Can biking save your snowy Seattle transportation woes?

Cars spin wildly out of control. Bus routes, when they run at all, run sporadically and unpredictably. This can only mean one thing: It has snowed in Seattle.

On a normal day, riding a bicycle can make life in Seattle easier and more fun. It can get you out of many traffic jams, it can make you feel energized and healthy, and it can leave you with more money in your wallet. So can a bicycle also help you get around in the snow?

Maybe.

If you feel comfortable riding on busy streets, the city attempts to maintain a limited network of streets to connect neighborhoods. They prioritize work on these roads so people and goods can still get around. But as you may note in the map below, the prioritized roads tend to be the least bike-friendly roads in the city:
This is an obvious impediment to many people who bike, but do not like riding on the city’s busiest roads, such as Rainier Ave, 23rd Ave, 35th Ave SW and Lake City Way. Even if a cleared road has bike lanes, the lanes are often unusable because they get filled with road gunk and sludge or the plows skip them entirely.

Actually a photo from last year, but you get the idea.

Depending on conditions, trails and unmaintained arterial and residential streets can sometimes be good options. Fluffy snow can be a lot of fun to bike in (though it’s obviously a little slow-going), while watery sludge makes roads extra slick, yet still bikeable.

However, yesterday’s snow left the roads in the Central District (where I live) with an uneven layer of ice that makes biking pretty hard. Though biking on icy roads can be fun, it’s not a very efficient way to get around. Also, you might fall, obviously.

In a city that struggles to keep freeways and major bus routes running smoothly, it’s no surprise that clearing bicycle routes is not high on the priority list. In Copenhagen, the city plows the cycle paths before they plow the roads for cars. As a result, 80 percent of the city’s cycling population bikes year-round.

This isn’t to say that Seattle needs to put a ton of money into clearing bike routes. It really doesn’t snow that often here, and money would be better spent making our roads safer for the 360+ days a year without snow. Keeping the buses running should absolutely be Seattle’s highest transportation priority when it snows. Not only do buses get people where they need to go, but they also reduce the incentive for people to drive. Remember last year?

Anyway, if you are going to bike today, here are a couple tips.

  • Be extra cautious when riding over metal grates or covers. They can be very slippery.
  • If using a busy street, take the lane and give yourself lots of extra elbow room.
  • Go as slow as you need to feel safe. Your safety is more important than trying not to inconvenience someone.
  • Check your brakes often. Ice and snow can build up on your brake pads, making it hard to stop.
  • Take turns very slowly. This is when you are most likely to slip if there is black ice.
  • Walk or take a bus if you need to.
  • Use common sense.
  • Have fun!

If you have any to add or have any ideas for ways the city could make snowy biking easier and safer, let us know in the comments.

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35 Responses to Can biking save your snowy Seattle transportation woes?

  1. Gary says:

    Today is one of those days when working from home seems a better option than falling while riding (miss one day of riding vs a couple of weeks of recovery.) Or driving, I don’t make enough in one day to pay for the repairs if I wreck my car, or the buses, see the front page of the Seattle times for articulated bus sideways on the road. I know many people don’t have this choice but for those of us who do, if we are off the road and out of the way it will be easier for those who have to drive to do it.

    If it snowed here more often I could see the city putting the money into dealing with bicycle paths, but it doesn’t. By Wednesday afternoon this could all be gone.

    • Gary says:

      I could also see investing in a set of snow wheels for my mt bike, but 4 days maybe a year? Seems like a poor use of my limited bike funds. I’d rather spend the $ on a kick sled. Much more fun.

  2. Fat Guy On A Bike says:

    I took a spin around west Seattle yesterday. The main roads were fine, albeit a bit messy with mud and slush. The side roads were somewhat icy. I think this will be one of those weeks where the road may be the safer option than the bike/multi-use paths due to snow clearing maintenance.
    Just remember kids, when going into a turn on the snow/ice, treat it like an off camber corner and keep the bike upright and lean your body, not the bike!
    Let’s keep ’em rubber side down Seattle!

  3. Donzie says:

    There are some great-looking studded snow tires out there for sale on various websites. No article on cycling in the snow should be without mentioning these. They would seem to offer a lot of benefits to simply “being careful.”

