Clearing a path for winter bike lanes

March 21, 2016 Tyler Golly

Every city has its challenges, but there are universal best practices to keep cyclists on track year round.

By Tyler Golly, Transportation Engineer, Edmonton, AB (Stantec) & Michael Anderson, Green Lane Project Staff Writer (People for Bikes)


Protected bike lanes have the goal of providing a year-round sustainable transportation option. But as their popularity spreads, communities have to find solutions to deal with Mother Nature’s gift of snow.

Most protected bike lanes are too narrow for standard street plows. So how are cities supposed to keep them clean?

Last year, we decided to help more communities solve this by researching equipment and techniques for clearing snow from protected bike lanes. But after talking to city staffers across North America and Europe, we realized the challenges of winter are very different from city to city.

The snow that piles into a protected bike lane in Chicago is very different in quantity, weight, and thaw pattern from the snow in Calgary, which is very different from the snow in New York City.


This means there's no single set of equipment we can recommend for most communities. Instead, we'll outline some effective pieces of equipment being used, as well as techniques and strategies we discovered in our research.

Though there's no single best snowplow for a protected bike lane, some generalizations are possible. If you're in a city that plows some of its sidewalks or its pathway network, the same equipment will probably work for protected bike lanes.

"The land-care people, they consider it the same as the sidewalk," said Steve Sanders, Bicycle Coordinator for the University of Minnesota. "If it snows under two inches, they'll typically just use a brush on it. It's like a little forklift-type vehicle equipped with a [spinning] brush."

For larger snowfalls on its campus' 10-foot-wide, 2/3-mile protected bike lanes, the university switches to a small plow mounted on a Ford Ranger pickup.

In Boulder, Colorado, the city clears its widest protected lanes with a Ranger and plow, too. On narrower facilities, it uses a Gator brand all-terrain vehicle made by John Deere. For other jobs, it uses a Caterpillar mini-loader with a power broom. For a few a few spots, hauling out a snow blower does the trick.

Washington D.C. uses a 60-inch-wide Toolcat 5600 but has been in the market for something smaller, to make turns while clearing a 5-foot protected bike lane.

In 2015, Salt Lake City started using a 65.5-inch-wide Kubota RTV1100 to sweep and plow its protected bike lanes. For narrower spaces in its downtown, they use an out-of-production 44.9-inch-wide Kubota F3060. The widest part of that tiny tractor is its 51.1-inch wheelbase, so a good option if you can find one.

Another option on some smaller plows: attachments for brine or salt, offered for (among others) the 51.2-inch-wide Wille 265 and the 56-inch Wille 365.

Service standards
Clearing protected bike lanes of snow requires more than equipment. It requires a plan. If not treated quickly, ice formation can shut down a bike lane for days.

Does this make protected bike lanes a higher priority than arterial roads? How about certain protected bike lanes? What circumstances make a protected bike lane a higher priority than its adjacent roadway? When is it a lower priority?

Cities should base these decisions on the principles that drive all their transportation work. They should also post them publicly. They act as promises and can be codified through a city policy or ordinance.

Common standards include:

  • Priority Network: Which routes are the highest priorities for snow clearing? Residents should know which routes can be best relied upon for year-round biking.
  • Frequency of Clearing: While some communities specify that snow clearing will happen within a certain time period after snowfall has ended, leading winter cities specify the amount of accumulated snow that is acceptable before clearing will commence. This approach acknowledges that biking in loose snow can be dangerous. Common accumulation limits are about 1 inch (2.5 cm).
  • Clear Width: How wide of a path along the bikeway will be cleared? In some cases, a first-pass, initial snow clearing may be completed that provides a minimum width to allow the bikeway to be operable and allow the public agency or contractor to increase the length of the bikeway network that can be cleared. The recent MassDOT Separated Bike Lane Planning & Design Guide, for example, specifies a minimum 4 feet (1.2 m) for the narrowest operable protected lanes.

Cleared to where?
Snow storage is a more difficult issue. When snow is cleared from a protected bike lane, it usually lands on the left or right: between bikeway and auto traffic and/or between bikeway and sidewalk. Calgary produced a great infographic for the Stantec-designed downtown protected bike lane network to help explain where snow should ideally be plowed or shoveled and stored until it melts or is trucked away.

But the real world is not perfect. When sidewalks lack furnishing zones or landscaped boulevards, or when snow piles up rapidly in a major storm, it needs to be transported somewhere else. That transportation costs time and equipment.

Finland, a very snowy country, has a useful alternative to hauling snow away from bike facilities: instead of pushing snow aside, its machines pack it down until it's bikeable. We haven't found any North American cities doing this, but some have considered it.

Finally, communities must also manage bike-lane ice. Typical ice control techniques rely on a combination of salt, aggregate, and brine treatments, depending on temperature and other factors. Again, local climate must dictate which practices work best on a given day. Sometimes this can bear surprises. Denver found that since bike tires don't splash away magnesium chloride, it's a far more effective deicer on protected bike lanes than in auto lanes.

The science, the politics, and the practices of snow removal from protected bike lanes is new in North America, but advancing with each passing winter. Unlike so many things about protected bike lanes, this isn't an area that can simply aspire to European models—it’s an area that North Americans are exploring for themselves to keep bike lanes operational year-round.

 The Green Lane Project helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow them on LinkedInTwitter or Facebook or sign up for their weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. 

About the Author

Tyler Golly

Tyler Golly is a professional engineer who specializes in the creation of multi-modal solutions for urban transportation planning and design projects.

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