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'Effective Speeds' Proves Bicycle Are Faster Then Cars - in Most Cases


'Effective Speeds' Proves Bicycle Are Faster Then Cars - in Most Cases
Published on May 20, 2013Email To Friend    Print Version

boston_bikecommuter.jpgWhich is faster, an automobile or a bicycle? Why, the car, of course, you answer.

If you do, then you've never heard of something called 'effective speed.' If you consider the relative 'effective speeds' of both forms of transportation, it turns out that in most cases, it's the bicycle that is faster.

The second annual Rush Hour Race in Boston, Mass. confirmed this again last week. In a head-to-head commute from Davis Square, in Sommerville to downtown South Station, the bicycle has beat the car two years in a row. This year, the trip by bicycle took 30 minutes; the car commute, 50 minutes.

But 'effective speed' isn't about which vehicle can deal better with rush hour traffic. It's about how much time it takes to not only make the commute but also to pay for the commute; and in this case, the bicycle easily outperforms the car.

powellbus.jpgIn City Cycling, edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, Paul Tranter looks at the topic of effective speed. He explains:
Effective speed is calculated using the standard formula: speed equals distance divided by time. However, in this calculation, all the time costs are considered. For the car driver, a significant (and usually ignored) time cost is the time spent at work to earn the money to pay for all the expenses associated with the mode of transportation.

Now, admittedly few if anyone looks at it from this angle. A car might take 50 minutes to get from suburban Boston to downtown, but how long will it take the cyclist to ride to, say Chicago or Florida? Days, of course; a car, in hours.
Except, that's not entirely true either, is it? You see, while the cyclist beat the driver again this year in Boston, the cyclist lost out to the commuter who took the train. His trip time was 25 minutes.

In 1974, Ivan Illich looked at this question of time spent earning money to pay for a car in Energy and Equity. He calculated that back then "the typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car" including commuting time, the time it takes to find a parking spot for it, the time at work to pay for the fuel, the maintenance, the taxes, the insurance, the license, traffic tickets. etc.

"He spends," Illich calculated, "four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it."
Assuming the driver puts 7,500 miles year on the car (apparently the average back in 1974, today is more like 12-15,000 miles), Illich estimated the effective speed was less than five miles per hour.

A more recent study in 2002 concluded that when all the costs were included, the 'net effective speed' was a less than 10 mph. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. Tranter assembled a grid for 14 international cities and in only one case, Canberra, Australia, was the effective speed greater than 18 km/h (11mph). New York clocked in at 9.8, Los Angeles at 13.3 and Toronto 15.3 km/h.

Even as a 'senior citizen,' I can pedal my e-bike at an easily sustainable 14 mph (22.5 km/h), twice as fast as the effective speed of a motorist in Manhattan.

And building more and faster roads doesn't solve the problem.

"The cost of road building is immense, and if this cost were converted into a time measure (based on average time spent at work to earn the money to pay for it), then building new roads will result in more time spent on transportation rather than less.

"In London… if the average trip speed could be increased by 10 km/h, this would result in an increase of effective speed for car drivers of a mere 0.7 km/h."

Conversely, increasing the cyclist's average trip speeds by 10km/h - like reducing the time spent at stop lights, etc. - their effective speed would increase 8.7 km/h.

Tranter concludes by pointing out that not only do cyclists save time, cities save money by investing more of their funding on active mobility like cycling. Copenhagen spends only US$97 per capita in taxes on its roads, while Sydney, Australia has to spend US$188.37 per person.

And then there's the very real phenomenon just now being realized that catering to cyclists actually improves local economies.

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January 13, 2014