  4. Chase says:

    I biked from Madison Valley to the U-district yesterday and back during the heavy snow. I found that riding slow and riding a bike with fat tires made short work of even the thickest snow on the road. I took all side roads. I found the snow to be grippier than the slushy more well traveled streets.

  5. Greg Barnes says:

    Trails are usually a terrible choice after a snow/freeze-up cycle. That’s because people walk on them, so the surface gets frozen into a series of small holes; it’s like biking over large rocks. Better to go over frozen car tracks on the street, which are at least smooth. (Best yet: untouched snow).

    If you keep your speed down and avoid traffic, you can’t screw yourself up too bad. Sliding out at 10mph on a deserted road may be embarassing, but is unlikely to cause any serious damage. Careening down hills or into moving vehicles, however, is not a great idea; try to remove those variables from the equation.

    I prefer to take snowy side streets or mostly deserted arterials. The worst time is when the thaw has started: the side streets turn into terrible slush, and the arterials start getting filled up again, but still might have an icy patch.

    Be sure to clean off your brakes and the parts of any frames/racks near your wheels if you’re going to leave your bike outside for a while, or you might end up with them frozen to the wheels. Also, maybe take your bike bottle out of the cage for the same reason.

    I have studded tires, but they are very difficult to put on, so I prefer to ride on my normal tires if the ice is not going to be around for more than a day or two. Snow and mountain bike tires usually work together pretty well if you’re not trying to go particularly fast.

  6. Soyoung says:

    Bring your bike inside when you get to your destination, and if you’re nice, put some paper towels under it. A frozen drivetrain is no fun!

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Also, road salt will make everything super dry really quickly. Apply lube whenever things get squeaky or stiff.

    • Yorik says:

      If you do bring it in, make sure it dries all the way though – I noticed last year that if I brought my bike in briefly all it did was melt all the snow stuck to my bike, which then ran liquid water into cracks, which then froze when I brought the bike back outside (leading to various mechanical issues like the ratchet in my hub freezing).
      I came to the conclusion that I was better off leaving it fully frozen outside unless given enough time to dry (even then maybe give it a minute to cool down before riding into falling snow).

  7. merlin says:

    Don’t forget Light Rail! It was the most reliable (ONLY reliable!) way to travel during the 2010 Thanksgiving snowstorm, and as far as I know it’s running fine this time as well. Unfortunately it doesn’t go everywhere, but for the places it does serve, it’s the best option. And under-publicized!

  8. Doug says:

    I didn’t have any trouble getting to work yesterday. Te snow was fresh and unfrozen, so I plowed through e powder slowly, but safely. Coming home at 11:30pm was a little more dicey, but once I got on mostly deserted 10th it was smooth sailing. I’m a bit nervous about today, though.

    I would add that evenif the road is free of ice, use caution when crossing any bridge. They ice up much more readily than most section of roadway. I’ll be walking across most bridges today and tonight.

  9. Joel S says:

    I’ve never tried this myself, but here’s a DYI snow tire method using zip ties that might be awesome

    http://www.dutchbikeseattle.com/_blog/Dutch_Bike_Co_Weblog/post/Seattle_Snowpocalypse/

  10. Kevin Carrabine says:

    Tom, and others – was going to write today to have you link to the BikeWise website.
    http://www.bikewise.org/pub/hazard
    Designed actually to report crashes, hazards, etc., but wouldn’t this be a cool tool for cyclists all over the region to report the conditions of roadways where they live/play/work – for instance, in Ballard, streets are not too bad, but if I was commuting to Capitol Hill tomorrow, I’d like someone who is there now to tell me about roadway conditions.
    http://www.bikewise.org/pub/hazard

    Think Cliff Mass and his weather blog and his attempts to get locals to report real time snow fall/accumulations . . .

  11. TN says:

    I ride every day I can in winter, but just seems like poor judgement to try to ride your bike on a snowy day in a city where ice and snow are an infrequent event. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

    The cities are not equipped to put roads and paths into conditions that safely enable cars, buses, and cycles to share the road. Drivers do not routinely equip their cars with studded tires because honestly, it makes no sense to do so for the few days of ice and snow we do experience. And, those drivers are often not experienced winter drivers, as we have only two true seasons here: wet and dry.

