Active Travel Cannot Just Be a Fairweather Activity: How cities can support walking and cycling no matter the weather

This blog is the second in our accessibility series, where we explore the barriers preventing people from taking sustainable transportation and the potential solutions. Read the first blog in this series here.

 

Picture this: it’s drizzling or snowing lightly and you are about to leave your home to go to work. Do you jump in your car or do you take your bike? If you have a car, you may choose to drive because it’s more comfortable. But what if there were things cities could do to encourage you to take your bike or walk no matter the weather conditions?

 

According to the Weather Atlas, Toronto and the surrounding area has about three and a half months of rainy days per year, plus winter weather for four to five months of the year. If you only ride your bike when the weather is “perfect” (i.e., not too hot, not too cold, not too windy, and no precipitation), that doesn’t give you many days in the year to bike to work.

 

With transportation accounting for over a third of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area’s emissions, encouraging more active travel (i.e., cycling or walking) is an important initiative to take action on climate change and improve our health, and  cities, workplaces and property managers can help make active travel a more comfortable choice even if the weather is not ideal.

 

How we can promote more active travel in the summer

Shade

Summer may seem like the ideal season for walking and cycling, but sun exposure and hot temperatures can be barriers to getting outside. With summers getting hotter, access to shade is vital.

 

According to a 2018 Tree Canopy Study, Toronto has over 600,000 street trees, which reduce the urban heat island effect and provide much needed shade and protection from the elements. Street trees, combined with Toronto’s extensive ravine network and parks, can make walking or cycling more appealing, especially in hot temperatures.

 

However, not all neighbourhoods have equal tree coverage. University of Toronto researchers have found that low-income and racialized communities in Toronto have fewer trees. Adding more trees can make walking, biking, or waiting at a transit stop more comfortable, especially in low-income neighbourhoods where driving may not be an option. They also contribute to off-setting the carbon emissions emitted by vehicles on the road.

 

Water

You need more water in hot weather, and having plenty of public water fountains available can encourage longer outings, where you may not be able to carry all the water you need for your trip.

 

Adding more water fountains is part of Madrid’s strategy to encourage more people to walk, along with adding more trees and benches. Toronto has over 600 fountains across the city, and websites like BlueW can help you find the closest water fountain, but adding more water fountains to key areas, such as Bike Share stations, could help make active travel a more comfortable experience.

 

Workplace locker rooms and bike parking

No one wants to be sweaty at the start of their workday, so having a place to shower and change into more professional clothing can help encourage more people to take up cycling or walking to work.

 

Researchers at Monash University found that “more than 50 per cent of respondents said the availability of end-of-trip facilities affected their decision to ride to work in adverse weather.” They also found that people who regularly cycle to work were more likely to choose public transit instead of driving alone on days when weather conditions prevented them from cycling.

 

Having covered or indoor bike parking that protects bikes from rain is another amenity that can help encourage active travel.

 

How we can promote more active travel in the winter

Snow and ice removal

Snow and ice are the major barriers to active travel in the winter, which can make it nearly impossible for people using wheels (strollers, wheelchairs, or scooters) to navigate sidewalks, and snowy roads can make it difficult and dangerous to cycle.

 

The City of Toronto has a network of separated cycling routes that are cleared from snow, but this covers only a portion of the city. With arterial roads as the priority for snow removal, many cyclists switch from traveling on quiet streets to busier roads, but this can prevent more cautious cyclists from braving busy roads, especially if those roads lack protected bike lanes.

 

To encourage more winter cycling, cities need a network of protected cycling routes, with consistent and frequent winter maintenance, and cyclists need to know which routes are prioritized for snow removal, so they feel confident their trip will be safe. For example in Copenhagen, ploughing cycling routes is prioritized ahead of ploughing for cars, and the Netherlands is testing heated bike lanes.

 

Sidewalk maintenance is another key area that can make or break the winter pedestrian experience. Unfortunately, in many cities, the onus is on the property resident or business to clear sidewalks of snow, which creates inconsistent and unpredictable sidewalk conditions. However, City of Toronto has an app called PlowTO where users can see a real-time map of where snow plowing is happening.

 

Fortunately, Toronto City Council recently adopted a motion to improve sidewalk snow clearing standards, as residential areas in Midtown, downtown and East York received less sidewalk snow clearing compared to North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke, even though these neighbourhoods have high volumes of pedestrian traffic.

 

Ensuring sidewalks and bike lanes are cleared of snow and ice has a cost, but according to Walk Toronto, the City of Toronto has paid an average of $6.7 million per year in winter slip and fall settlement claims, and better maintained sidewalks would reduce this cost.

 

Lighting

Another challenge in winter is the shorter daylight hours. It can feel unsafe or just unpleasant to walk or cycle before sunrise or after sunset. Pedestrians are almost twice as likely to be hit by a vehicle while using a pedestrian crossing at night compared to during the day, and the inability to see well can also make an area feel less safe at night.

 

Researchers at the University of Sheffield have found that there is a clear relationship between lighting and the number of people out after dark. Analyzing open-source data on the number of pedestrians and cyclists in the same hour of the day over a period of two weeks before and after Daylight Saving Time began, found that darkness reduced the number of pedestrians by 38% and the number of cyclists by 27%.

 

Good lighting design can help us feel safer, but it can also be an opportunity to help us embrace winter. Darío Núñez, an architectural lighting designer in Reykjavik, argues that “we should focus lighting design on feelings and atmospheres…and find a way to illuminate cities in ways that make us feel warmer.”

 

The role of transportation demand management

There’s plenty of ways that infrastructure can support active travel, and transportation demand management programs like the Smart Commute program can help commuters determine safe routes, and help workplaces determine how to improve amenities such as bike parking and locker rooms to encourage more people to walk or bike to work.

 

We can’t control the weather, but making active travel easier despite the weather can increase the number of people who choose to walk or cycle instead of driving alone.

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