The Case of the Disappearing Bike Lanes

One challenge to expect when cycling in the winter, is that bicycle lanes tend to "disappear" - either under snow banks, or under cars that take over the bike lane when snow covers their parking spots. 

The pictures here are of Day 3 after our latest snow fall, and the plows have been working continuously. Still, the snow banks cover a good three feet or more of the the righthand side of the road in both directions.

For those who live in areas with well-developed cycling infrastructure, this change can be especially difficult: Accustomed to traveling almost exclusively via bike lanes, having to now cycle directly with car traffic can be a bewildering experience. That is one reason I think it is important to get comfortable with "vehicular cycling" even if it does not seem like you need it. Once the snow arrives, there is no way to tell what part of your journey will have the familiar bike lanes available and what part will dump you directly into the traffic lane.

While side streets are quieter than main roads, the drawback is that they are not plowed as thoroughly. Here you can see that even the narrow space in the middle of the street is covered with a layer of snow. The car and the cyclist ahead must carefully navigate around each other in sharing this space, ideally at low speeds.

In addition to the limited space, there is also a greater number of obstacles in the road than usual: There are newly formed pot holes, which are not infrequently iced over, and also just chunks of snow and ice strewn all over. Cycling can feel like a technical trial, where the cyclist is forced to do a little dance to avoid ice chunks on one side and potholes on the other - all while remaining keenly aware of the presence of cars behind them.

I am not one to sensationalize the supposed dangers of cycling. But when the roads start to look like this, I think it is important to be aware of the potential pitfalls. All the things you took for granted earlier - from the texture of the asphalt, to the way your bike handles, to the availability of bike lanes, no longer hold true.

When the weather is like this, all you can do really is know what to expect - and use your judgment to determine whether you can handle it. While the presence of bike lanes is not particularly important to me, the loose chunks of hard snow and ice are what deters me from cycling just now. It's too stressful to navigate around them while dodging cars, so I will wait it out. The Co-Habitant, on the other hand, is delighted to ride in these conditions. To each their own!


  1. Hi

    Not related to the snow but I will forward to my wife who is in the UK at the moment as our daughter and her family live in teh Boston area. Just an odd point. Your site was blocked while I was in China the last four days. Has anyone else had that experience.

    Mike now in Singapore

    On to Mumbai where I expect to see some very old British bikes.

  2. Oh no, blocked in China : (
    Perhaps it's the "bike p0rn"

  3. I agree with you waiting it out. Cycling should be pleasurable but with ice and snow and sliding motorists it would be so easy to be injured and perhaps never to be able to enjoy cycling again.

  4. Absolutely fantastic to see somebody (ies) who is so totally mad about bicycling. Found this through Yehuda and shall keep on reading when not riding. Greetings from Folkestone, England.


  5. Banned in China, it has to be all of those seat cluster shots

  6. I agree about waiting it out too. I don't have any bike lanes, so when they clear the road it's even narrower. I just got back on my bike Wednesday after a week of waiting for the roads to improve enough that I felt safe riding them again.

  7. Just wanted to say I love the look of that bike.

  8. I totally agree with you about the question of "vehicular cycling". There are so many who are fundamentalist on this, respond "digitally", yes or no. And those who are against bicycle infrastructure, agressive "vehicularists".

    I think that being well able to handle one's self in traffic as a vehicle is something that should be in everybody's tool kit of riding skills. Yes: rather Amsterdam or a good approximation, but be ready to take off totally on your own and safely if necessary.

    Suppose one is an engineer and has to do a series of calculations that involve exponential functions, but the batteries are dead in the calculator and stores are closed. There are many among us who could take out the big slide rule that belonged to grandpa (or yourself in the distant past) and go on as if nothing happened.

    Slide rule skills and vehicular cycling skills should be kept up, sometimes even practicing them when you don't really need them so as not to get rusty. One hopes that there will be a time when this archaic riding skill is not needed, but not for the time being...

