The Reality of City Living and Winter Bicycle Commuting

Background Reading

The following thread erupted on the Chainlink Forum:

i love how certain bike lanes in certain neighborhoods are the first casualty of winter
Posted by V W on February 16, 2015 at 9:23am



Sarcasm of course.

The other day i was riding down Warren Street between kedzie and western and half the cars are parked in the bike lane which i guess is more convenient than trying to park closer to the curb with all the snow piles. The bike lane also act as storage for snow. So im pushed into the street while cars fly past me inches away and honk at me like im inconveniencing them.

By contrast the bike lane on dearborn street downtown has been nicely maintained.

What are some other bike lanes that are honored in winter? What bike lanes are the first casualty?

Reply by Cameron 7.5 mi 23 hours ago
In my experience, the best maintained bike lanes are streets like Clark that have conventional or buffered bike lanes and no parking when snow is over 2in restrictions. These streets get cleared curb to curb including the bike lane and parking area.

Reply by Tom A.K. 23 hours ago
VW, I believe what you’re seeing is ‘normal’ conditions for many bike lanes in the areas away from downtown. Division and Augusta were similar to what you were seeing on Warren. I’ve been asking about bike lane conditions on my thread *Observations* from “Ice Station Zebra” with very little response. It’s just the way it is for winter cycling. There’s no place to put the snow. Winter is war ! Even worse is coming ! Battle on ! We’re still in this fight ! At least till April !

Reply by V W 23 hours ago
I think there is a better place to put the snow in many instances. In my Warren street example, all of those people should be ticketed! They are capable of getting closer to the curb. If it was a street where there was no bike lane and they were blocking a lane of CAR traffic theyd be ticketed and towed.

I will battle on but it’s good to vent here too.

Reply by Tom A.K. 22 hours ago
VW, we are very near election day, try calling your alderman and mayor’s office and making your views known to him. Tuesday, February 24, is election day. Every aspect of city life affects how I vote on election day. I know who, and why I’m voting for them, do you ? Don’t only vent, act ! Power ! To people who bike !

Reply by V W 22 hours ago
Yes i do. That stretch of Warren street is not in my ward. I already know who im voting for and it’s not the incumbents.

Reply by Rich S 21 hours ago
I’ve been taking Clybourn into work instead of Elston for the reasons Cameron mentioned. Even then there is snow in the parking lane so most cars are parked in the bike lane forcing me to ride just outside of it. Thankfully most traffic has been cool about it and although a few drivers will pass me closer than I like, no one has been particularly aggressive. It’s only been the stretch between Halsted and Larrabee that has been a bit hairy since drivers tend to speed on those blocks.

Reply by V W 21 hours ago
Part of what sticks in my craw is the principle of the thing.

Like when an entire line of cars is parked in the bike lane, it sends the message that the bike lane is completely expendable and bikes are a low priority and the city is tacitly approving by not ticketing or towing.

I dont think it would take much to change that culture and mindset. We just need the city to enforce the laws it already has!

I emailed Walter Burnett Jr and facebook messaged his opponent Gabe Beukinga btw.

Maybe one of them will respond.

Reply by h’ 1.0 21 hours ago
You will get an automated response linking to a form where you can choose which building violations to have levied against you.

V W said:

I emailed Walter Burnett Jr and facebook messaged his opponent Gabe Beukinga btw.

Maybe one of them will respond.

