The numbers are in: Philly is the most biking-est of the country’s 10 largest cities. A full 2.3 percent of city dwellers commute to work by bicycle, up from 1.8 percent in 2011, and the trend shows we’re on an upward trajectory.
Adding to that score is the new transportation bill out of Harrisburg, which finds PennDOT finally acknowledging the existence of the bicycle as a form of commuting—thus supporting the city’s long-term plans to make Philadelphia even more bicycle-friendly over the next few decades, as noted in a PW cover story in August.
But keeping our spot as the top bike city means utilizing our two-wheeled resources throughout the wintertime—something that less of us are prone to do, for obvious, freezing, reasons. And winter is just about here.
I’m a year-round rider, but like many others, I have a love-hate relationship with my bike when it reaches A Christmas Story pole-licking temperatures. So, to get to the heart of the matter of how riders should prepare for a daily commute in the cold months, I found someone who does this for a living.
Julian Root, of West Philadelphia, has been a bike courier in the city for more than six years. Taking routes few others are willing to, Root regularly rides anywhere from 40 to 50 miles a day on his regular path, which goes through Kensington, Juniata, Hunting Park and Olney. If anyone knows how to get through a Philly winter on a bike, it’s him.
“In the winter, it becomes more of what I imagine cycling in Philadelphia used to be like,” he says. “There’s a dramatic reduction in the number of people you see commuting.” (For context: A generation ago, only half a percent of the city used to ride to work—about 8,000 people.)
The relative shortage of people on the road, says Root, can help him get his job done faster. For one thing, he’s not having to constantly call “On your left!” to casual cyclists out for a joy ride. That said: “Most of the people who are out riding are generally more intelligent cyclists. I would say they’re more aware of what you need to be as a cyclist in the city.”
Then there’s pedestrians. Root says he sees less hostility between pedestrians, motorists and cyclists in the winter. “Maybe that’s because there are less cyclists,” he suggests, “maybe because it’s not hot and people are always getting angry in the heat—or maybe because there are less jackasses on bicycles in the wintertime. Because a lot of the people who come out [in the spring and summer], the fair-weather riders, are the ones who see cycling as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card and say, ‘Well, I’ll just be reckless.’”
The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia offers its own recommendations for biking in the winter. And, yes, not being reckless is a key part of those. As the ground is often soaked in the winter months, and there may be black ice on the road, the Coalition recommends you turn slowly around corners, don’t brake abruptly (when that’s possible) and keep covered.
But what about snow?
Due to most bicycle lanes having been built adjacent to on-street parallel parking spaces, most of them aren’t plowed in heavy snow, as plow drivers can’t get too close to parked cars. Based on his experience, Root notes that Broad Street is usually OK, and so are most of the arterial avenues around the city. “But when you have that considerable amount of snow on the ground,” he says, “I think motorists can’t help but take pity on the people on bikes. At that point, when there’s snow on the ground, anyone on a bike is a stickler, a die-hard, or they’re riding because it’s their job.” So motorists don’t mind as much, Root says, when a winter cyclist takes up an entire traffic lane; even our famously aggressive drivers aren’t oblivious to the snowscapes that pile up in the five-foot-wide bike lanes.
And then there’s the clothing you’ve got to wear. The Coalition recommends keeping your head, face, and hands covered in addition to a few layers of clothing. “The most important thing you can do is have a base layer and have it tucked in,” agrees Root. “Being a year-round courier taught me the value of tucking in your shirt.”
The website Bike Winter recommends bikers get a scarf or balaclava they can fit under their helmet. If you wear glasses, a little bit of gel toothpaste will keep them from fogging up—or you can get lens spray, often sold at ski and outdoor shops.
Finally: Keeping your feet warm is no joke. In the extreme cold, numbness can sneak into your extremities when you’re not paying attention. “The real killer is the toes,” says Root. “A heavier wool sock will just delay the onset of the cold, and once it sets in, it’s there.” What makes that worse for serious cyclists, he says, is when, like Root, they wear cycling shoes that clip into their pedals: Those shoes have a small vent in them and don’t allow much movement of foot. “So what I do is, I just duct-tape my toes, around the shoe, to cover the vent,” he says. “That also helps with the rain. But I would tell anyone who’s commuting: Just wear a leather shoe, a heavier shoe with a nice wool sock and you’ll be fine.”
The extra headaches notwithstanding: When the winter comes on, Root says, people often tell him he’s nuts for continuing the biking life. “I tell them, I think you’re nuts for sitting behind that desk all year,” he says. “You never even feel the changes in the season until you go home from work.”