  9. I think I'm with you about taking some time off. But then I live in Texas and such situations are once in a lifetime. It was the same way in Seattle.

  10. I think it's good to be comfortable with vehicular cycling concepts anyway. If you ever ride outside of bike lane areas (e.g., on longer rides in the country), you're not going to have bike lanes anyway.

    At least you don't have them in MY part of the world. I don't even have bike lanes in town.

  11. I think you're right to take the time off - those roads do not look at all nice. And think too of your bike - with all the salt and grit that is scattered about, if you do not have the time to give the bike a thorough clean after the ride, you risk getting corrosion started to say nothing of accelerated wear on chains, cassettes etc. Discretion here is the better part of valour.

  12. It is a different way of biking. During the nicer months, I go out of my way to bike on the least busy streets. That doesn't work this time of year, though, because the least-traveled roads are the iciest. Gotta get out there on those busy streets :(.

  13. "There are so many who are fundamentalist on this, respond "digitally", yes or no."

    Oddly enough THE Extremist does not. It is often the case in "movements" that the founder has to waste time saying, "Jeeeezus guys, that's not what I'm saying."

    "Yes: rather Amsterdam . . ."

    Not Amsterdam, Utrecht, but same diff:

    Yes, David Hembrow has commented on this video and while I agree with him in principle I disagree in specific; this is vehicular cycling in The Netherlands. It is a basic and necessary skill everywhere.

    "There are many among us who could take out the big slide rule"

    I've got a big Pickett within arm's reach. A little pocket model too. My bamboo K&E has disappeared. Who would steal a frickin' slide rule?;

    "One hopes that there will be a time when this archaic riding skill is not needed"

    That time will only come when not many people leave the house. A bike is a vehicle and riding on prepared roads with rules of right of way in order to handle the traffic load without too many incidents is . . .vehicular cycling, even in the absence of other vehicle types.

    Even using a bike lane well is a form of vehicular cycling. I agree with The Extremist on the fact that the paint has no magical properties. The effect they have is purely psychological and riding with them is otherwise exactly the same as riding without them.

    As for being blocked in China, the bike pr0n here tends to lean toward the English. Needz moar Flying Pigeon.

  14. Due to the dark clothing your husband is wearing he "dangerously disappears" to most drivers since he blends so well , on a gloomy day, with the background.

    Adding a little bright color will surely help his visibility level to traffic around him.

  15. Interesting, Velouria. It may be partly my attitude, but some of the problems that you listed here turn out to be positive things instead of negative things where I am (Winnipeg). We just had falling snow for two straight days here -- nothing like the big storm you had earlier in the week, but enough that the plows eventually came out of hiding. There's a street near my house which got some "improvements" earlier this year, ostensibly for bicycling, including a narrow bike lane (the left edge is about three feet from the curb) and eliminating street parking. The net effect was more motor traffic, higher speeds, and not as much clearance from overtaking vehicles. I started avoiding this street in favor of a parallel route that had no bike lanes, but in winter, I'm using it again. The bike lanes have been completely obliterated by the snow, and all the cars travel in the same path, so the right tire track is quite clear all the time, and it's easy to ride in. The ridges of snow also forces overtaking vehicles to move farther to the left, so it became safer, too (in my opinion). The other thing I notice is that many of the obstacles that I would want to avoid in summer (broken pavement, potholes, debris) are mitigated by the snow, rather than made worse by it. Cracks and potholes get filled up with hard-packed snow, and are much less severe to ride over, so the ride is both straighter and smoother. We don't seem to get new potholes during the winter, either. That's because it stays well below freezing for long periods of time, so there's no melting during the day. That's a big difference from Boston.

    The nature of winter bicycling varies greatly from one place to another, and it's not a simple matter of "the colder it gets, the more difficult it is". (One other thing about very cold cities -- salt doesn't get used much. Winnipeg only salts the roads if the temperature gets up to -5C, and that's pretty rare until the spring thaw begins, so corrosion from salt is much less of a concern here.)

