Go with the snow
Taking a Nordic-style kicksled out for a spin is a pretty Swede ride
WEARING a dusty pink snowsuit and a face mask emblazoned with colourful
Dala horses, Sonja Lundstrom is excited.
“This is going to be my 80th birthday present to myself,” she says,
pointing to a nearby wooden kicksled poised for takeoff. “My grandma had
one of these and my dad made me one out of hockey sticks for all my
children… but these are the new modern ones and I haven’t had one of those.”
But today’s frosty jaunt is less of a test drive and more of a diplomatic
adventure. Lundstrom is the president of the Swedish Cultural Association
of Manitoba and is at The Forks to give Urban Ahlin, the Swedish Ambassador
to Canada, a little taste of home.
“In my part of Sweden we use the (kicksleds) when we go out on the ice for
ice fishing,” says Ahlin, who was in town recently with several other
Nordic ambassadors to meet with the premier. “This is a very
climate-friendly means of transportation and you can use it for lots of
different reasons… it’s actually pretty fun to ride as well.”
A kicksled is a simple winter vehicle made up of a chair mounted on two
long skis. It can be pushed from behind with a kicking motion, like a
scooter, or pulled by a dog.
It’s been a popular mode of transportation in rural Nordic towns for
decades and has been gaining traction among Winnipeggers in recent years.
Today’s sleds have been provided by the Plain Bicycle Project, a social
enterprise of the Winnipeg Trail Association.
The organization got its start importing cargo containers of Dutch bikes to
the city and has since opened two retail and repair shops while expanding
its vision for multi-modal active transportation into the winter months.
For Winnipeg Trails executive director Anders Swanson, kicksleds are the
perfect entry point.
“Kicksleds are kind of indicative of a culture that really understands
winter, really understands how to plow and maintain their paths,” he says.
Swanson first encountered kicksleds during a winter biking conference in
Finland. While his personal sled is currently stocking the Plain Bicycle
mobile ski library, he has used the apparatus locally for short trips to
pick up groceries or grab beer from his neighbourhood brewery.
Since the skis are designed for use on ice or packed snow, most people view
kicksledding as a recreational activity rather than a viable way to get
around Winnipeg. To make it more accessible, Swanson says better winter
infrastructure is needed.
“What we’re trying to bring here is a respect for snow… we’re a winter
city, but we’re terrible at using snow as a building material and we have a
very combative approach to snow,” he says, adding that he would like to see
the city create a network of packed snow paths that could be used for
biking, skiing, kicksledding and everyday active transportation.
“There are systemic ways of designing this city that could really celebrate
the human being in every season.”
Working with the snow and prioritizing pedestrians over vehicles is a
decidedly Scandinavian way of thinking.
“The first thing we plow is actually the walkways,” Ahlin says of his home
country. “We need to look at other things than the car’s needs.”
Kicksledding is having a resurgence in Sweden as a direct result of changes
to snow-management policies, says Ahlin. Many cities have cut down on their
salt usage, leaving less bare concrete and more snow for residents to enjoy.
“For a period of time it went away,” he says. “But nowadays we’re using
less salt and the kicksled is coming back again into the Swedish tradition.”
The country may have its winter walkways figured out, but Ahlin says
Winnipeggers could teach Swedes a thing or two about dealing with extreme
“You have a much colder weather than we have,” he says. “I don’t think
Swedes are experts when it comes down to winter, but it’s good to have an
exchange of views and see how different kinds of cultures deal with stuff.”
It’s one of those bitterly cold days when the convoy of kicksleds and
Swedish flags pushes away from The Forks market and heads down to the
Assiniboine for a tour of the river trail warming huts.
The Nestaweya River Trail is also a favourite sledding spot for Dan and
Viola Prowse, who purchased a kicksled last winter as a way to stay active
and get outside amid the pandemic. The husband and wife duo are both in
their 70s and try to take their sled out at least once a week for trips
through local parks and winding rivers.
“A huge part of it has been discovering the city from the vantage point of
the river,” Viola says.
“People are doing all kinds of things on the rivers — there’s skating rinks
and they build these big ice patios with all sorts of furniture,” Dan adds.
“We would maybe walk to see some of that stuff, but now we can just go so
The Prowses own one kicksled, so they take turns walking and scooting. It’s
an ideal situation because Dan — who is something of an exercise fanatic —
can go as fast as he pleases and Viola can set her own pace.
“It suits our different levels,” Viola says, adding that the kicking motion
is easier on her knees than running. “It really gets my heart pumping and
it has its moments of sheer fun.”
“And it’s great if you have grandkids; they love the ride,” Dan says.
The couple owns an Elsa-brand kicksled that can be folded down and
transported in the back of their Toyota Corolla. The skis have a removable
plastic cover for snow and thin metal blades for ice. While they have yet
to come across another kicksledder in the wild, they’re often approached by
“The first thing (people say) is, ‘Oh, you lost your dog,’” Dan says with a
laugh. “It is kind of intriguing, especially if you see some old
Plain Bicycle has kicksleds for rent or purchase at its Sherbrook Street
and Forks locations, with prices starting at $320. Sleds and dog harnesses
are also sold by Canvasback Pet Supplies in Lockport and Prairie Dog Supply
Co. near Selkirk. Snow Motion, a local winter dog sport club, has sleds
available to rent for members and groups that meet regularly for
eva.wasney(a)freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @evawasney
Cars can be convenient, but they are also incredibly costly, both to owners
and society in general. New academic research has calculated that the
lifetime cost of a small car—such as an Opel Corsa—is about $689,000, of
which society pays $275,000. (A Mercedes GLC costs $1+m over an owner's
The research focused on Germany, but lead author Stefan Gössling told me
the guiding principles work for other countries, too. Writing in *Ecological
Gössling stated that “the car is one of the most expensive household
consumer goods, yet there is a limited understanding of its private and
social cost per vehicle-km, year, or lifetime of driving.”
