These Communication Tools Are Building More Confident Winter Bikers

From morning radio reports to a real-time bike path plowing map, cyclists in Minneapolis are turning to innovative strategies to enable bike rides in the winter.

(Photo by Chris Robert / Unsplash)

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Soon after pastor Travis Novell moved from New Orleans to the Twin Cities a decade ago, he preached a sermon challenging members of his congregation to sacrifice something so that others could experience joy.

After the sermon, his daughter turned the same question onto him: What struggles had he put himself through for others’ happiness?. “I just felt like a complete phony in front of my daughter at the time,” recalls Norvell, who lives in South Minneapolis and calls himself the Pedaling Pastor. “And I said, you know, I don’t know. And then that night, I just spent the entire night researching what I needed to do to winter bike” – and how he could make it easier for other locals to bike in Minnesota’s harsh winters.

Norvell is among about 200 people in Hennepin County (which includes Minneapolis) who bike in the winter, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Because he is among many who struggle to get around unplowed or improperly plowed bike trails, he decided to take to the radio waves to inform fellow winter bikers where bike trails have been cleared.

For years, Twin Cities bicycle commuters either had to rely on word of mouth or risk cycling on routes with inadequately plowed bike paths. That all appears to have changed in the last several years, as the Pedaling Pastor began to partner with Minnesota Public Radio to provide bike path condition updates. And in late December, to the excitement of bicycle commuters, the Minneapolis Park Board launched a real-time map that tracks whether or not a bike path is clear.

To get on the waves, Norvell tweeted at MPR host Cathy Wurzer about why the radio station reports extensively on car traffic conditions but not on bikes. Norvell offered to have winter bikers report conditions directly to Wurzer, who read them out on air.

“She thought it would be a goofy thing that may happen for two or three days,” says Norvell, who is not paid by MPR to venture out, observe lane and trail conditions and talk with other bicyclists about them at 6 a.m. “Surprise to me and everybody else, people really enjoyed the winter biking reports, and then more people started doing it. Then we had an arrangement where I would try to get out and ride and have a report to her by seven in the morning.”

The reports have been helpful for Minneapolis resident Browdie Daul, who is biking in the winter for the first time after getting rid of his car. “That was very helpful for me, it was more so comforting to feel that I had an idea of what I was getting into in my community,” said Daul. “[As] we’re getting a little deeper into the season, I’m starting to really be aware of how long it takes the city to clean up the bike lanes after a big snowstorm.”

The reports are not as useful for early-morning cyclists. Take Marty McNulty, who bikes from northeast Minneapolis to a light rail station just southeast of the University of Minnesota campus before the morning reports go out.

Instead, McNulty says, he relies on the online real-time trail plowing map released by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in December 2022.

“It’s really useful,” he says. “I use it to just know if [the trail] was going to be clear completely or if I [am] going to have to go through a couple inches of snow all the way. And then there was another day where I was able to check it and see that they haven’t gotten out to that section of the trail yet, [so] I decided to take my bike with me on the bus that day.”

Kelly Armstrong, Project and Systems Analyst for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, has been developing the map for close to five months before the launch. Although intended to improve their snow plow operations, they decided to make the map public for those who use it, including bike commuters.

The map, which shows when a plow last traversed through a trail segment, is updated from GPS units installed in their plow trucks. In order to provide a complete picture of whether or not an entire trail is plowed from end to end, the Park Board drew the segments to a specific length so the GPS can provide an update once every 30 seconds.

The map has since been visited 25,000 times as of early January, although the Park Board isn’t sure where the visitors are coming from. “Before this map was created there was no way for MPRB to communicate the conditions to users,” Armstrong says. “Concerns or complaints would come in through phone calls, emails, in-person and social media. We now incorporate all of those into this system to be able to track snow requests that come in from the public.”

Still, the Park Board map does not communicate how icy a trail may be.

So Carly Ellefsen, a south Minneapolis communications professional, leans on a community of winter cyclists posting on Twitter with the hashtag #mspcyclecast (as in, Minneapolis cycle forecast), as well as a Facebook group for femmes, trans and women bicyclists to decide whether to ride.

“I really like the personal anecdotes [from the Facebook group and the Twitter hashtag]; people provide, like, ‘Hey, I rode studs on this route. The studs were adequate, but maybe I’d pick a fat bike for today,’ or those kinds of nuances,” says Ellefsen, who only recently began winter biking after seven years of living in the city.

“As someone [who] only has studded tires and is still a little intimidated, it’s easy for me to be like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna just bike to the train and take the train today or walk or take the train’ when I don’t feel like my tires are gonna be adequate or I’d rather avoid some ice anyway.”

Daul agrees with Ellefsen. “The Twitter bike community of Minneapolis is so much more lively, helpful, and just an amazing resource than I could have ever really predicted,” says Daul. “I don’t think I would have really realized how possible [the] winter biking lifestyle is if it weren’t for Twitter.”

Of course, the future of Twitter is in doubt with significantly reduced staffing as a result of the company’s new ownership. While the Facebook group exists, Ellefsen also recommends a zine on winter biking written by Minneapolis-based author Xena Goldman.

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H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/佢/他) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat.

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Tags: bikingminneapolisbike safetysocial media

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