  16. Walt - He wears what he likes to wear, which is exactly what makes it so easy for him to cycle every day as part of his normal routine. To each their own, eh? But it may make you feel better that he has plentiful and exceptionally bright lighting.

  17. We all have to practice a level of "common sense" pursuant to our level of comfort of riding in this type of weather. Personally I've opted not to ride only one day this winter, due to 8 inches of fresh snow on the roads.

    The city says they can't plow the bike lanes as it would push the snow onto the sidewalks. Our cycling group would be happy with half of the bike lane plowed, we can live with a smaller bike lane if we could at least find it.

    Everything you said in this article rings true, in winter the cyclist needs to exercise a greater amount of paranoia to keep safe. Thanks for putting it out there.

  18. I've actually been cycling today, thinking things had surely cleared up by now. Nope, it was scary. Like an obstacle course, only not a fun one. But I guess fun is subjective; the Co-Habitant loves cycling in conditions like these.

    Merlin - The problem with snow covering up pot-holes, is that the snow can suddenly cave in and then your wheel can get stuck. Not knowing what's under the snow, in combination with feeling the snow's instability, is one of the things that stresses me out about the whole thing.

  19. The problem with avoiding little patches of snow and not getting used to the slidey snow feeling is that it's both stressful and does not prepare you for the inevitability of sliding around a bit on winter roads. Oh, and you can't cycle at night if you're constantly watching the road for wet spots.

    That's a separate issue of roads being considerably narrower. The bike lanes are gone, cars are parked sticking out into the streets, and everyone is frustrated about travel taking longer. It's certainly winter here.

  20. I agree with your point that everyone should be comfortable with vehicular cycling. It's nice to have the lanes but we must always be ready for situations where the lanes aren't present. I've continued commuting into downtown over the last couple of days. Thursday was ... fraught and I wound walking my bike on a couple of blocks through Kendall while Cambridge bulldozers tried to scrape off bits of that ice sheet on Broadway. Friday still had a lot of messiness in the morning, but by evening it was all pretty clear and easy (at least insofar as what I saw on the stretch between Kendall and Harvard. Today it's still slushy but all of the 'mini bergs' are gone. So things are getting better.

    Honestly, as I mentioned on LGRAB and to echo Chic Cyclist's snow day sentiments, I have been impressed with the forebearance of drivers this winter. I have been able to take the lane with impunity and without hassle over the last three days. People seemed a little less patient today ... I think we're all getting a little tired of the conditions, but it's been nice so far.

  21. Actually, I've run into peer pressure over DRIVING in the snow. I grew up in Philly and never got much snow driving experience. My Dad's only advice was to stay off the roads :) Then I moved to the Boston area and didn't have a car for nearly 10 years. I finally got one because of a job that wasn't T-accessible. I did have the option of telecommuting so no reason to be out in the muck attempting to get to office when I could be at home being productive. Unfortunately, one of my older colleagues yelled at me for not wanting to drive in the snow. He had driven to work when he was having a heart attack after all and that I was being a wimp. Needless to say, I lost a lot of respect for him after that conversation. I think it takes a certain level of self-awareness and maturity to say "no" to something you know is beyond your skills.
    That said, this year I'm working on my winter biking skills. I think part of that is getting to know your area. I biked on Thursday because I was taking my regular route and could better anticipate difficult areas. I took the bus on Friday because I had to go somewhere I don't normally bike to. I road this morning on a familiar route to get to the Farmer's Market but I ditched the bike for the afternoon because I want to do some rambling and didn't want to have to be continually watching the road conditions.

  22. Velouria said...
    "Walt - He wears what he likes to wear, which is exactly what makes it so easy for him to cycle every day as part of his normal routine. To each their own, eh? But it may make you feel better that he has plentiful and exceptionally bright lighting."

    Yes, I wear what I want also but I do make many concessions to my visibility while riding. One concession is a red "Foxfire" on the rear and an amber "Foxfire" light on the front both set to flash. These lights are so bright you'd have to be dead to miss them!! Amazon sells them.

