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Winter cycling congress reflects climate for community change

Winnipeg hosting professionals and practitioners from around the world

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A change in consciousness that shifts winter from a barrier to a setting where active transportation flourishes naturally is Anders Swanson’s biggest hope for the Second International Winter Cycling Congress.

It’s a vision shared by some, and a reality entrenched for many, within the broad international base of nearly 200 people coming to the Feb. 12-14 congress in Winnipeg. They’ll explore what it takes to create and sustain bicycle-friendly communities throughout the year.

“This is about myth-busting and sharing technical details of how to make winter cycling possible,” says Anders Swanson, who is the congress director and a cycling, walking and universal design consultant. “But the most important piece is this connecting of communities that really know how to do it already with people who need to learn how because they want to keep all of this new bicycle infrastructure that they’ve built open year round.”

Winter cycling is a normal part of life in many of the world’s cold and snowy climates, and as cycling takes a deeper foothold as a preferred and sustainable mode of transportation for its economic, environmental, health and social benefits, infrastructure is morphing to accommodate it, raising the potential for year-round activity.

“If you look at it, the further north you go on the planet the higher the bicycle mode share,” Anders says. This includes North America where, for example, winter cycle tracks are planned, winter outdoor options for bikes are offered, and significant portions of urban populations are biking in winter.

“There’s something to this idea that maybe winter isn’t the barrier we thought it was,” Anders says.

Year-round cycling is blazing a wider path because people realize it’s fun, cheap and easy, Anders says. “It keeps you in good shape without trying, and also planners and engineers are dealing with the reality of snow and wondering what to do. It’s a lot cheaper to keep a pathway open for winter than it is to build one from scratch.”

In communities with cycling infrastructure, Anders says it “makes no sense” to build it and not plow it. He notes that other users of active transportation networks benefit from year-round accessibility, from people who use wheelchairs to others who simply want to walk their dogs. “How to do it so that everybody can use it is really the thrust here,” Anders says.

At the congress, professionals and delegates from leading bicycle-friendly countries and cities will share their knowledge and skills — while they gain a deeper understanding of the shifting approach to create more sustainable and connected communities.

“As people here move into urban areas, they end up having more transportation options. And being connected digitally means people aren’t as keen on getting into the car and driving. They want to hook up and spend time together,” Anders says.

“Things are changing and people are more interested in the experience and independence that a city can bring you.”

Winnipeg embraces winter and cycling

Winnipeg is a perfect host for the winter cycling congress, bringing a diversity of voices to the discussion and emerging as a leader in year-round active transportation.

“We definitely know how to do winter,” Anders says, adding the city has invested more in cycling infrastructure per capita in recent years than almost anywhere else in North America.

“We’ve made leaps and bounds,” he says. “And we have a lot of potential (for winter cycling) because we’re flat, we’re very sunny, and we have lots of space.”

The congress wraps up on Winter Bike to Work Day — a Winnipeg-based initiative involving Anders that began last year with six North American cities and has grown to include communities as far away as Alaska, Norway and Croatia. All of the participants are crowdsourcing this event in an effort to engage as many people as possible.

Winter Bike to Work Day is an opportunity for people to join the growing ranks of winter cyclists, or at least try it — which Anders says can be a stepping stone to changing perception of how people relate to their environment and each other.

“The biggest challenge to change in general is people assuming things are harder than they are, and assuming something they haven’t tried is impossible,” Anders says.

He advises taking a simple Sunday morning bike ride to the store this winter and “just taking the chance to experience freedom in a wintry environment that everybody else can experience too.” People may also share in his discovery that aspects of winter lend themselves very well to transportation, such as a smoother ride and slower driving speeds which could reduce the risk of accident and injury.

Strengthening connections

While winter cycling is the focus of the congress, it is about more than the bicycle, Anders says. “It’s more about how winter can be a very, very beautiful thing, and it’s matter of getting out there and being able to experience it directly.”

It’s also about strengthening connections between people and creating thriving communities, which is the calling for sponsors of the congress like Urban Systems.

“Urban Systems is working for an understanding that walking and cycling is possible everywhere,” Anders says. “They’re moving things forward in a way that can have a lasting effect.”

Anders encourages anyone interesting in learning more to follow the congress on social media. “Never before has it been possible to share the winter cycling story around the world as easily as it is now,” he says.

The power of the Internet has been a useful tool in connecting winter cycling practitioners and proponents across vast distances and languages to share in research and best practices — some of which will be presented at the congress.

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