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Despite cold, winter biking spikes in popularity

Jan. 23, 2017

CHICAGO ó It may be 5 degrees below zero with the wind chill, but Matt Barrington, 31, of North Lawndale, still bikes to work every day.

"Itís nice to get some fresh air every morning," Barrington said. "Once you get going, you get warm pretty quick."

Barrington is one of a growing number of Chicago-area commuters who are riding bikes despite snow and frigid weather, according to cyclists, bike shop owners and Divvy numbers.

The number of winter bikers has spiked in recent years due in part to improved infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes, and better, cheaper cold-weather equipment, cyclists and bike dealers said. Other factors include the expansion of Divvy, which gives commuters an alternative to using their own bikes in the salty slush, and a mild winter last year that encouraged people to give cold-weather biking a try.

"Last year it exploded," said Manuel Tenorio, owner of Johnny Sprockets bike shops. He said last yearís winter brought out more people, and the numbers kept climbing this year despite lower temperatures. "They want to keep going through the winter," Tenorio said.

"Itís in the air, much like the salt gets in the air this time of year," said Dave Glowacz, known as "Mr. Bike," who wrote the guide "Urban Bikersí Tricks and Tips." "People are influenced and inspired by seeing other people doing it."

NUMBERS UP

Figures from the Chicago Department of Transportationís Divvy bike-share program show that December through March trips jumped more than 200 percent to 518,286 in the winter of 2015-16 from 167,258 in the winter of 2013-14.

Some of this is likely because the 2013-14 winter was unusually cold, while last winter was unusually warm, and Divvy has been expanding, department spokesman Mike Claffey noted.

But the trend continued this winter, which has been cold. The number of Divvy trips taken this past December, which had below-normal temperatures, was 93,275, lower than the December 2015 number of 121,141, but still higher than the December totals in 2013 and 2014, which were 44,694 and 86,800, respectively.

Summer is the peak time for biking, with just under 500,000 Divvy trips taken each month, Claffey said.

Motivate, which runs Divvy and other bike-share programs across North America, also has seen big spikes in winter biking in New York City and Boston, spokeswoman Dani Simons said.

"People are starting to make bike-share a year-round transportation choice," she said. Simons noted that some users bike to transit stations instead of walking. "It may be a way to speed up your trip in cold weather."

The Active Transportation Alliance, a biking and walking advocacy group, has seen a surge in participation in its third annual Winter Bike Challenge to 375 this year from 222 in 2015, according to Clare McDermott, the allianceís director of special events and marketing. The cyclist who logs the most miles from Jan. 13 to Jan. 27 wins a "fat tire" bike, designed for biking in snow.

"It helps you beat the winter blues," McDermott said when asked why the numbers are up.

Area bike clubs also have reported increases in recreational winter riding, when weather permits, said Ed Barsotti, chief programs officer for Ride Illinois, a bike advocacy group. Slow Roll Chicago, which promotes biking in communities of color, hosted a ride commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Lawndale this past Saturday.

EQUIPMENT MATTERS

Tenorio and other bike shop owners say better equipment is helping cyclists go year-round.

Earlier this month, Pedal & Spoke bike shop in North Aurora, Ill., hosted a demonstration of bikes with fat tires, which are 3 to 5 inches wide instead of the 1- to 2-inch width of traditional bike tires, said owner Ashton Brackett. About 50 people crowded into the shop, with most going out on a group ride despite the bitter cold, Brackett said.

"People are becoming aware that it is possible to stay active during the winter," Brackett said. He said fat tire bikes have come down in price in recent years.

Also dropping in cost are good lights ó necessary for short winter days. Brackett said the price of a 350-lumen rechargeable bike light has dropped from $120 to about $50. "Weíre selling more lights than ever before," Brackett said. "People want to be seen."

Some cyclists recommend tires with metal studs for icy conditions, though these are banned by Chicago municipal code. Glowacz said these are fine for rural Wisconsin but "heavy metal overkill" in Chicago, since major streets are usually cleared within 24 hours of snowfall.

Some winter bicyclists favor specialty gloves called "pogies" that look like oven mitts and snap onto handlebars. Other options are "gunner" gloves or "lobster" gloves, which are hybrids of gloves and mittens.

Cycling experts also recommend ski goggles in extreme cold, hats or balaclavas that fit under helmets, water-resistant shoes or boots, and dressing in layers, though not too many because you warm up while biking. They also recommend a "wicking" layer close to the body, to pull away moisture that can make you cold.

"Thereís no bad weather ó thereís bad clothing," said Bryan Finigan, manager at Kozyís Cyclery in the South Loop.

Bad clothing includes dark clothing, Glowacz said. Bicyclists need to be seen by motorists, who are less used to seeing them in winter.

"People donít know they should have a front and rear light and not dress in black," Glowacz said.

Cyclists also need to be assertive enough to ride where itís safe, and that may mean "taking the lane" instead of staying to the right of traffic if thereís too much ice and slush, Glowacz said.

"It takes some practice to become comfortable with that," Glowacz said. "But motorists generally are not going to run you down when youíre in the middle of the lane. Motorists hit bicyclists because they donít see them."

One drawback to winter biking on the Northwest Side is that the popular 606 trail is not cleared after snowfalls of as little as 3 inches. Chicago Park District officials said snowplows cannot be used on the trail because it will tear the blue rubber running surface and the native plantings.

Winter biking also poses an additional challenge for bike maintenance, since brake lines can freeze and chains get loaded with slush and salt.

Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, likes to use Divvys in messy weather, since he doesnít have to take care of them. "I donít like rust," he said.

Ben Bridger, 31, who recently moved back to Chicago after 10 years in California, agrees that winter biking poses extra challenges, but that is part of what makes his commute interesting, just as hills make it interesting on the West Coast.

"It adds character to it," Bridger said. "Itís what makes riding here unique compared to anyplace else in the world."

Glowacz said he likes the peacefulness of winter biking. "Iím happier when there arenít a lot more people that are doing crazy stuff like they are in the summer," he said.

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MILLENNIAL CAR CHOICES

Young adults may be driving less, but when they do drive, they tend to prefer cars that are new and green.

Thatís according to a new survey by Autolist.com, which offers new and used cars online, that found millennials were 6.2 percent more likely than Generation X buyers to want a new car, and 5.1 percent more likely to be concerned about a carís environmental impact. Generation X buyers were more likely to be swayed by price and reliability, the survey found.

Millennials were defined for the survey as adults from 25 to 39, while Generation X buyers were 40 to 54.

The survey found Honda Accords to be the most popular car for Generation X buyers, while Honda Civics were most popular among younger adults.

Autolist.com surveyed 3,383 adults in the last quarter of last year. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.

Driving has declined in popularity among young people, according to various studies. A University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study last year found that adults in their 20s were about 13 percent less likely to have a driverís license than the same age population in 1983, while adults in their 30s were 8 percent less likely.

 

 



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