Yesterday, just for fun, I skied to one of the coffee shops in Chelsea where I wanted to do some work for the afternoon. Given that it had been snowing, I took the most obvious and direct route: right down the road.
This worked reasonably well as you can see from my pictures. It took me about 10 minutes to get into town, where I drank some coffee and did some work before skiing home. Of course, I got all kinds of funny looks from people at the main intersections and so on, which adds to the fun if you can get over feeling self-conscious.
Lately I have been thinking a bit more than
usual about the validity of skiing as a mode of transportation. In connection
with my school work I recently attended a conference in Edmonton (www.wintercitiesconference.com) that was
basically devoted to the subject of how cities with winter should not see
themselves as simply coping or dealing with winter, but embracing it and
considering it a feature that adds to their appeal. As part of this conference I
attended a presentation of a volunteer driven program in Edmonton called
Ski2LRT (short for “ski to light rail”) that involves connecting local
neighbourhoods by suburban ski trails to one of Edmonton’s light rail stations.
At the station, a special rack has been provided to lock skis up for the day,
right next to the bike racks. In this manner, people are able to ski from their
houses through city parks and rights of way before catching the train to
downtown (which takes about 15 minutes) or other locations. More information about this interesting initiative is available here: https://www.facebook.com/ski2LRT?fref=nf , as well as here: http://globalnews.ca/news/1711669/grassroots-movement-urges-edmontonians-to-ditch-cars-and-ski-to-lrt/
I have always liked the idea of skiing for transportation. I used to occasionally ski to my public school in Ottawa by following paths along the Rideau River and then walking the last portion of my trip. This took me longer than it would have to walk, but I just thought it was fun. People from Ottawa and other places certainly ski to school or work on occasion, and from to time XC Ottawa has received some interesting reports and articles about it (for examples, see the following:
http://www.xcottawa.ca/articles.php?id=1022 (Alana Thomas and Lindsay Los)
http://www.xcottawa.ca/articles.php?id=921 (Steve Paradine)
Generally speaking though, it seems rare that anyone actually thinks about cross country skiing seriously as a mode of transportation, but the truth is I think that some very good arguments could be made for encouraging it a bit more.
There are many places in Canada (urban, suburban and rural) that lend themselves pretty nicely for cross country ski commuting. In some cases, as in Edmonton, it could potentially be combined nicely with public transit. In Ottawa for example, we have a number of green corridors that could easily be used for cross-country skiing. The first ones that come to mind for me are along the Ottawa River, the Rideau River (including through Hog’s Back and Vincent Massey parks , the Rideau Canal, as well as through Gatineau Park. In Chelsea, were I actually live, there is a developing network of trails connecting neighbourhoods and the village, not to mention existing Gatineau Park ski trails that can be used for transportation purposes like, for example, getting to the schools located along Cité des Jeunes and heading south into Hull. Last but not least, Chelsea also has the Community Winter Trail, which is a section of the railway corridor that is regularly groomed throughout the winter by Lafleur de la Capitale and connects local residents both to each other and local services and businesses. You can read more about the Chelsea Community Winter Trail here:
What would obviously help with the viability of cross country skiing for transportation on would is generally more grooming of one type or another. While there are a variety of approaches that could be taken to this, my current thinking is that overly specialized grooming isn`t what is required. I think many routes could be packed and maintained in such a way that they could serve a variety of purposes like skiing, walking, snowshoeing, and fat biking, for example.
Of course, there is the question of whether or not the costs would be justified. I have no doubt that they would be. Maintaining trails for a variety of non-motorized pursuits would undoubtedly encourage people to exercise and commute without polluting. These same facilities would contribute to more vibrant communities where people see each other more frequently face-to-face instead of from behind car windows.
Research concerning the promotion of active transportation generally points to a variety of significant economic benefits. Congestion, for example, costs the Greater Toronto Area about $11 billion annually. Physical inactivity costs Canada about $6.8 billion annually in direct and indirect health costs. Breathing polluted air causes 21 000 premature deaths and $8 billion medical costs. There are also considerable costs (in the millions of dollars) related to damage to agricultural crops caused by air pollution. Finally, there is the obvious benefit that the promotion of non-motorized transportation has with respect to the mitigation of climate change. Overall, even relatively small increases in rates of non-motorized transportation stand to result in significant health, social, economic benefits and environmental benefits.
A further point worth noting is that many of the areas that could be used for multi-use recreational purposes in the winter are existing recreational paths and parkland that are not currently maintained or used in the winter. When you think about it, it is actually seems bizarre that we invest considerable sums of money in recreational paths and parks, but then don`t make the small additional investment in winter maintenance that would allow people to use them throughout the year. This is a major lost opportunity that would require minimal investment to rectify.
Of course, my hope is that slowly, municipal governments in places with winter will begin to realize all the potential that lies in skiing for transportation. Sometimes this seems like a long-shot. On the other hand, I am convinced that the arguments in favour are absolutely legitimate.