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Winter wheelies: Finland blazes trail in keeping citizens cycling and healthy | World news


The temperature, even at 9.30am, is -13C, and light snow is falling on the already white-blanketed playground. But dozens of primary-age children are out, and doing something you might not expect in such conditions: riding bikes.

Teachers say about half of the children at Joensuu normal school in eastern Finland usually arrive by bicycle, even during the icy winters. Even more have done so today, as an external instructor is here to lead them around a snowy bike obstacle course and other fun challenges.





Cycling is common all year round in Joensuu



Joensuu officials say close to 20% of all trips in the compact city are cycled on average year-round. Photograph: Lev Karavanov

The school is hosting the opening event of the Winter Cycling Congress, a small and slightly niche annual gathering held this year in Joensuu, which prides itself that many of its citizens refuse to see several months of constant snow as a barrier to getting on a bike.

Officials say close to 20% of all trips in the compact city about 250 miles north-east of Helsinki, near the Russian border, are cycled on average year-round. This drops in winter but still remains many times the equivalent UK rate of about 1% to 2%.

Location of Joensuu

Juha-Pekka Vartiainen, in charge of roads infrastructure for Joensuu and among the dozens of people speaking at the three-day gathering, says the city’s year-round cycling is partly down to geography and demographics.

Three-quarters of the near 80,000 population live within 20 minutes’ ride of the centre, and the terrain is flat. More than 10% of the population are students.

But far more important, he stresses, is the fact that he and his predecessors have spent years building safe bike routes, separated from the motor traffic. “There’s a long tradition of cycling here. But we also have a long tradition of planning for cycling,” Vartiainen says.

“The things that are important for people cycling in the summer, they become critical in winter. For example, if you don’t have a cycle route it’s almost impossible to cycle in the winter – the road gets really rutted with snow and ice. It’s dangerous.”

The Winter Cycling Congress, where academics, activists and other experts present research and swap tips, is run by a tiny group of volunteers, who rely on host cities to fund and promote the annual gatherings.





Cycling in Joensuu



Joensuu officials say the city’s year-round cycling is partly down to geography – 75% of its population live within 20 minutes’ ride of the centre. Photograph: Lev Karavanov

Joensuu and the Finnish government have embraced this role with more gusto than most, flying foreign media including the Guardian to attend the congress.

In part this is straightforward PR for the city and its wider region, North Karelia, which despite recent progress remains poorer than average for Finland and heavily dependent on industries like forestry.

But there is another reason. Finland’s schools system, routinely praised as one of the best in the world, is already a magnet for visiting international researchers and envious politicians. But now the country hopes to do the same with another sector: preventive health.

Amid rising global worries about increasingly inactive and overweight populations, Finland has launched a series of typically interventionist programmes to get its people moving, whether on bikes or by other means.





Joensuu compacts the snow base with ploughs for the bike lanes



Joensuu compacts the snow base with ploughs for the bike lanes. Photograph: Lev Karavanov

A now-national government scheme called Finnish Schools on the Move – also represented at the congress – finds ways for more children to walk or cycle to school, and then keeps them active in the classroom, using movement in lessons or giving pupils standing desks or balls to sit on rather than chairs.

Such preventive health is a key priority of the new Finnish government led by Sanna Marin, the 34-year-old prime minister, who took over in December as the head of a five-party coalition.

• While some cities, like Helsinki, clears bike lanes with brushes, Joensuu uses ploughs which leave a compacted snow base, roughened by a blade to give more grip. This sort of snow is fairly straightforward to ride on.

• The difficulty – seen Joensuu with unseasonably mild weather earlier this winter – comes when snow starts to melt, but then freezes to ice overnight. The only really safe way to cycle on this is to fit bike tyres with metal studs, which can grip on ice.

• For more temperate winter cycling, like in much of the UK, a key tip is to not dress too warmly, as you will heat up as you cycle. But do make sure your hands, feet and ears are properly insulated.

Krista Kiuru, the minister for family affairs and social services, part of the health department, is responsible for this. A former education minister, she says Finland’s public health expertise can become as great an international calling card as its schools.

“We’re not rich in natural resources,” she told the Guardian at the Finnish parliament in Helsinki. “There’s no oil. But what we can do is similar to what we have done with schools, which is a very well known product around the world.”





More than 10% of the population in Joensuu are students



More than 10% of the population in Joensuu are students. Photograph: Lev Karavanov

“When we talk about health issues we talk about healthcare. But very often we’re just talking about taking care of people who are sick. So we should aim to take care of health, not just of sickness. And this is challenging, because the people involved don’t just work at hospitals, but also in in transport, at swimming pools, all of that.”

Finland is a pioneer of such policies, and Kiuru says there is a consensus between parties, even the populist True Finns, the second-biggest party in parliament, that these are worth the cost.

She recalls, as education minister, changing the mind of one MP who questioned the annual €500m (£425) spend on free and nutritious lunches for all children by taking him to a school to try one himself.

“Finns are basically quite motivated taxpayers,” she says. “As long as they can see that there is a greater good which will come from it.”

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