    I also,depending on the cloud cover, wear a lime green vest. Now I know how you feel about vest & helmets so I won't go there. I do know the Foxfire light makes all other bike lights look like a babies toys!

  23. V, we have the same problem here with our roads with hardly any shoulder room due to the piled up snow and chunks of snow debris all around. While driving today heading downtown I noticed there were some bike tracks where normally there is ample shoulder room. You could see where the rider must have been trying to swerve and get as close as possible into the snow bank to avoid traffic, which for me personally would be to close (to cars) for comfort.

  24. Weather like this is what busses are for. Cold I can deal with -- Ice and snow in the dark I choose not to. My cycling is not something I do to prove my toughness, so I happily ride the bus when conditions make me feel unsafe.

  25. kfg:

    A BAMBOO K&E??? Are you sure it wasn't a Hemmi or somebody they suppled?

  26. Walt - Once again, I just don't see the point of having this debate. Please see here and take part in that discussion if you want to argue this issue. Don't know what else to say, other than "let's agree to disagree".

    Jules - I get motion sick on buses so I never take them. When I'm off the bike, it's walk-walk-walk for me, or the subway when necessary (with the nearest stop a 10-15 minute walk away).

  27. "A BAMBOO K&E?"

    Yeah, isn't that something? All I know about it is that my father got it in NYC in the 40's. My father died when I was one so I can't ask him about it. He "knew people" so it's possible it was a "few off" that they were playing around with but never introduced for sale.

    Whoever lifted it knew what to take, as it never left my home desk where there was a lot of other more obviously desirable stuff lying around.

  28. I cycled 20 miles today, all over the city (Somerville, West Cambridge, Cambridgeport, MIT, Back Bay, South End, South Boston) and didn't have many problems with aggressive drivers or dangerously blocked bike lanes. Sure, many bike lanes were snowed over and most roads were narrowed, but I felt as though drivers were still being abnormal accommodating because of the recent blizzard. I think I might call it a "blizzard grace period" or something.

  29. lyen - I did not have problems with drivers either; they were perfectly nice. I was just uncomfortable with the quality of the streets in the areas where I was cycling. The feeling of cycling over soft snow that parts and slides to the sides under my tire, makes me nervous and I don't like feeling nervous on the roads.

    I like the idea of a "blizzard grace period" : )

  30. Velouria - I know what you mean about sliding over slippery snow. I don't mind though. :) Part of the reason might be that I keep my saddle slightly lower in the winter so that I can put my foot down when I lose balance or need to stop.

  31. I had an excellent bike ride today in Montana, if you can believe that. The side streets are choked with snow and ice, although the arterials are much more clear, and the drivers I encountered today were very polite, for a change.
    Now for the unexpected surprise: The bike paths in my town, Billings, were totally free of snow. It was a great joy pedaling on beautiful clear bike/pedestrian lanes.
    Good job, city fathers!
    I was toasty warm in my my Pearl Azumi neoprene shoe covers and Specialized winter cycling gloves.
    I plan to hit it again tomorrow unless we get a big snow dump tonight.

  32. kfg:

    Does anybody over at The Oughtred Society, especially Clark McCoy at his K&E site, know about this bamboo K&E? I can find no refs to such a thing ever existing. It may have been rebranded. I have a couple of pretty dodgy K&Es from the 40's.

    (Sorry people, but slide rule paleo-geeks are a separate subspecies and recognise each other immediately.)

  33. I've never heard of anybody else hearing of it, but I haven't done any hard core hunting/talking to people about it. It was gone before the web sites were up. I didn't record model or serial numbers (didn't know I'd have to), but I recall it as a 4053-3 with the "K+E" mark on it, so that would make it late 40's.

    It didn't look the least bit dodgy and had the proper case, just bamboo instead of mahogany, but it can't be examined now, so there's only my word that it even existed and I'm afraid I've long since consigned it to the "spilt milk" file (OK, I sob a bit now and then) along with the Halliday & Resnick that got lifted from my back hallway (who the hell steals physics text books?).

