Starts & Stops

In brutal winter, Hubway perfects the art of snow removal

Hubway announced in November it planned to operate all-seasons in Cambridge.
Hubway announced in November it planned to operate all-seasons in Cambridge.(Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)

This season’s onslaught of snowfall may elicit groans of dread from public works departments and state transportation officials, but there’s one organization benefiting from each wintry downpour: Hubway.

“It’s been an opportunity for us to experiment every time we’ve had a snowstorm this winter,” said Emily Stapleton, general manager of the bike-share program.

The announcement last November that Hubway would try its hand at operating Cambridge’s 26 bike stations straight through the winter prompted some trepidation. Who would want to bike in the snow? And what would happen to the bikes when clouds inevitably dumped inches of snow on the region?

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Stapleton said Tuesday that Hubway staff have learned to deal with snow and ice, refining their strategy for protecting the approximately 250 bikes in circulation from becoming damaged by the elements. When the National Weather Service announces a winter storm warning, Hubway officials declare a temporary system shutdown, which prevents users from removing a bike from the docks.


But when it comes to deciding what happens to the bikes during the storm, the answer is less clear.

Sometimes, Stapleton said, Hubway staff has removed all the bikes from the streets and stored them inside a warehouse to ride out the storm, using custom-made canvas covers to protect some of the docks.

But other times, they’ve left some of the bikes out in the elements — and so far, she said, they have not noticed any ill-effects. Keeping the bikes parked in their spots on sidewalks and curbs can also prevent ice from becoming lodged in the docks.

Usually, it takes four to five hours for the Hubway staff to remove all the bikes, though it can take longer if the approaching storm coincides with afternoon rush hour, prompting a mass exodus from Cambridge.

“We’ve been perfecting that lead time,” Stapleton said.

And when it comes to snow removal, she said, Hubway staff have been able to handle the more minor flurries by themselves, hiring outside contractors to help plow after more significant winter storms. Stapleton said Hubway has been communicating with public works departments to ensure that the bike-share stations don’t end up as a dumping ground for plowed snow.

“Where possible, we’ve tried to be mindful of one another, so we’re not creating more work for the other person,” Stapleton said.

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