Reply by V W 20 hours ago
Hahaha indeed

Reply by Brian 11 hours ago
I reported that a bit of Milwaukee Ave.’s protected bike lane was pure ice the other day (south of Ogden). I’m never had a wipeout like that…in 20+ years of biking in the city. It’s a new phenomenon for me to deal with these “protected” bike lanes that are not well maintained, plowed, salted, etc. often enough in the winter. I was surprised by the ice, because my entire commute that morning was fantastic and ice-free…until I hit the protected bike lane. It looked clear, but I should have stayed out. I didn’t realize it had received zero maintenance/salt, like the rest of the bike lanes in “unprotected” stretches…which benefit from spillover salt and plowing from regular street maintenance/trucks. It’s a week later, and I hurt my back so bad, I’m probably another week from being able to get back on my bike. I’m going to be staying clear of protected bike lanes in the winter, riding in (now narrowed) car lanes to stay safe from the under-maintained “protected” lanes. Until the city figures out how to properly maintain the closed off bike lanes in the winter, I think adding more of these are a poor idea and negatively impact winter bike commuters. I wish there was a way to add removable plastic barriers that could be taken out in the winter so the bike lanes could be plowed and salted properly with the trucks that do an adequate job. What they do now in the protected lanes is a joke.

Reply by Tom A.K. 7 hours ago
Brian, I remember you from the “Danger Milwaukee ave sheet of ice” thread. I hope your back improves. I’m a bad back person also. Backs are tricky things. Did you see your health care professional or are you treating it yourself? It would sure help if this cold weather would end. We’re starting to go into the fourth month of winter. Enough already! Take care!

Reply by Bill W. 3 hours ago
The bike lanes along Harison border on useles; they’re filled with snow and on most other days they become convient express lanes for frustrated drivers. I miss the days when there were no bike lanes. Most of these winter bike lane issues didnt exist and you rode with traffic, for better or worse.

Reply by Brian 2 hours ago
Thanks Tom A.K., when I couldn’t move/get out of bed the day after my crash, I knew it was time to see a doctor, pronto. Scared the life out of me. No broken bones. But needed some heavy duty pain relief to be able to walk last week. Feeling a lot better after a week…but still a little sore. Hopefully back in the saddle in the next week or two…hard to take the El after biking every day for years. Didn’t realize one could wreck their back so badly with one slip on the ice.

Reply by V W 13 hours ago
I also slipped and fell off my bike on that recent black ice day. My bike basket broke but i was fortunately ok. Hope you feel better soon Brian.

Reply by Cheryl 6 hours ago
I absolutely agree. Slapping paint on the road is worthless without a year-round commitment to keep the bike lane cleared and passable, whether it be from vehicles or weather.
More on topic, the Elston bike lanes are very spotty. Lots of snow/car occupancy up north, and some unplowed lengths south of Division.

Reply by Sol 19 hours ago
I am quickly becoming an opponent of bike lanes, especially the separated lanes. The city has no ability to maintain them in winter. I would rather just have sharrows and ride with traffic.

Reply by Bill W. 15 hours ago
Bicycles should be a part of traffic and not seperated. Even in the warmer seasons, I’d prefer to ride with traffic…sharing the road and riding responcibly.

Reply by Cameron 7.5 mi 12 hours ago
Designing bike infrastructure that can’t be cleared by Streets and Sans as part of their normal street plowing was a mistake. CDOT made ambitious plans and promises this winter, but the reality remains that the handful of areas were CDOT is responsible for snow removal are the worst maintained areas. CDOT just isn’t set up for snow removal like Streets and Sans is.


We always run the risk of glamorizing the winter bicycle commuting experience or in a serious attempt to expose the shortcomings of city efforts we end up with ‘egg on our face‘:

There is seldom much in terms of middle ground. We either glorify and inflate the experience to the point that no one who rides in winter can even imagine a world in which one glides over pristine protected bike lanes cleaned to the point that ones tires roll soundlessly to the other extreme where nothing is right about the job that the city does in very trying times or the total and utter disgust with the concepts of bike lanes in winter.

I assure you that there is middle ground. But more often than not the folks who bother to write into a forum like the ChainLink are ‘blowing off steam‘. But their venting should not be dismissed entirely. There are problems.

Bicycling Is Primitive

In a snarky moment I remember responding to one Facebook friend: “Thank God every travel lane is not a bike lane!”

In a snarky moment I remember responding to one Facebook friend: “Thank God every travel lane is not a bike lane!”