    I took a picture today of a guy in Redmond riding his bike down a busy, icy four lane street. The drivers were all being extra careful of him, but honestly, in these conditions, someone could slip and slide right into him even if they clearly saw him. This week is not a riding week from my perspective.

    • Yorik says:

      I don’t feel comfortable on the arterials either for that reason – but in the past I’ve found that the side streets work great, even on hills. I guess in Redmond and other suburbs there may not be many side streets because of the whole cul-de-sac thing though so I wouldn’t know what to do there.

  12. Phoenix says:

    I have a bad weather “bailout” route that takes me down a small walking trail, and tries to keep grades (Boeing to down to Mukilteo ferry) under 7%. Even that route would be really hard to manage without the biggest enabler of winter riding IMO – quality carbide studded snow tires. In my case I use Nokian Hakka W240s, and they’ve been pretty impressive. If you have good tires, pick a deserted route, and ride like someone on a beach cruiser, this weather is stressful but do-able.

    Have to admit, I’m not one to turn down offers for rides during this kind of weather.

  13. KeithN says:

    has anyone tried making up their own studded tires, for, say their mountain bike? I came across an interesting video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GI-fR2tXR_8 that showed how to make it economically. I figure for our super brief winter snowy weather in Seattle this is one way to go just to try it out, and have some fun. I also figure just put the studs on the outside of the tires as opposed to the video, and lower the psi to allow transition between ice/compact snow and asphalt.

  14. tom affolter says:

    I can’t believe you are even suggesting this. I’m a born and raised New Englander. I know snow. Also an avid biker. Biking in the snow and ice is just plain stupid. Are you serious?

  15. RSD says:

    I lived in Anchorage for 6 years, where snow plows frequently pile massive berms onto shared corridors and sidewalks and many drivers despise anyone who isn’t burning fossil fuels. Yet, hardy cyclists there, with the famed fat-tire bikes or studded tires, can navigate snow and ice. The main issue is safety from drivers, not the road conditions. And, you just layer up. And, of course you can bike in the snow. In fact, you will likely have more control than a 2 ton machine sliding on ice. Just go slow, but always safety first (since we can’t created safe bike lanes here like Amsterdam or Danish cities), and never put your life on the line just to get to work or school — it’s not worth it. FYI, here’s how you can follow Anchorage’s hardy winter biking scene. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bicycle-Commuters-of-Anchorage/351000137165

  16. Biliruben says:

    Last year, if I didn’t have a bike, I would never been able to get my boy before his preschool closed. Even leaving at 3, I sat on a bus not moving for 15 light cycles before giving up. Hoped on my bike and got to lake city in a little over an hour, and was able to get my boy. A neighbor didn’t get home until 7, relying on his car, and buses were even worse.

    I alway have a bike as plan b when snow threatens.

  17. bdrkayaker says:

    Yesterday my commute from Interbay to SLU by bike was a bit dicey. It seemed that Seattle Parks (or someone) had salted the Ship Canal Trail, making for smooth sailing (!!). However, my usual route through the Westlake parking lots was downright treacherous in the form of a solid sheet of ice from China Harbor to the Park. I walked.

    Ice is really the biggest problem. I biked last year in the Thanksgiving snow, with my usual tires and had no problems.

  18. Pete Beaumont says:

    I ride to work every day except in the snow & ice. I ride a road bike with 25mm tires, & cold & dry, well below freezing isn’t a problem for me. I normally ride many arterials on a weekly basis, but I wouldn’t dare ride here on the street in the snow though. As other posters noted, you may do fine on the snow especially if you ride a MTB with knobby tires or better yet studs, but the problem isn’t the bike, it’s the number of Seattle drivers that have little idea how to handle driving in the snow & aren’t prepared for it, like people in say, the Denver/Boulder area are. You may be doing fine on your bike, but from what I’ve seen, the chances of one of those 2,000lb+ metal objects sliding into you in the snow look pretty significant.

  19. Mondoman says:

    I second the suggestion of the studded Nokian tires. I guess it’s time to dig mine out of the storage locker…

  20. John says:

    There’s a better alternative to driving, cycling or traveling to work in any form. It’s called telecommuting.

