(Winter) biking in the Twin Cities – Winter Cycling Congress 2016

I was pleased to present at the 2016 Winter Cycling Congress in Minneapolis, Minnesota about winter cycling with cargo bikes here in Ottawa, Ontario.  I had the comic relief presentation of our session as I explained the highs and lows of walking, transit and how we make cargo biking work in all seasons here in Canada’s capital.  (You can download a PDF of the presentation, but you will miss out on my unscripted rant. )

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A theme through the conference was ‘equity’ and it provided a foundation for some of the most interesting mobility-related presentations I’ve seen.  Everything from the language we (and the media) use to describe seasons, weather and the mental state of those who don’t let seasonality affect their mobility to infrastructure equity issues (who’s getting bike lanes and who isn’t?). 

And, of course, how to design and maintain facilities throughout the year that encourage more people to get on bikes.  Especially people who don’t normally see themselves reflected in the ‘mainstream’ – be it undocumented Americans or people from varying social, cultural and economic backgrounds.  More people on bikes = more livable places. 

And Minneapolis certainly lived up to its reputation as a year-round bike city. 

With many interesting presentations, it was hard to choose which ones to attend.  And sometimes, I needed just to get out and ride around the city to see what American’s best cycling city had to offer (Answer: a lot!).

Here are some of my key takeaways about how we talk and describe winter cycling from the week:

1. We make winter biking feel dangerous

Tom Babin pointed out that poor infrastructure and maintenance sets the stage for the danger dialogue.  “You must be crazy to bike in that!”  Right?  Cycling through a snowy city is as safe as our elected officials choose to make it and prioritize facility maintenance.

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2. We make winter and winter biking sound dangerous

The language that’s used to describe weather conditions and cyclists is often presented in a negative way.  Language is one of the subtle but pervasive ways we create “otherness”.  We personify winter into an enemy to fear and loathe. Newscasters relate weather events to their effects on driveability or parking.  We label people by their mode “cyclist” or “driver”.  We tack on adverbs to the ‘cyclist’ label to reinforce the superlative oddity of their choice: ‘hardcore’, ‘brave’, ‘avid’.  Which doesn’t support a narrative that cycling is for everyone. 

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3. We make cycling look dangerous

Graphics, campaigns, videos, social media and television have a lot of power to set the tone for narratives about cycling and winter cycling.  News stations can often focus on the ‘guy with the most gear’ for their reports as it helps fill out a story.  But advocates and cycling associations don’t have to accept these narratives.  Design and imagery can upset the status quo.

You don’t need to let the media control the message.  Branch out.  Rewrite the story.  Brand your experience or city in a different way.  Take control of the conversation.  Normalize and celebrate what should be an easy everyday experience. 

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Jason Hall’s presentation on his Slow Roll program was particularly inspiring as was the Finnish “Cycle Winter” campaign. (English description here)

And there were many more presentations on equity and representation that I didn’t make it to.  But hopefully the conversations will keep going through social media (#wcc16) because how we talk and describe winter and activities are fundamental.  They help place cycling in subconsciousness of your city as an essential element of a livable city (no matter how much snow you get).

Upcoming posts will include: coffee touring, branding a bike city and cycling infrastructure in the Twin Cities.  I definitely should have planned on staying longer.  Thank goodness for 10 year passports!

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