Monday, July 18, 2011

Cyclists, subway rider, and rollerblader all beat jet during Carmageddon

Remember me popping popcorn on Saturday?
It's not all bad news for the planet. As USA Today also reported, a bicycle club decided to challenge Jet Blue to a race.
Will JetBlue's special "Carmegeddon flights" between Burbank and Long Beach really help Los Angelinos get across town faster during the city's fear 405 freeway shutdown?

That may be hard to judge, but a group of L.A.-area bicyclists plans to put the airline's crosstown flights to the test in a "bike vs. airplane" race between the airports.
I just watched the end of Rachel Maddow's show, and she bet $1 on the cyclists "For the Schwinn." I would, too.

As for JetBlue, they didn't miss a beat.
[JetBlue spokeswoman Allison] Steinberg says "we're thrilled that the Los Angeles Cyclists want to race us from Burbank to Long Beach."

And, she adds: "If they're too tired to ride back home, bikes fly free with us for the month of July in celebration of Tour de France. Enthusiasts can even kick back in our comfy leather seats and watch live coverage of the 2011 Tour de France in-flight."
Score one for JetBlue for PR, even if the planet loses.

Finally, the cyclists promise to "fight fair."
For the details, says: "All riders will depart from the same location, the Burbank Airport, at the same time, and be required to follow all traffic laws."
This will be a hoot.
Slate reported that the race went even better for the planet than I expected.

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."
A more competent cabbie might have let the plane passenger beat the rollerblader, but wouldn't have made any difference against the cyclists, who got the attention in the story I quoted, or the subway rider, who didn't rate a mention in either the USA Today article I quoted or the previous article on Slate about the race. To be fair, the story described the transit rider as a late entrant, but even so, it's a great coup for public mass transit, as Slate pointed out.
But the race today wasn't only about the cyclists. Gary Kavanaugh, 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.
I can take a little pride in this accomplishment from a great distance. My last job in southern California was as an inspector for paleontological and archeological resources in the first leg of the subway, a provision of the federal money used for the subject. I went down in all of the station exacavations between Union Station and MacArthur Park for two years ending in August 1989. Consequently, when anyone mentions L.A.'s subway, I can say that I helped build it.

Slate had one more thing to say about the subway.
(When I thought of a cyclist racing a jet, I admittedly wasn't even aware one could take mass transit between BUR and LGB).
Strictly speaking, one can't. Look at the map below and you'll see that, while there are stops near LAX and in Long Beach, there is no stop in Burbank. On the other hand, there is a stop in North Hollywood, which ended up being critical to the transit rider's second place finish.

Metro Rail System Map- June 2009

Note where the earlier article on Slate described the starting point of the race.
Cyclists will depart from a residence near the intersection of Cahuenga and Chandler Blvd. in North Hollywood at 10:55 AM PT (Saturday, July 16) Flight Departs 12:20pm and we're basing the cyclists' departure time on the airline's recommended passenger arrival time of 1.50 hours before departure.
I looked up the distance on Google Maps from the starting point to the North Hollywood station and it's just under a mile, easy walking distance. What about the finish line?
The finish line is the light house at the Shoreline Aquatic Park in Long Beach (adjacent to Acquarium of the Pacific)
Google Maps shows that's only half a mile from the Long Beach Transit Mall, even easier walking distance. Anyone who knew the transit system would take one look at the start and finish of this route and realize what a sucker's bet this would be. Everyone else would be surprised by their impressive finish, but they certainly wouldn't be!

The flip side of all the above would be that a slightly different route would not have favored public transportation, but I'm not going to look that gift horse in the mouth any more. Besides, I'm planning on using this for a lecture on how to make cities more sustainable, the powerpoint for which already has the map above.

As for the upshot of air vs. rail, Slate pointed out the obvious to people who study the issue.
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.
That ties into something else I quoted in the Silly Sustainability Saturday post
Everybody knows what the tea party members oppose. High taxes. Big government. Obama's health care plan. High-speed rail.
I didn't think I find a connection between Carmageddon and Tea Partiers against manatees, but I did. Barry Commoner was right; everything is connected to everything else!

