CaBi in Columbia Heights by Bekah Richards licensed under Creative Commons.

As the region awoke Tuesday morning to discover that drivers had been stranded overnight on I-95 in Virginia, one District Department of Transportation (DDOT) employee took to Twitter with a comment that was only slightly tongue-in-cheek:

“300 brave folks road CaBi yesterday, so I’m confident that we moved more people than I-95.”

(Pun not intended, it seems.)

With snow so wet and heavy it took out trees and power lines, riding a bicycle exposed to the elements seems like it would be the last option on peoples’ minds. But as the fiasco on I-95 shows, driving has its own hazards in severe weather. And if municipalities and riders plan for winter cycling, a bike can get you where you need to go.

Just like cars, bikes fare best if their lanes have been cleared of snow. In DC, while the Department of Public Works leads the Snow Team responsible for clearing roads, protected bike lanes and trails are largely under the purview of DDOT.

DDOT staffers shared tweets with videos and photos while plowing the lanes this week.

Colin Browne, communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), said the region’s record on clearing bike lanes is “hit-or-miss,” as DDOT has a handful of vehicles and a lot to cover. The work, he said, can also be easily undone by other plows clearing snow from the roads. Other jurisdictions have similar capacity issues, he said.

Snow on a bike lane in Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon, two days after Monday's winter storm.  Image by the author.

Unprotected bike lanes are particularly challenging to clear because snow from roads can be pushed into them, and pushing it any further can damage cars on the other side of the lane.

“[…] trying to walk, bike, or take transit after a snowstorm will give you a clear picture of how our transportation infrastructure and resources still prioritize moving private automobiles over basically everyone else who needs to get around,” Browne said in an email.

Still, other than the need for a few Good Samaritans to brush snow off bikeshare station solar panels, CaBi demonstrated that bikeshare can be an awfully resilient mode of transportation. Although crews paused bike rebalancing during the snow storm, the service continued, and hundreds of people were able to get where they needed to go. That tracks with the role bikeshare has played during the pandemic, a steady part of the transportation ecosystem that remained available when transit and rideshare options suddenly became inaccessible.

Looking to try your hand at some winter cycling? Trey Robinson, a WABA bike ambassador, offered the following tips:

  • “Take it slow,” giving yourself extra time to arrive at your destination and leaving twice the amount of time you ordinarily would to come to a stop when braking.
  • Be cautious when approaching intersections, as drivers may be unable to stop.
  • When riding over ice, avoid pedaling, turning, or braking. Instead, coast across to keep from losing control. Be ready to put a foot down.
  • Keep front and rear lights on, and dress for visibility with bright or reflective clothing.
  • Dress to stay warm — gloves, bar mitts, and hand warmers can help.
  • If the bike lane isn’t clear, or you’re on a road with no bike lane, ride in the center of the lane to make sure you’re visible and cars can’t pass you without changing lanes.

Libby Solomon was a writer/editor and Managing Editor for GGWash from 2020 to 2022. She was previously a reporter for the Baltimore Sun covering the Baltimore suburbs and a writer for Johns Hopkins University’s Centers for Civic Impact.