How Finland Gets People Biking Through Winter
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How Finland Gets People Biking Through Winter

A city of 200,000 people in Finland has more bike lanes than Canada’s largest city.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

This weekend, Torontonians celebrated winter cycling with the Coldest Day of the Year Ride. The annual event is an opportunity to demonstrate demand for cycling infrastructure in all seasons and draw attention to the conditions cyclists face as they navigate not just traffic, but also snow and ice.

Meanwhile, in Oulu, Finland, winter cycling is less of a rallying cry than a fact of life. Careful planning and ongoing improvements to seasonal maintenance have normalized cycling through the snow in Finland’s fifth-largest city.

With fewer than seven hours of sunlight a day at this time of year, Oulu is an unlikely leader in winter cycling. Timo Perälä discovered that his hometown’s approach was unique while doing research into winter maintenance of cycling routes for his thesis more than 15 years ago.

Since that time, Oulu has gained an international reputation for its efforts to facilitate active transportation in the winter. Today, 27 per cent of the population are active cyclists all year long, while Perälä has become the founder and president of the Winter Cycling Federation.

So what’s the secret to ensuring that people choose to bike regardless of the weather?

First, Oulu has an enviable cycling network that extends 613 kilometers to connect a population of 200,000. For comparison, Toronto has 579.4 kilometers of on-street cycling infrastructure for a population more than 10 times as large.


In Oulu, 150 kilometers of cycling routes are designated for “super” maintenance starting next winter. Map courtesy of Timo Perälä.

Oulu’s bike lanes are the result of decades of municipal leadership. The city’s first cycling plan was developed in 1969. In an email, Perälä explains: “It was understood early that walking and cycling [have] to be treated as equal modes of transportation.”

In this context, winter maintenance of bike routes is a natural extension of investments in cycling infrastructure. According to Perälä, “Keeping cycling routes open year-round was there from the beginning. Citizens never had to fight for it.”

In contrast to Toronto, where cycling advocacy groups play a major role in raising awareness of the benefits of bike lanes, Perälä adds that in Oulu, “It was very much a civil servant-driven process.”

The local government continues to prioritize active transportation, especially when the temperatures drop. Starting in October, Oulu is launching a new level of “super” maintenance for cycling infrastructure during the winter months. Essentially, 15 per cent of the network, or about 150 kilometeres, will be maintained 24 hours a day.

The remainder of Oulu’s network is classified for two different levels of snow removal. Class 1 will be cleared after three centimetres of snow and Class 2 will be cleared after five centimetres of snow. Notably, Class 1 routes also have to be serviced before the peak hours of 7 a.m. in the morning and 4 p.m. In Perälä’s words: “We have approximately 54,000 active year-round cyclists, so they have to be able to go to work.”

Although winter cycling is accepted and encouraged in Oulu, other cities still have much to learn about enabling this form of transportation. The City of Toronto adopted a Staff Report proposing improved snow clearance of certain on-street routes in March of 2014.

Now in their second season, the new measures target bike lanes like the ones on Harbord Street and Adelaide Street, which are used by more than 2,000 cyclists daily. It’s a step towards recognizing that cycling infrastructure is a valuable use of space in all seasons, but it doesn’t help anyone sharing the road with cars in the inner suburbs or winding their way along other routes.