I was at a meeting of cyclists last night when the topic of cycling in the winter came up. One person made a reference I have heard before: that in Scandinavian cities with a similar winter temperature and snowfall to Toronto, 30% of people commute by bicycle.
The reference is to Copenhagen, Denmark, whose successful cycling-friendly policies have become well-known thanks to the film Contested Streets. According to the movie, something like 30% of commuter trips in the city are by bicycle (by 2006, the number was 36%). But is its winter climate really comparable to Toronto’s? I decided to check.
Here are Toronto’s average high and low temperatures during winter months (in degrees Celsius) according to the BBC Weather Centre:
December: Min -6 Max +1
January: Min -9 Max -1
February: Min -9 Max -1
March: Min -5 Max -1
Here are Copenhagen’s average high and low temperatures during the same months:
December: Min +1 Max +4
January: Min -2 Max +2
February: Min -3 Max +2
March: Min -1 Max +5
The difference is pretty significant – the average maximum in Copenhagen does not drop below freezing, and the variations are much more moderate — it does not get nearly as cold (bearing in mind that people commute in the morning and late afternoon, when the temperature is not at its maximum). While Copenhagen is hardly temperate, its winter cannot be considered as severe as Toronto’s.
As for snowfall, Toronto’s average yearly snowfall is around 144 cm (55.5 in). I found it hard to track down the equivalent statistic for Copenhagen, possibly because snowfall seems to be rare and not heavy. In fact, a Copenhagen blog about biking in the rain doesn’t even consider the possibility of snow. Information about Denmark as a whole describes snowfalls as occasional but shortlived, with little accumulation. Once again, Copenhagen’s situation is not really comparable to Toronto’s, where snowfall is erratic but at times significant.
Not only is Copenhagen’s winter weather fairly different from Toronto’s, but it is different in significant ways: there is far less freezing, with the consequent dangers of ice, not to mention physical discomfort, and there is rarely significant snow on the road.
Copenhagen is a great model for how to create a bike-friendly city, but it is not all that relevant for the issue of biking in Toronto winters.
Other, more northerly Scandinavian cities may have winters more similar to Toronto, but I do not believe that they have a comparable volume of cyclists to Copenhagen.
Note: statistics varied somewhat depending on the source consulted, but not significantly.
photo by Martin Reis