Carmageddon #flightvsbike challenge: How a team of cyclists beat a Jet Blue flight from Burbank to Long Beach.

How we get from here to there.
July 16 2011 8:01 PM

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.

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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.)

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.