true during the winter, with its long nighttime. It not only feels dangerous, I think it is dangerous, as people have worse visibility than the rest of the year. I'd say that for most people, its the bad road conditions, rather than the weather that keeps them from riding during wintertime.

[The unplowable bike lane along Summit. It's even worse along Marshall, because its narrower.]

So, with that in mind, it'd be great if cities like Minneapolis and St Paul could take special care to plow bike lanes in the winter. It'd go a long way toward creating good year-round conditions for urban cycling.

And this is exactly what St Paul has tried to do along Marshall Avenue. Marshall Avenue connects to the Lake Street bridge and (from there) to the Midtown Greenway, and is pretty much St Paul's gateway street. Plus a few years ago the city installed nice bike lanes leading from the river all the way up to Snelling Avenue, and many cyclists use it to get to and from St Paul's main destinations.

A Failed Bike Plow Test Project

Or at least, that's the plan. They city is having a lot of trouble keeping the bike lane clear of ice and snow in the wintertime. A few years back, they launched a special "pilot program" along Marshal, giving Public Works the goal of keeping the bike lane clear, at least along Marshall.

The problem is that, at least according to public works and the snowplowing team, it's extremely difficult to plow a bike lane.

 There are a few reasons why:
  • One of the things that keeps car lanes clear is car traffic. Repeated tires going over the pavement 'throws' ice and snow off to the side. Repeated tires going over a street creates ruts that gradually work their way down to the pavement. In a way, cars plow themselves.
  • This is a problem for bike lanes, though, as a lot of the ice and snow gets 'pushed' off to the side, precisely where the bike lane happens to be.
  • Cars parking and going through the bike lane 'packs' ice and snow, making it very difficult to plow. This is one of the reasons why its possible to 'plow' a bike-only path like the Midtown Greenway or a path through a park, that never gets car traffic on it. But it's far more difficult to 'plow' a bike lane, because of the fact that cars DO drive over it and pack down the ice and snow.
As part of their pilot, St Paul attempted to solve some of these problems, but pretty much failed. They instituted a once per week parking ban along Marshall in the wintertime, and ran plows down the bike / parking lane space. But that really didn't do the trick, because if it snowed on a Thursday (or something), there would be far too many days between plowings of the bike lane.

And short of declaring a snow emergency, or a mini-bike-lane-snow-emergency, the plow drivers couldn't figure out how to plow the bike lane while negotiating the nearby parked cars. Last winter was particularly bad as it was a snow-pocalyse, but even in this dry warm winter, there have been a number of times when Marshall was difficult for biking because the lane was partly covered in ice.

Maybe public works isn't thinking creatively enough about how to plow bike lanes? I'm sure there are parking restriction / technological combinations that could, somehow, figure out how to plow bike lanes. But regardless, there are ton of institutional, logistical, and cost challenges to plowing bike lanes in the winter. It poses problems for places like the Twin Cities, which want to build a large biking community but also have winter weather in no small degree.

Maybe Bike Lanes Aren't That Great For Winter!

Maybe, after all, its kind of impossible to plow bike lanes in the winter! What do we do then?

Well, one solution is to think outside the bike lane. If the problem is cars driving over the bike lanes, then there are two solutions for maintaining good biking conditions in the wintertime.

The first is bike boulevards. Bike boulevards are good in winter conditions beacuse they allow the cyclist to "take the lane" without feeling guilty or awkward about impeding the flow of traffic. Indeed, the entire premise of the street is that bikes get the right of way, and can ride right in the middle of the street. Not only does that encourage less-confident cyclists in the summertime, but in the winter, it allows people to ride in the most-plowed, least-icy spots on the road. Often, those are smack dab in the middle of the street.

The second, though, is cycletracks. We really don't have any of these in the Twin Cities. (Sorry, Minneapolis... First Avenue doesn't really count.) But, they have one in Chicago. And, in theory, this would be a separated bike lane that cars would never drive on, and would run along major arterials through the city, creating comfortable wide direct routes for cyclists along the street.

[A cycletrack in Chicago. In theory, you could plow this!]

And again, in theory, this would seem like the kind of space that you could plow in wintertime, because cars would never really be driving on it. I'd imagine you could plow it with a pickup truck, like they do along the Midtown Greenway.

There is a lot of disagreemeent in the Twin Cities about exactly what kind of bike infrastructure is best. Some prefer vehicular cycling, some prefer bike lanes, and some prefer bouelvards and cycle paths. Finally, some people just want to create an off-street network like the greenway and the park trails.

Well, thinking about how these routes will be plowed is part of the equation we should consider. Maybe this means that bike lanes, which work so well in less-extreme climates (e.g. Portland and Seattle), may NOT be the best choice for the Twin Cities. Because for bike lanes, no matter what they try to do, public works can't seem to really plow them. On the other hand, maybe every winter will be like this winter, and it will never snow in Minnesota again...

* It's worth stating that studded tires work wonders. But they're expensive and a bit strange, and most people won't really use them.


Alex said...

Very interesting. The best solution is clearly to require all cars be fitted with snow plows. It's unfortunate that this issue will deepen the need to remove parking in order to add biking facilities.

Unknown said...

Plowing is always a problem for any bike facilities in MN...

We won't be able to keep bike lanes clear until we radically change how we approach snow removal on bike facilities, which will undoubtedly be very expensive. I'm not sure it's worth it. Even our very best efforts (for example, the City of MPLS' excellent work on clearing the Greenway) still never fully clears all the snow and Ice.