Racing around the city: is a bike the fastest way to get around?
From London to New York, Los Angeles to Philadelphia, there are races that pit bicyclist against car, subway, train, walker, and even airplane. The contest: who can make it across town the quickest. The racers start and end at a common point, taking different routes depending on mode. Groups like Transportation Alternatives in New York and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia hold these commuter races every year. And year after year, with little exception, the bike wins.
Of course, these commuter racers are not exactly scientifically rigorous tests of the most efficient mode of city travel. Truly, they are exhibitions to demonstrate that bicycling can be just as fast, if not faster, than the more popular (and more detrimental) car. Because, when it comes down to it, convenience is one of the best ways to convince people to bike. When bicycling is the fastest and easiest way to get from point A to point B, it’s an easy choice. Surveys of bicyclists in Copenhagen find that the #1 reason people ride is because it’s faster than any other mode of travel. Fifty-five percent of Copenhagen riders said they bike because it’s fast, and 33% because it’s more convenient than other modes. Only 9% of Copenhagen bicyclists ride because it’s good for the environment (unlike New York City bicyclists, who list health and environment as their top reasons for riding.)
The bike almost always wins these races in American cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York. However, these cities don’t yet have many of the facilities that Dutch and Danish cities use to make bicycling even faster and more convenient. Technology like traffic lights timed to a bicycle’s speed, rather than a car’s, allow riders to pedal through a “green wave” of green lights. Separated pathways often allow bicyclists to bypass traffic signals altogether, making bicycling faster and easier than driving. Bicycling is most definitely the fastest way to make most trips in bicycling cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam—hence the hordes of bicyclists. U.S. city planners are beginning to implement some of these European means of bicycling prioritization. For example, San Francisco has a green wave on its Valencia Street. Bicycling is naturally fast in cities; these innovations make it even faster.
Many existing bicyclists will still bike even if it’s faster to drive—perhaps because it makes them feel good, or because it’s good for the environment. But when a 20-minute car trip can be replaced with a 10-minute bike ride, bicycling becomes the obvious choice for the whole neighborhood. The lazy man doesn’t choose bicycling right now, but in the future, perhaps he will.
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President and mayoral candidate, David Chiu, won a commute race in August on his bike. (Photo by Flickr user Velobry, used under a Creative Commons license.)
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