Can Los Angeles cyclists beat a plane from Burbank to Long Beach? How my idle tweet spawned an epic transportation showdown.
Anyone who ever thought Los Angeles' oft-theorized end would come via massive seismic event is wrong. Life as greater Los Angeles knows it is ending this weekend, courtesy of a full closure of one of its central arteries, the 405. "Carmaggedon" is its Irwin Allen-worthy sobriquet.
I was about as involved in the proceedings as a New Yorker can be—chatting up a reporter from the Los Angeles Times in my capacity as "traffic expert," speculating for the New York Times on how Gotham would fare in the face of equivalent capacity loss, and reading the slew of celebrity-juiced #carmaggedon tweets with casual interest. That's where I first encountered Jet Blue's admittedly shrewd marketing ploy to ferry passengers from Burbank to Long Beach—"over the 405"—for $4. (I'm still not sure if that fare includes various taxes and fees—or if there's time for a drinks service.)
When I learned the actual distance Jet Blue's planes will fly—30-odd miles—I wondered if there might be a faster (and even cheaper) way. Jet Blue had posted a flight time of 20 minutes. But what happens when you factor in the time to and from the airport on both ends, the walk to the check-in and then the unpredictable security lines, the equally capricious runway departure and arrival queues, and any other unforeseen delays? That cross-town trip was theoretically adding up to a substantial schlep.
Granted, Jet Blue's goal is effective marketing, not efficacious transport. Still, I wondered if there was also not an opportunity here to market another alternative to the car during the weekend of carmageddon.
And so, Thursday morning, I tweeted the following:
Given airport travel time, security, runway delay, etc., I'd bet a good cyclist could travel BUR to LGB faster than Jet Blue. #carmageddon
I made this remark knowing nothing about the actual route involved, using very crude math: If, say, a Tour de France cyclist averages around 30 mph, surely someone who was fairly fit could do it in two hours or under. @bobtimmerman pointed out that on Google Map's "Bicycle" option, it was a three and a half hour trip. But who was Google's "average" cyclist, and how fast could they go? "Variable" seemed to be the most common response, though @sumnums chipped in an actual number: "It's usually 12 mph for the routes I've queried."
And so the conversation lingered, in hypothetical drift, until @garyridesbikes laid down the gauntlet: "riding in pace line formation /w @wolfpackhustle, I'm sure we could kick Jet Blue's ass in door to door travel time."
My competitive juices were beginning to vicariously flow. Thinking of the famous Top Gearepisode, in which the hosts raced across London in various modes of transport (Hammond on a bike, Clarkson on a boat, May on, well, what else but a car, The Stig on the public transit *), I replied to @garyridesbikes:
I detect a Top Gear-style challenge in the offing.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.
Photograph of cyclists by Thomas Northcut/Thinkstock.