  34. ^ Biochem people who need a big stupid book to weigh down their western blot? :)

  35. ^Yeah, something like that. :)

    It certainly wasn't much good for anything but ballast. If it had been a recent edition I would suspect a poor freshman, but was seriously out of date and seriously messenger bag battered (front cover held on with duct tape), as it was the one I schlepped around for tutoring; which is why it lived in the back hallway in the first place.

    So not so much a loss that made me go "Damn!" as much as "WTF?"

  36. Velouria said...
    Walt - Once again, I just don't see the point of having this debate. Please see here and take part in that discussion if you want to argue this issue. Don't know what else to say, other than "let's agree to disagree".

    I read this link and agree with "most" of what is posted. I especially like the post's point of view that we all are responsible for ourselves as well as others when it comes to safety. To palm off our safety on another will never solve the issue of joint awareness and good cycling behavior.

    So you see we don't necessarily disagree we just haven't found a central point of agreement yet. (I think that could be attributable to our age difference)

  37. Awesome photos!

    I remember last spring being so pleasantly surprised when suddenly the bike lanes were back and the cars were properly parked flush against the curb. So at least there's something to look forward to. :)

  38. To reply to this and the Mary Poppins post, I find I get far more respect from drivers in snow than I do in regular clothes. I don't have lycra or bicycle clothing for comparison; this is a change in the weather.

    Most of the bike lanes here and in Philadelphia are in the door zone, or to the right of right turn arrows; planners reject complaints from transportation cyclists. Even with normal clothes, I find a limited but constant minority of motorists is quite profane in their opinion that bicyclists are not allowed to use streets.

    Ironically in snowy weather the drivers are better behaved; I suspect they figure I must not have a choice because no one would choose to bicycle if they could drive instead. I also get the impression most of them know they can't safely go any faster than the bicycle in these situations anyways.

    I suppose the other advantage is that it's too cold to mark bike lanes. The bike lanes the state wants to mark scare me more than suburban drivers (solid lane stripes accross entrances to gas stations and shopping centers). planners don't are insistent that bicyclists should not use the normal lane across these driveways if they can fit in a 3'-5' bike lane (or ride home from work in rush hour). Fortunately it's hard to paint bicyclists into the gutter if the weather is too cold.


  39. Velouria -- about snow-covered potholes: I completely agree about the danger of a cave-in. If that pothole is in Boston (where I lived for 18 years). But where I ride now, the highest temperature we've had in the last month was about -15C. Even in the direct sunlight, the only melting that happens is on poorly-insulated rooftops. The potholes are filled to the brim with very hard-packed snow from cars driving over them, and the chance of one giving way underneath a bicycle wheel are virtually zero. When it stays this cold for such a long time, there is no water, and no ice. The snow gets compressed so much that it starts to resemble ice, but it's getting smaller all the time as this happens, not expanding like a freezing puddle, so it doesn't really cause new potholes to form. With these conditions, bicycling can actually be more pleasant, and feel safer.

    If I were still living in Arlington Heights, I would feel the same way about the roads as you do. I know this because that's how I felt about riding in the winter a few years ago. My point is that road hazards really are different when nothing melts for weeks or months on end.

  40. Hope you don't mind a months-later comment, I just stumbled on this entry now.

    Another +1 from me on "That is one reason I think it is important to get comfortable with 'vehicular cycling' even if it does not seem like you need it." That and bike lanes will never go everywhere you need to go if you want to do it your bike.

    Regarding the residential streets being crappier than the arterial roads, I think the difference has more to do with the fact that on roads with faster traffic, the car tires clean the road much better and faster after a snowfall, by beating the snow and ice into slush, then water, then drying it up. On some winter days, I much prefer to use larger roads with traffic because the surface is so much better. This has enabled me to get by for 9 winters in Maine without using studs. You're not going to get hit being out farther into the general traffic lane, as long as you maintain a straight line there, not just swerve out suddenly.


Post a Comment