As great as fat bikes are they are primitive. Most bicycles are simply not a match for a late model automobile in terms of elegance and adaptability to raw weather conditions. I do not know whether you have notices that AWD is a trend in the automotive industry. Add to that collision avoidance technology and you have a recipe for something that easily accounts for why people prefer their own vehicles to riding cheek-by-jowl on the buses or trains. And despite the fact that riding your own bicycle to work is less restrictive in terms of scheduling and far less daunting than riding a crowded mass transit option it too is full of problems.

If you are not prepared to treat winter cycling as a kind of character building exercise then you have no business riding a bicycle at that time of year. And Goodness knows that anything short of a fat bike on Chicago winter streets is madness.

When riding in winter do not confuse your situation with that of a customer in a chic hotel ordering room service. You are outdoors (of your own volition) riding down salted streets following the season’s worst snow storm and finding a bare patch of ground on which to ride is, rare. This is especially true the morning after that storm. Only folks who tend to behave as entitled brats would assume otherwise.

And need I remind you that the folks in Boston are this winter in no frame of mind to listen to the whining of Chicagoans. They have seen ‘real‘ snow and are not about to pat you on the back and say ‘there, there now‘, so suck it up and keep pedaling.

Bike Lanes Are Even More Primitive

I am not really certain why the Pope of Cycling has a hard on about the underground and elevated versions of bicycle superhighways projected for development in London. I am kind of jealous. For one these are likely to be places where true novices can safely ride their bikes without having to deal with the nastier realities of rain, snow and cold. And even the underground option should provide a relief from unbearable heat. But envy and Luddite mentality are hallmarks of the urban cycling world these days.

The only unifying force seems to be the nearly universal hatred of the automobile. And yet of all the forms of transportation available an AWD Subaru seems more appealing to someone living in rural areas with few roads or urban ones where the plowing is spotty than any bicycle imaginable. At least to me. It seems a reasonable thing to want to arrive sweat free, without having to change out of your clothing into something free of salt spray and ice balls. Yep, that alone accounts for the return of the Millennials to the prospect of using an automobile to get around in inhospitable climes.

Consider Your Readership

If you are going to vent online about your most recent fall while riding on ice covered streets in Chicago, give a moments thought to your readers. It always amazes me that cyclists are somehow surprised and indeed offended that non-cyclists think them crazy for braving the elements. In some sense of that word, they are right. We are crazy. Living in the Western World and willingly struggling as if we were in a Third World venue is indeed crazy. But it can also be character building. But frankly that bit of wisdom seldom seems to make it through the haze of anger and self-pity that characterizes so many of the threads one reads on the ChainLink Forum. We seem rather self-absorbed much of the time. That is the essence of our collective ‘victimhood syndrome‘.

Our readers are sometimes not members of the ‘secret society of idiots who ride in winter‘ and we need to keep that in mind. But we are nothing if not vain. We need for everyone to know how very brave we are for sacrificing our health and comfort for the good of the planet. We are in essence people who are in a 24/7/365 statement-making frenzy about nearly everything. We will bite your head off if you open a bag of gum and toss a wrapper on the ground.

We will rant and rave about oil usage all day long if you let us despite the fact the we live and work in air-conditioned comfort and use electricity from a grid that is anything but green. We are in short both hypocrites and arrogant in the same breath. No wonder it is difficult to get that measure of riding in traffic above the 1% mark. Who but someone as neurotic as we are would bother joining us in our endeavors. And it would seem that even we are loathe to try and remain loyal to the cause without a generous application of liquid courage on a regular basis. And while we are drowning our brains in alcohol we often look up from the glass in our hands and bemoan the fact that Bikes-n-Roses had their funding cut.

Hey, guys! The only funding that bike shops really need is the kind that comes from patrons who are not too stingy to keep their steeds in good repair. If the Urban Cycling Community were to ride dry for six months of the year, we could easily fund the bicycle shops in our city that really need our support. But I guess as long as we can behave in a neurotic fashion and point the finger at Bruce Rauner, why bother making sense?