Help Wanted for Winter Riding

Here is my essay for March.

I’m not going to gloat about the weather. Granted, we in Vancouver got a good taste of it, but not the double-heaped platter-full that everybody else did. I’m not going to attribute our moving back west of the Cascades, seemingly the only spot on the continent which hasn’t felt the brunt of this year’s chaotic winter weather, to anything but dumb luck. Still, winter weather can wreak havoc on transportation, be it via snow-covered streets or dangerously high winds. I have to admit I haven’t ridden nearly as much as I wanted to, or told myself I would, over the past few months. I have, however, had time to think of a few things to make winter biking a bit more tolerable.

Proper clothing and bike equipment top the list, of course. A good pair of gloves, for instance, can keep a pleasant jaunt from becoming a painful ordeal. Simple plastic safety glasses, available for ten dollars at the local hardware store, do an excellent job of keeping wind-blown snow and rain out of the rider’s eyes. The amber glasses cut glare and help vision in low light conditions, too.

So much for the low-hanging fruit; I’m more interested in how the whole system can be improved. We can’t change the weather but maybe we can buttress our bike paths against it. After all, better infrastructure will bring reluctant riders out of their shells better than anything else. I see three major issues which require mitigation: traction, wind, and motor vehicles.

Poor traction is naturally due to ice build-up, especially on corners and hills. My idea is to install some sort of “defroster” on bike paths. What I have in mind is a low-voltage, conductive grid, either stretched over a pathway like a cargo net or permanently installed by scoring the road surface and laying the conductive material into the grooves. I imagine that solar power, such as is used for street-sign lighting, would be sufficient for this. To make sure that the system only gets power when necessary, though, will require some clever engineering: precise controls of power flow based on temperature and moisture readings. Decagon, I’m looking at you here.

Wind is a tricky creature, but on the Palouse its habits are rather well-known. It cranks in from the south and west, hard and harder, yet always seems to be going against the rider. Perhaps certain vulnerable stretches of bike path could be shielded by an extended “fence” of light, clear plastic. If placed along the curb line, this wind fence would also serve as a buffer against motor vehicles, keeping their vibration and splashing at bay. And, with that sort of barrier in place, the more cautious cyclists might just be lured out to partake of a ride.

I’m not going to pretend that any of this will be easy or cheap. However, the Palouse is blessed with two outstanding universities, full of bright minds eager to change the world. Washington State University, for one, is planning to use its long-term growth plan as a teaching tool, encouraging new ideas and methods in renovating and expanding the campus. Tying that mind-set in with upgrading the bicycle and pedestrian network, both on campus and in town, could lead in all sorts of interesting directions.

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