Carmageddon Challenge: The Bikes Won!

How a team of cyclists—and a guy on the subway, and a Rollerblader—beat a Jet Blue flight from Burbank to Long Beach.

Cyclists win!

In cycling news today, the Belgian Jelle Vanendert won the 14 th stage of the Tour de France, beating Spain’s Samuel Sanchez by 21 seconds, and 46 seconds ahead of Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck.

And in Los Angeles some guys on bikes beat a Jet Blue plane from Burbank to Long Beach.

It was a bad day for intra-metropolitan area commercial aviation. Jet Blue flight No. 405—the flight that was supposed to help Angelenos beat the chaos resulting from the closure of the 405 freeway—was bested not only by the @wolfpackhustle A team (elite cyclists who had pledged to follow traffic rules), but by @garyridesbikes, a late entrant promising to take only public transit and walk, and, if Twitter is to be believed, a Rollerblader, @jennix, who supposedly came in third. The gripping tale of the race to the Long Beach lighthouse is there for all to see on Twitter at #flightvsbikes.

According to Twitter-based calculations by @bcgp, the unofficial finish times were:

Bike: 1:34
Metro/Walk: 1:44
Rollerblades: 2:40
Plane/Lost Cabdriver: 2:54

Lost cabdriver? A late Tweet by the Jet Blue flyers, @ohaijoe and @ezrahorne, elaborated: “Our cabdriver didn’t know what a lighthouse was, and was too blind to see the map on my phone.”

Not that it would have made much difference (although a smoother cab ride might have allowed the aviators to beat that pesky Rollerblader). By Twitter accounts, and the occasionally spotty GPS hosted over at Streetsblog LA, the @wolfpackhustle team was virtually in downtown L.A. by the time Team Jet Blue was arriving at Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport. Still, on the plane, optimism ruled; as Horne told me in a Tweet, “Jetblue exec b4 flight said that flight time would b 22mins but pilots would try to do it in 14. pilot said he was not worried.” As the cyclists hit Downey, it was becoming apparent it was less a question of whether the cyclists would win, but by how much; after an hour or so, the drama quickly shifted from #flightvsbike to #flightvsmetro, and then, simply, #bikesvsmetro.

On the face of it, one shouldn’t make too much of the Tour de Carmageddon. There was a certain mix of ludicrousness and PR genius in Jet Blue’s move to airlift people over the 405-closure madness (which, thanks to the doomsday pronouncements of CALTRANS and other agencies, and a sudden bout of Southern Californian common sense, was underwhelming), but it’s not as if anyone saw the flight as a reasonable long-term option. (As @bennettjj noted, wryly, “#flightvsbike race is already making me reconsider using my jet plane for errands within a 40-mile radius!).

But the moment of folly seemed to provide an aperture for new thinking. In the face of this fanciful idea (a traffic-busting flight!) it became possible to demonstrate that cycling, often taken as a non-serious or marginal or even annoying (to some drivers) form of transportation in the United States, could seem eminently reasonable: not only the cheapest form of transportation, not merely the one with the smallest carbon footprint, not only the one most beneficial to the health of its user, but the fastest.

We can quibble over the details. These were fit cyclists (averaging, by @sumnums’ calculations, 24.4 mph) riding in formation, largely on bike paths without traffic signals. What if it were a single rider on a clunkier bike? (Actually, given the margin of victory, it’s likely many cyclists could have bested Team Jet Blue.) But the real point here is not to demonstrate the feasibility of traveling from airport to airport, but to make a case for the bike for all kinds of trips, even those trips that we write off in our heads as implausible by anything but car. I’m thinking not just of those less-than-one-mile trips around town that we know people tend to make by car. The bike is also a possibility for more adventurous trips; say, to the airport itself—plenty of people do it.

It’s true, of course, that for years American cities have had atrocious infrastructure for things like cycling, and are built with more sprawling development patterns than European cities, but the reasons people give for not cycling in America are often as much failures of the imagination, or a priori rationalization, as anything else. To take one common complaint, the idea of showering at work after a cycle ride is somehow seen as prohibitive, but the idea of showering after running on an indoor treadmill in a gym that one has driven to is seen, rather frighteningly, as normal.

But the race today wasn’t only about the cyclists. Gary Kavanagh *, who had reacted enthusiastically to my initial daydreaming about a “Tour de Carmageddon,” was the day’s dark horse, revealing the secret efficacy—and perhaps, for some remote Twitter spectators, the existence—of Los Angeles’ oft-derided subway system. (When I thought of a cyclist racing a jet, I admittedly wasn’t even aware one could take mass transit between BUR and LGB).

And just as “carmageddon” itself revealed the perceived monocultural dependence on automobility in Los Angeles—an entire city rendered immobile by a freeway closure!—Jet Blue’s brilliant stunt revealed the glaring inefficiencies of shorter-distance air travel, one already being revealed in places like Spain, where the Madrid-to-Barcelona air routes have been gutted by the success of the country’s high-speed rail.

Which no one could have predicted, until the routes were actually in place. And that’s the beauty of these sorts of transportation challenges, which pit mode against mode but also our conventional wisdom against often surprising reality. I’ll leave the last word to the victors, the @wolfpackhustle, whose cryptic, communiqué-style email told me: “The ride was beautiful and scenic, our race inspired people to rollerskate, to take trains, to walk to the finish. Meanwhile our politicians and police cowered and bit their nails, telling people to stay home and avoid this sunny California weekend.”

Correction, July 18, 2011: This piece originally misspelled Gary Kavanagh’s last name. (Return to corrected sentence.)