How to cycle in winter? What can we learn from the Finns? - Do práce na kole

How to cycle in winter? What can we learn from the Finns?

How to cycle in winter? What can we learn from the Finns?
23. 12. 2022

How is it that such a high percentage of Finns cycle all year round despite freezing temperatures? British commentator and author of Bike Nation, Peter Walker, has asked that very question. Then, in Joensuu, East Finland, at the Winter Cycling Congress in 2020, he found his answer. And wonder of wonders, it’s hidden in a series of progressive measures.

Winter cycling in Finland is much more demanding than here, where all you have to own is warm clothes and working lights. “In winter, the whole country is basically under constant snow, yet one of the first things you come across on the streets of Helsinki are bikes and cyclists. Also in Joensuu, 20% of all journeys are made by bike,” Walker writes. In winter, that figure drops to half, but that’s still a lot more than in Prague or anywhere in the British Isles. In 2020, it was here that the Winter Cycling Congress was held, bringing together researchers, academics, and municipal politicians in a different Nordic city every year since. Its tenth-anniversary edition will take place in Karlstad, Sweden, in February 2023.

Challenges you don’t expect

Walker took two things away from the congress in Joensuu: “Firstly, winter cycling brings challenges, but not always the ones you expect. Secondly, and perhaps more predictably, if you want people to cycle in winter, you need the infrastructure to do it,” he explains. In Joensuu, the snow conditions are favorable in the sense that there is plenty of snow, creating a compact surface on which you can easily ride a regular bike without winter tires.

The bike and the cold don’t go together? In Finland, they don’t think so

The bike paths here are being stretched by the same machines as the roads. Fresh snow is shoveled and the old packed snow is sanded, not salted. As long as the mercury on the thermometer is below zero, all is well. It’s the fluctuating temperatures that cause the problems here. “When it stops freezing, there’s a problem, the snow becomes slush and when it freezes again, the trail turns into a bumpy ice rink,” explains Marri Koistinen, head of the Finnish Cycling Federation. Without maintenance, it simply doesn’t work here either.

Where’s the will…

Joensuu has a few advantages over other cities when it comes to cycling. It’s relatively small, almost flat, and its wide streets have largely grown up in recent decades; back in 1950, it had around 7,000 inhabitants. But it also has a comprehensive system of separated bike lanes. And that’s the key. Ari Varonen, the city’s head of transportation works, says, “Just a drawn bike lane wouldn’t work at all in the winter. You can’t even see where it ends under the snow.” And so, once again, we come to our favorite conclusion, that if you want as many people as possible to travel sustainably, you need consistent political will for long-term investment in functional infrastructure.

And this is evident in Joensuu over the long term. At the congress hosted by the city, Mayor Kari Karjalainen not only warmly welcomed guests but also reaffirmed the commitment to lead the city to carbon neutrality by 2025 (!). To do so, he must reduce emissions from transport, which account for 70% of the city’s total emissions. The Finnish government, which has a special program for active transport, seems just as committed as Karjalainen. This aims to increase the share of walking and cycling by 30% by 2030, by which time the whole of Finland should be carbon neutral. This is twenty years earlier than what the rest of the European Union has committed to.

A cyclist in Oulu, Finland

The Finns are doing it differently

While in the Czech Republic we are debating whether driving a car through a historic city centre is a human right, the president of the Finnish Cycling Federation is a member of a government committee tasked with taking the steps needed to reduce emissions. Finland’s innovative and thoughtful policy could be brushed off with a shrug of the shoulders and a Finns just have it different. But…

To some extent, of course, this is true. Joensuu was the scene of one of the most successful experiments in the history of health care forty years ago when the ever-deteriorating lifestyle and consequent health of the population worried the authorities so much that they were able to motivate people to change with positive incentives and reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease in the population by 80% over 20 years. Even better known is the effectiveness of Finnish education and the annually updated global ‘happiness ranking’, in which Finland has been ranked first for 5 years in a row. Similarly, the Finnish Prime Minister has made no secret of her ambition to completely eliminate homelessness in the country by 2027.

You can see people on bicycles in the centre of Helsinki even in winter

What’s worth the change in thinking?

So, yes, Finland does a lot of things differently. But we could also learn a lot from its approach. Half of the schoolchildren in Joensuu cycle to school in winter. Even when it’s well below zero outside, the bike racks at the schools are full every day. And not only in Joensuu but also in Helsinki, Oulu, Tampere, Uppsala, Umeå, Lahti, and cities all over Finland. Well, you tell me, isn’t that idea worth a change of mindset?

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