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Friday, April 10, 2009

Some Reasons the Bike Always Wins - NYTimes

A bicyclist, a driver and a subway rider walked into a bar.

No, actually they didn’t. The three actually raced from Fort Greene to Union Square during today’s morning commute to see who got there fastest in Seventh Annual Great NYC Commuter Race, held by Transportation Alternatives (essentially an anti-car lobbying group). Think of it as a more modest version of a planes, trains and automobiles race from New York to Washington.

The race started at 7:40 a.m. at Connecticut Muffin, 423 Myrtle Avenue, at Clinton Avenue, Brooklyn, and finished at the corner of 14th Street and Union Square East.

The results: bicyclist wins at 16.5 minutes; the driver gets in at 22 minutes; and the subway rider transit was last with 29 minutes. That’s an intriguing result. (We’d thought the subway would have come earlier than the car given morning traffic.)

“New Yorkers care about the environment, but what New Yorkers really care about is their time,” said Wiley Norvell, the spokesman. “For a huge number of New Yorkers, bicycle commuting is the fastest way to get to work. If you have more than one train for your commute. Chances are a bicycle is going to get there faster.”

But then City Room learned something that raised eyebrows.

“The bicyclist has always won,” Mr. Norvell said.

As in seven out of seven times? It was like one of those to-good-to-be-true records like when a dictator of a developing nation wins election with like 95 percent of the vote (or multinational banks publicly report suspiciously clustered borrowing rates).

Mr. Norvell tried to explain the bike’s dominance. “It’s the fastest way between any two points in New York City,” he said.

That seemed a bit of an aggressive claim. What about from the far flung corners of Flushing, Queens? Biking from way out there didn’t seem like it would be practical compared to an express train.

“You could hypothetically speaking, find a faster transit commute, like from one side of the Long Island Rail Road to the other,” he said, but he tried to argue again that the bike was the fastest — in general. “The average New York City commute is 45 minutes. It’s the longest commute of anyone in the United States. The average bicycle commute in New York City is 30 minutes.”

This City Room reporter, who has taken a few statistics courses in her time, pointed out that while this may be true, it does not necessarily mean the bike is faster. (After all, people who live closer may simply prefer to bike. There are all kinds of biases that could explain that statistic. The Department of Transportation’s not-particularly-scientific annual bicycle survey from 2007 shows a dead zone in Queens in terms of bicycle commuting).

That’s true, Mr. Norvell conceded.

So how is the contest route chosen? Do they vary the type of routes? Mr. Norvell said the race is generally from another borough into Manhattan, paralleling most commuters’ routes. The last two race routes were from Williamsburg to Bellevue Hospital and from Juniors on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to Columbus Circle. At which point City Room pointed out, it seems like the only other borough in Transportation Alternative’s world is Brooklyn. (Not so, he said before that, they had used points in Queens for the starting line. And next year they might move it out of Brooklyn). Either way, we perceive an anti-Queens bias despite the fact that the Queens population is 2.2 million, about comparable to Brooklyn’s 2.4 million.

There were also some other factors in the race to consider: it was a sidewalk-to-sidewalk race, meaning that the bicyclist did not have to lock up the bike and the driver did not have to look for parking — which is biased against straphangers.

Anyway, Mr. Norvell finally acknowledged, “The purpose was to showcase the time competitiveness of the bicycle.”

Right, that’s what we thought.

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