As for Carmageddon itself, it was a bust.

Daniel Faigin, who blogs on LiveJournal as cahwyguy, pointed out in advance that he didn't think it would be as bad as advertised.
Daniel Faigin, a computer security specialist and amateur historian of California freeways, says that's what happened in 1984, when drivers avoided the West Side when it hosted the Summer Olympics. "It's going to be bad, but it's not going to be as bad as they say it's going to be," Faigin says.
Sure enough, he was right.
What if you scheduled the end of the world, but nobody came? You would be in Los Angeles this weekend.

Seriously, for the past three months newspapers and politicians have been warning us about "carmageddon": the gridlock that would kill the city when I-405 with its 500,000 cars/day is closed down for 53 hours. They've been predicting backups to San Diego. It has made the news in Canada and Taiwan. Airlines have offered flights from Burbank to Long Beach.

Well, we're quite a few hours into the closure, and guess what. No real abnormal traffic so far.
Worse yet, it ended early.
A key Los Angeles freeway closed for construction work reopened some 18 hours ahead of schedule on Sunday, bringing an early end to a much-hyped "Carmageddon" traffic crisis that never materialized, officials said.
Daniel Faigin thinks this might actually be a bad result.
But you know what I'm worried about?

Carmegeddon II

Yup. They are going to do this all again next year. If the traffic doesn't materialize this year, it's going to be really bad next year, because no one will believe the predictions.
Well, that's next year. In the meantime, I'll take the lead of Slate.
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."
Here's to the cyclists, subway rider, rollerblader, and blogger Daniel Faigin, all of whom succeeded in swimming against the stream this past weekend.


  1. Actually, I was wrong. It wasn't bad at all. It was the 1984 Olympics all over again. I've never seen the freeways or surface streets that free flowing.

    Also, although there is no subway stop near BUR, I do believe Metrolink (heavy rail) does run to BUR from Union Station. Depending on the flight timing, you could do Metrolink from BUR to LAUPT, and then the blue line from LAUPT to the Long Beach terminus (actually, you might need to do Red to Blue -- I forget whether Blue runs into LAUPT).

  2. I remember the 1984 Olympics too. Had a couple of H2O Polo matches in Newport Beach and caught a game at USC no abnormal traffic problems at all that year. (Stood outside the pool tickets sold out.) Of coarse there was a lot less cars but also less public transit. Go figure this years Carmageden was a bust. But next year? LA people tend to be a litter smarter about traffic problems because they know how bad the freeways can get on average day do to some police chase or silly movie closure. Do something like this in Denver or Atlanta? There would be road rage of exponential proportions. LA will be fine next year too.

    Note: the above observation was in no way an endorsement of LA freeways or a continued reliance on a dead end transport system.

  3. cahwyguy, at least you were right that it wasn't as bad as everyone else predicted, even if it wasn't as bad as you predicted, either. Also, thanks for pointing out that Metrolink runs past BUR. One would have to take the Red Line from Union Station to the Blue Line. I know, that's the section I worked on.

    Roachman, I remember the L.A. Olympics, too. Here's what I wrote on cahwyguy's blog about it.

    "I remember the dire predictions about the L.A. Olympics and how none of them came true. People were worried about the smog; it was the least smoggy summer I remember from the decade. People were worried about the traffic; as you noted, people adjusted their routines or left town and the traffic was wonderful. People were worried about the heat; it wasn't bad at all. People were worried about crime; people generally behaved and the Olympics were the high point of Chief Gates' career and reflected well on the LAPD.

    I have a crackpot idea about why this happens. Whenever southern California is scheduled to be on TV for a sporting event, it puts on its best face. Think of all the times it's been pouring rain the last week of the year, but when it's time for the Rose Bowl, it is nearly always sunny and beautiful. No wonder Hollywood is here. The place itself responds to 'It's showtime, smile for the camera!'"