This winter has brought the same old problem of pathways not being plowed in Calgary as in years past. The city now plows 350 km out of 800 km, up from 300km. Still, it is a long way from being adequate since pathways seem to be the main transportation mode abandoned each winter. Ever live in a place where roads are closed every winter. That’s what many cyclists face in Calgary.
After reading Tom Babin’s book, Frostbike, I learned the early history of pathway plowing was not started by the City of Calgary. It was started by cyclists who started towing home made contraptions behind bicycles, hand shoveling pathways themselves, or towing large triangles behind pickup trucks. Back then, the City of Calgary didn’t want anyone clearing snow off the pathways since the City did not want to do it. Misery loves company.
Then during a heavy dump of snow, the home brew dedicated pathway plowers were stumped. The towed ploughs were not able to clear the snow. But a strange thing happened.
People thought the city was clearing the pathways and started complaining about the lack of pathway ploughing. Turns out, you can shame the City of Calgary into ploughing pathways but it doesn’t work very well at getting all pathways cleared.
Like many people in Calgary, each winter there are vital pathway links in the pathway network which are abandoned to winter. One day I tried to cycle to Chestermere along the Canal pathway and barely made it to 50 ave se There are more pathways being ploughed now by $78/hr machines but over half of the pathways remain neglected. Far from satisfactory for cyclists who pay taxes only to have all their tax money put towards creating more traffic congestion instead of providing useable infrastructure during winter.
Last winter I had to cycle on roads to get to and from work because the Airport Trail Pathway which is right beside the road was burried in snow. It was the year in which Associated Cab drivers in particular, would harass me by passing too close when I had to use the right lane and a little further on they’d be making a left turn two lanes over. Despite the fact that there are 3 lanes, drivers like to hog a cyclist’s lane. So I took steps to remedy that situation and began to get a little respect from drivers.
If driver had to endure harassment every time they drove on the roads, they’d soon be complaining too.
Reading about pioneers of bicycle ploughing lead to checking the internet for bicycle snow plough designs. There is very little available. The information was sufficient to get me started on a campaign against winter.
I built one plough which worked great in light snow and one day decided to clear the sidewalk. I received cheering from a lady who saw me cycle along the pathway towing a v-shaped plywood plough. People want bicycle ploughing. The kilometer took about 15 minutes to plough by bike and would have taken an hour by snow shovel.
The plough ran into problems in more than a few inches of snow, necessitating a new design that would dig into the snow and get to the bottom of it. The second design was triangular shaped and pointed. It worked much better at digging through snow, tunneling through drifts, and cutting a two foot wide path through light snow. It did have one big problem… it left ridges of snow on both sides and in deep snow, chunks of snow it cut through would roll back down into the trough. In a few inches of snow it cut a clean path with no problem and because of the triangular shape, it was extremely time consuming to try and push the snow over to the edge of the pathway with the plough. For cutting a path through an even layer of snow it was fast and efficient. In a few inches of powdered snow I was able to maintain 10-15 kph which became a normal towing speed because the plough seemed to work best at that speed. There were crazy times in which I went full bore and tore my way through the snow, laughing all the way at 20 kph or faster. Lots of fun to torment winter.
The issue with bicycle plough is that if you make it really wide, it is really hard to pull in deep snow. Make a plough small, it cuts throughd deeper snow more easily but doesn’t clear much of the pathway. With the triangular plough I began cutting just two paths along the pathways, one on either side. That seemed to work best. The 7 km route took about 40 minutes to plough at an easy pace on a quick out and back sortie where I didn’t bother to replough a section or try to push snow off to the side with the plough, both very time consuming projects.
The ridges of snow left behind were annoying though. This required building a four foot long push plough out of a plastic water barrel. In a few inches of snow I cleared the whole 7 kms of pathway over several days. The plough was easy to push in a couple of inches of snow and left no ridges. The end result was as good or better than city ploughing equipment. Now I could clear the pathway like a professional.
Then came 11 cms of snow and the task at hand was becoming very demanding. I took a plastic folding shovel out on my bicycle ploughing journey and dug through 3 foot drifts. There wasn’t a huge amount of snow but it drifted into a disaster area. Still, the pathway was opened again and commuting resumed.
Then the wind came up again. This time there were four foot drifts right across much of the pathway. The next piece of plough equipment was a snowblower to deal with these winter disasters. A snowblower is slower, in fact, walking pace seems almost meteoric in speed compared to a snowblower. The gas monster took 13 hours or thereabouts to clear the entire pathway to full width. Warm weather came along, melting the snow and making the 7 km walk very difficult but in the end, the pathway was cleared. Even the push plough is faster in lighter snow when it is possible to run and still clear the pathway without much effort. Maybe there should be an Olympic push plough category for runners.
The problem with city ploughing is that it never seems to happen when its needed. The city always seems to be playing catchup much like I have been. Plough, next day it drifts or snows and needs to be done over again. At first I built a foldable plough to take to and from work. The triangular plough is larger and difficult to carry on a bike so instead, I make an early run before work and sometimes after work if it contined to snow. The bike plough clears a route quickly but doesn’t clear the entire pathway without many, many repeat trips but it does plough in a hurry so that people can bike or walk.
Along the way I met some interesting people who appreciated the huge effort to keep the pathway open. Eventually about 2/3rs of the pathway was being cleared by large machines and this was great because it let me get back to a bare pathway which meant it was easier to maintain for a while. Often, I’d clear the entire pathway before the machines even showed up. At other times, I’d be surprised to see the pathway had been ploughed but snow was still falling. I came home in 3 inches of white powder and it was an awesome ride, since much of it was flat or downhill and the bike was easy to pedal through that much snow.
Have to admit though, bicycle snow ploughing has made the winter more fun than last year when I was only commuting with antagonist drivers and their snobbish attitude that only cars are allowed on roads. Sometimes cyclists don’t have a choice and rather than constantly complaining about the lack of pathways ploughing I decided to do something about it instead of waiting for hell to freeze over.
In order to determine how useful a bicycle plough is compared to other snow removal means, I’m keeping track of how much bike ploughing, push ploughing and snowblowing I do. Is bicycle snow ploughing useful for keeping pathways open all winter? Other than deep drifts and 11 cms of snow it has worked well.