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Carmageddon challenge: Bicycle vs. JetBlue across LA

Slate: Can Los Angeles cyclists beat a plane from Burbank to Long Beach? How an idle tweet spawned an epic transportation showdown.
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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. "Carmageddon" 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 #carmageddon 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 Gear episode, in which the hosts raced across London in various modes of transport (Hammond on a bike, May on a boat, Clarkson on, well, what else but a car, The Stig on the tube), I replied to @garyridesbikes:

I detect a Top Gear-style challenge in the offing.

And that's where I left it, in the dustbin of yesterday's tweets. (I wasn't the only one with the idea: A tweet from the Bike Coalition of Greater Philadelphia @bcgp, at around the same time, as was later pointed out to me, read: "Commuter race? @latimes: 'Carmageddon': JetBlue offers $4 flights between Long Beach & Burbank this Saturday".)

But when I checked in again this morning, I was pleased—and rather astounded, honestly—to learn (via Bike Commute News) that the challenge had taken on real legs, thanks to the efforts of the Wolfpack Hustle, a loose collective of L.A. cyclists ("we aren't Olympians or roided-out weekend warrior types") dedicated, as their website decrees, "to fixed gear, track and road bike culture in Los Angeles, a city currently dominated by the lowly automobile." They had not only secured cyclists to race the plane, but, thanks to Jet Blue's marketing department, seats for fellow cyclists @ohaijoe and @ezrahorne on the otherwise sold-out aircraft.

Throughout the day, the race took shape, as much in the twittersphere as with the actual participants. There was some early chatter that the cyclists would depart upon the flyer's check-in time, but, as many, myself included, wondered, wouldn't it make more sense to sync up the actual departures from home? (Who knows how bad traffic might be getting to the airport during carmaggedon?) Then there was the question of rules: Do you present a model of responsible cycle commuting, following traffic rules, or do whatever it takes?

Joe Anthony (@ohaijoe) and crew hammered out the details. AT 12:37 PT, Bike Commute News laid it down:

Ride rules and details (Subject to change, more details as they become available) 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. (we're doing a little less to be fair)Cyclists will be required to follow all traffic laws.The finish line is the light house at the Shoreline Aquatic Park in Long Beach (adjacent to Acquarium of the Pacific)Ezra and I will take a cab from LGB to the finish line courtesy of GaryRidesBikes FIRST TO ARRIVE AT THE LIGHT HOUSE WINS!

And via Streetsblog LA, a few more details: The cyclists' route will be more than 40 miles, the riders will be members of "Wolfpack A" (Wolfpack Hustle's elite squad), and they'll be strictly street legal: As Wolfpack Hustle member "Roadblock" explained to Streetsblog: "If you time traffic lights, the average speed of 'Wolfpack A' at twenty six miles per hour is perfect for hitting green lights… If you're running from twenty-two to twenty-eight miles an hour, it should be easy to beat the jet ride." This assumes, of course, that the L.A. DoT hasn't put in any new traffic signal timing patterns in the face of Carmaggedon.

And so tomorrow, after you've spent the morning watching the Tour de France riders begin a climb through the Pyrenees, you can follow along, via Bike Commute News and the #flightvsbike hashtag, as a group of cyclists takes on an Airbus A320 (or Embraer 190) in a city convulsed by gridlock. In part two of this column, I'll be toasting the winners and providing some post-race commentary.

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