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Home > Blog > Winter Biking > Winter Ride: Canadian Winter


Canadians talk about the weather. A lot. We exclaim, complain, and use it as an excuse, which is entirely ridiculous because we are a winter nation, yet the majority of our population refuses to accept — let alone embrace — a well known fact: winter happens every year.

We use the winter season as an excuse to not support infrastructure for active transportation, like cycling, because the perception is that we live in the cold, white north where we endure #8monthsofwinter. Calgarians seem to especially suffer from this affliction of “woe is me” when winter is upon us. Fair weather cyclists and non-winter cyclists, alike, can be heard saying, “Of course, cycling makes sense in Amsterdam or Victoria or Vancouver”, even Montreal. We have a perception that it is much easier to travel by sustainable modes of transportation (i.e. walking, cycling, or public transit) in these cities. It is my perception that Calgarians think that it is easier in these locales and I think that Calgarians believe the numbers of sustainable transportation are much higher in these places than in Calgary.

In actual fact, Calgary has excellent mode share splits for sustainable transportation into the downtown core. Calgary’s last sustainable transportation mode share split into downtown was 62% in 2011 (walking, cycling, transit). A huge portion of that is transit, but that’s okay. (Personally, I prefer to keep moving my body to stay warm than wait for a train or bus, but to each their own.) For our entire city (as per the 2016 federal census), the sustainable transportation mode share split was about 24% (of which 7.3% is active transportation). Metro Vancouver reached 50% in 2015 (and is up to 52% as per the 2016 census (of which 21.5% is active transportation).

Fine, Calgary has a ways to go with respect to travel mode for the whole footprint of the city, but I wanted to highlight the fact that we have some very good things going with respect to sustainable transportation in our core. For kicks, here are a few more numbers: Calgary has an area of 825.3 km² and a population of 1.266 million (2014); whereas, the statistics (above) for Vancouver proper refer to an area of 115 km² and a population of 647 540 people (2014). So, when referring to Calgary civic census data maps, if I were to overlay the area of Vancouver onto the core of Calgary, many of our sustainable transportation numbers would be significantly higher (likely more along the lines of our downtown mode splits, give or take). What I am trying to say is that Calgary as a whole compared to Vancouver proper is like comparing apples and oranges, but if we target central Calgary, you will find numbers trending in Vancouver’s direction for sustainable transportation.

Yes, even in Calgary. Cowtown. The land of oil & gas and large trucks. Even with our supposedly horrific winter weather, we have a good chunk of people who are getting to work not using a car. And all of these statistics don’t cover people like me because I don’t “work”, I schlep children and choose to move through the city predominantly under my own steam, but it is unpaid.

It was 15C yesterday, on 9 December (yes, December) and has been above zero almost every day for the last 2-3 weeks, so I decided to investigate further (as much as the internet would allow me to dig for free). I have graphed the historical daily averages for each month for the years 1981-2010 from Environment Canada and in spite of people’s negative perception of a harsh prairie winter, Calgary really does quite well relative to other cities presented here, many of which have a greater level of active transportation and/or cycling mode share for commuting (as per the recently released “Journey to Work” statistics from the 2016 Census from StatsCan).

Admittedly, my spreadsheet graphing skills are very rusty (and I was using Numbers when I used to be fairly proficient in Excel *insert eyeball roll*), so bear with me… I have managed to match all colours amongst the three graphs (each city having its own colour); the months have been eyeballed to be in line so that you can compare temperature, rainfall, and snow vertically, if you wish. And, Calgary is in red to make it stand out. (There is no Average Snow Depth data for Halifax.)

I don’t know about you, but Calgary really doesn’t look so terrifying and wintery to me, after all. 

  • Calgary is relatively dry, overall, with very little consistent precipitation of any sort. We pretty much have no snow on the ground throughout most winters. If we do get snow, it doesn’t really last long and if it is cleared by the City, then it presents little to no icing issues if we get any warmer temps. Those dreamy coastal cities that we idolize often deal with wet weather hovering in the low single digits which is bone-chilling cold, or at least cold hands, cold feet, and cold face. Not to mention dealing with wet rain gear at your destination (so that you can be warm on your way home).
  • We have a cooler fall than the rest of Canada, but we are not the winners for coldest winter. In fact, one of the winners for coldest winter (Montreal) is planning on implementing a bunch of new cycling infrastructure under their new mayor, Valérie Plante.
  • While Calgary may have Chinooks (for better or worse), at least we are not dealing with constant freeze/thaw cycles of snow/rain like in the east.

What city would you prefer to ride in as your mode of transportation? Why?


PS I would love to compare at least some of these Canadian cities with those listed in the Copenhagenize Bike-Friendly Cities Index (of which Montreal is one of those cities), but am having trouble finding .csv data that I can import and turn into graphs for analysis. If you would like to help me out, I would be very grateful. You can contact me at [email protected]