Monday, December 13, 2010

Why aren't the bike lanes plowed?

Because our Governor-elect seems to have finally managed to kill Wisconsin's opportunity for the expansion of intercity rail, at least for the next decade or so, I'm going to move back to writing about some other transportation issues, or whatever happens to pop into my mind.

Even though non-bicyclists and transplants from warmer climates find this hard to believe, many of us actually continue to bike in the winter. In my case, I'm not likely to be going out on recreational rides, but I do still use my bike to get around town.

It's not as hard as most people think, but more on that in another post.

Today I'm going to address a question that comes up every year on a local listserv: "How come the bike lanes are in such bad condition?" After all, this is Madison. The paths get plowed, often before side streets. So why, when the plows are running down the street anyway, do the bike lanes end up with snow, ice, salt piles, dirt, and combinations of the above?

If it makes anyone feel better, we aren't the only ones complaining about this. At that link, there is also a cool video of a machine in Copenhagen that clears the bike lanes. Here's someone from NYC also voicing the same problem.

Here is a part of an email I wrote earlier today about biking in winter, and it explains why the bike lanes are still full of snow, when the rest of the street is clear:

It is unlikely that the far right portion of any road will ever be as clear of snow, ice, slush, salt, debris, and sundry stuff as the middle portion. When cars drive over a street, the gunk that falls off of them acts like salt, both making the melting point of the resulting mixture lower, and also making the whole mess darker in color, so absorbing more sunlight, and melting. Friction from the cars' wheels also heat up the pavement and lead to faster melting. 

Cars also throw snow, slush, salt, dirt, etc to the sides as they pass, and that stuff then ends up on the right of the roadway, and refreezes, or creates a pile of loose dirt/salt, which can be hazardous in and of itself. Much of the non-frozen stuff remains until spring, or a mid-winter rain storm, when rain washes it all down into the storm sewers and our lakes. 

Sweeping would help, but it's pretty hard to predict when the streets will be snow-covered vs. dry vs. wet, but above freezing, so the city only sweeps April/May(?)-Nov. I'm assuming the sweeping equipment is simply put away for the winter, and staff assigned other tasks, even if we have a particularly warm year.

Most of us intuitively know all this, but every year someone asks, "How come the bike lanes are never clear?" So I thought I'd post that answer in advance.

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