    The only impediment to adoption is changing the mindset of the employer, and demonstrating the benefits, along with minimizing the practice’s abuses.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      For snow days, I totally agree. However, as someone who writes from home every day, I would love a daily bike commute to get my blood moving.

      And I know I could go for a morning ride if I want to, but I’m the kind of person who needs to be forced to do something like that in the mornings. When I commuted, I always dreaded it until I got about a block from my house, then I loved it.

  21. AiliL says:

    I ride in the snow so long as it’s not too icy. I don’t feel particularly unsafe as I choose a snow route carefully and on hills take the sidewalk so that I am protected from sliding cars – one or two hills I cannot avoid in order to get home unfortunately. I ride my mtn bike, with tires of moderate grip, psi down to 40 if necessary. Not everyone has the option to telecommute and if work is open I have to go even if the buses are not running. Kind of like today. The bike lane on Fauntleroy this morning looked a little like your picture above. Just took it easy – there’s usually not many drivers out (last year was an exception and there was no getting home unless you were biking or walking), dress warm and allow for extra time to get around. I wouldn’t recommend snow riding for someone not very experienced with riding a bike nor do I recommend it if it’s icy. Common sense is a good thing.
    BTW: coming home tonight the lower West Seattle bridge trail was liberally treated with de-icer and a little cat plow was parked at the base of it, on the west side. Dare I say they will be keeping the path clear this year?

  22. The ride in this morning was wonderful from Beacon Hill to Madison Valley. Beacon Hills 18th ave Greenway was very pleasant with a nice consistent grade. Give that drivers tend to be heeding the warning and staying off the roads, coupled with some 35c, aggressively treaded and sharp cyclocross tires (Kenda Kross Supreems for those interested) it was as close to the quiet, comfortable and safe bike utopia I long for. Stay safe and ride the snow!

    • Clint says:

      I had a great snow bikin’ ride in from Ravenna to downtown today too. Very light traffic, and the roads were actually in good condition — just an inch or so of dry snow most places. I had that same feeling of bike utopia, with a gorgeous morning and hardly any cars out (not many bikes either though!). I’ve been riding in snow the last few years on an old MTB with knobbies and that works pretty well. This year I upgraded to Nokian studded tires (still knobbies), and I definitely agree with other commentors that the studded tires are great. I’ve ridden every day since Sunday, and between knobbies and studs have had really good traction.

      Couple of other things that have worked for me: allow extra time and really take your time, be willing to get off your bike and walk a few blocks or a mile if you need to, ride on the sidewalk for a bit if you need to due to heavy or hazardous traffic, and know where the bus routes are in case you need to bail and throw your bike on a bus. Basically I find it best to think of it as potentially a multi-modal commute (and even dress accordingly), but then usually can safely bike most or all of the way.

      Happy Winter Biking!

  23. Pingback: News Roundup: Snow News Week - Seattle Transit Blog

  24. Anthony says:

    Lots of fun out there! I sure can’t wait for the snow to melt off of the Myrtle Edwards/ Interbay section of the trail. Had to ride up 15th this morning and across the bridge in traffic since the road was the only thing clear.

  25. Conrad says:

    Regarding homemade snow tires: Easy to do but surprisingly time consuming. Get small flat head metal screws at the hardware store and drive them into the knobs. I would imagine duct tape wouldn’t do much to prevent flats. I used a Mr Tuffy tire liner at first but it was difficult to precisely place it over the screws and I would still get flats. Then I found a tire liner made by Panaracer that looks and feels like a strip of felt (it is actually kevlar) with adhesive backing. Because of the adhesive it is easier to place and cover all the screw heads. Also has the advantage of being slightly wider than even the widest Mr Tuffy. Much better but they are kind of expensive. It took me a couple of hours to place all the screws, but now I have great snow tires ready to go whenever I want them.

    That being said- that crazy snow day last year caught me by surprise like everyone else it seems, and I rode home on my usual 35mm slicks. 20 miles from Eastgate to my home and I don’t think I put my foot down once. Relatively fresh snow is fairly easy to ride in. The next day, when there are slushy and/or frozen ruts everywhere, its more difficult and it really helps to have fat studded tires.

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