Motorists, he added, underestimate the total private costs of car
ownership, “while policymakers and planners underestimate social costs.”
Cars are expensive because of their high ticket price and depreciation and
the additional costs incurred by insurance, repairs, and fuel purchases.
Mass motoring’s social costs—known to transport wonks as negative
externalities—include carbon emissions from burning petrol and diesel,
congestion, noise, deaths and injuries from crashes, road damage, and costs
to health systems from sloth.
Other subsidies, such as the copious provision of free off-street car
parking, are often mandated in building codes. America’s 250 million cars
are oversupplied with an estimated 2 billion parking spots (think Wal-Mart
at Christmas) yet spend 95% of their time going nowhere.
Gössling based his cost calculations on an individual driving 15,000
kilometers per year over 50 years. Previous studies using different
parameters have reached similar conclusions. In his 2007 book, *Deep
Economy*, environmental author and activist Bill McKibben concluded:
“Households can save as much as $750,000 over a lifetime if the bus system
works well enough to enable people not to buy a second car.”
And “Mr. Money Mustache”—real name Pete Adeney and who blogs to 350,000
regular readers, advising them how they can retire when young and yet still
live comfortably—has stated
a typical American couple who commute to work in separate cars and who
spend $19 per day in direct driving and car ownership costs would have paid
$125,000 each after ten years.
Living closer to work and bicycling there would land the couple a cool
Cars suck more cash than most people imagine. On an average income, half of
a working week goes on paying for the costs associated with running an
automobile, calculated philosopher Ivan Illich in his 1974 book *Energy and
“The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his
car,” wrote Illich
“He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his
resources for it.”
And working out the labor required to buy and fuel the car to travel 7,500
miles equated to an average speed of less than five miles per hour, said
Counting the total and actual cost of a more-expensive-than-understood form
of transport is a calculation that can hurt. The bruise was first poked in
the 1850s by American essayist Henry David Thoreau who urged citizens to think
about the real costs of railroads
the labor used to build them.
“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” he explained in his
simple-living book, *Walden*.
More recently, Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork, tweeted
mass-market car ownership doesn’t make economic sense.
“Spending $40,000 on a car seems like the kind of thing to me that,
intuitively, you do when you have like a couple million in wealth and make
$400,000 a year,” he wrote.
“But absolutely normal people do it all the time! Blows me away.”
Gössling—a German academic working for the business school at Linnaeus
University in Sweden—is also staggered by the acceptance that costly car
ownership is considered normal, even for low earners.
Yes, much of the built environment entrenches car use, but, famously, many
people drive pitifully short journeys when it would be just as easy—and
certainly cheaper and healthier—to walk.
Getting people out of cars isn’t something that most politicians want to
broach, Gössling told me.
“It’s a transport taboo; you can’t touch it politically because you’ll get
A good case in point is road pricing. The U.K. parliament’s transport
committee tweeted last night that “it’s time for an honest conversation on
motoring taxes” and, in a meaty new report
suggested that the time is right for pay-per-mile motoring.
Cue “war on motoring” slurs from shock-jocks. It’s an emotive topic. In
2007, 1.8 million U.K. motorists signed a petition against road pricing,
fearing the cost of motoring would rise.
To head off such arguments, the transport committee’s report stressed that
road pricing wouldn’t be used as a mechanism for reducing miles driven.
Rather, MPs soothed, most motorists would end up paying the “same or less
than they do currently.”
Who picks up the shortfall? We all do. Society pays in the form of motoring
subsidies, which is unfair for those who don’t drive.
“One in five households in Germany doesn’t have a car,” points out
Gössling, “yet all are subsidizing car travel.”
“For someone earning a lot of money, none of this is that relevant,” said
“Where the difference is, is for those on low incomes, because for them
[paying huge sums over a lifetime for car use] can really hurt.”
Instead, he argued, countries and cities should be designed so that “people
can be mobile without a car.”
However, he warned, “car manufacturers are very anxious about people
getting ideas about not owning cars.”
“In our research, we’re not saying you should start taking away cars from
people, we’re just saying it’s probably more prudent, economically, to
invest in those infrastructures that are less costly—such as for active
mobility—and where people will make a switch voluntarily.”
“Cycling is growing fast in Germany,” volunteered Gössling.
“It wasn’t forced on people, it’s what people want. People want to be
healthier. Many studies show how active travel is not just physically
healthy; it’s also beneficial for mental health. And cycling is ideal for
cities; it’s often much faster than driving.”
“Change can come quickly,” he said.
And the change could be hastened by a better understanding of the total
costs of motoring, especially for those who can ill afford such profligacy.
“Most lower-income and many moderate-income households are harmed overall
by policies that favor automobile travel over more affordable and
resource-efficient modes,” concludes Gössling’s study.
“Such policies force many households to own more vehicles than they can
afford, and imposes large external costs, particularly on people who rely
on walking, bicycling and public transit.”