Urban Mobility

One of my friends recently mentioned a quirky race held in Sao Paulo, Brazil last September. The race pitted a helicopter against a bike in a 10K race across town during rush hour. Starting out at a park (Praca General Gentil Falcao) at 6pm, the cyclist took off splitting lanes through heavy rush hour traffic. The helicopter operator, meanwhile, had to go through various bells and whistles before he could even get to his vehicle, let alone start flying toward point B – City Hall. A full 9 minutes passed before he had liftoff. After 22 minutes, the cyclist arrived. It wasn’t until 12 minutes later that the helicopter arrived (note – even taking the 9 minute handicap into account, the cyclist still would have arrived 3 minutes before the helicopter!). A similar race is held annually in New York City, put on by local transit advocates Transportation Alternatives. The spring 2008 race was covered by Streetfilms, a transportation activist blog started in New York. This annual race doesn’t include a helicopter like the Sao Paulo version, however, because of its more common modes (bike, transit, and automobile), it’s even more demonstrative of the best mode of urban travel.


The “race course” is 4.5 miles long from Brooklyn’s Fort Green to Manhattan’s Union Square. In this race, the bike and the car leave at pretty much the same time, while the transit rider is left to walk to the nearest bus stop. Not too long into the drive, the automobile gets stuck in typical bumper-to-bumper New York traffic. The bike is able to continue moving almost the entire time; the car gets stuck every few minutes, and the transit rider is forced to use multiple modes – walking to the bus, then walking to transfer to the subway.

The conclusion is not a big surprise: the bike arrives first in just 16 minutes. Next, the car arrives at 22 minutes. And, sadly for New York transit advocates, the transit rider arrives last after 29 minutes. As an aside, Transportation Alternatives also calculated each person’s carbon footprint. The cyclist ranked best with the transit rider coming in at a close second.

If we didn’t have enough data already to know, these races are a flashy, captivating, and entertaining way of demonstrating the true value of the bicycle for urban transportation. I’m spreading the word so that the decision makers in your city may finally be convinced. And if this is not enough, challenge your Mayor to a race across town.

-Terra Curtis