Monday, August 10, 2015

Car vs Bicycle Speed: Rural Edition

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One of the trickiest parts to driving a car in rural Ireland, is navigating the narrow winding roads. Even the "main road" where I live is a single carriageway, barely wide enough for two standard-sized cars to pass each other in opposite directions, with constant hairpin bends and blind crests. At the side of the road there is no "shoulder," but instead ravine-like trenches. Let your wheel wander too near to the edge, and your car will be violently pulled off the road. Misjudge the distance in the other direction, and you'll smash into oncoming traffic. As a driver, you cannot ever let your guard down. And you must constantly monitor and reduce your speed.

More nerve-wracking still are the farm lanes: twisty, bumpy, and only wide enough to fit one vehicle - so that if two cars find themselves face to face, one must back up toward an available "lay-by" allowing the other to pass.

I live at the end of just such a lane, nearly a mile in length. And if the narrow twistyness was not enough, much of it runs alongside irrigation ditches, which means 4 foot drops to both sides! When I practice my motoring skills, I am comfortable driving along my lane at 25mph maximum - though usually I go even slower. And the neighbours seem to do the same.

Knowing this, I was quite amused the other day to look down at my bicycle computer and see I was approaching this very same speed - and quite comfortably! Going around bends, the bike felt more nimble and precise than the car. And I did not need to worry about road placement, since I could see exactly where I was aiming my front wheel. Having noticed the speed I was doing, I pushed myself even harder, and for a few glorious moments I was flying toward my house at 28mph - giddy from the  notion that I could get down my lane faster on a bike than in a car!

Lest you misunderstand, this is not to suggest I am fast cyclist. There was a pretty stiff wind at my back that day! But the incident made me realise, that even when I cycle to the nearby shop on a utility bike, my ordinary cruising speed is not all that slower than what a car would typically be doing along the same lane. Factor in practicalities such as pulling out of one's driveway and parking, and in an all-out "To the Local Shop" race the bicycle might actually win.

It is true that in rural areas driving usually saves time over any other form of transportation. A Rush Hour Race such as the one held annually in Boston would yield very different results! Still, even here there are aspects of everyday travel - such as visiting friends who live nearby, popping over to the neighbouring farm, or going to the local shop - where the bicycle can provide a speedier means of transport. Not to mention a more enjoyable one!

48 comments:

  1. According to the GB travel survey, 38% of all trips made by people are under 2 miles and 67% under 5 miles so with journeys this short, the time taken by bike will always be very competitive with a car (if people can be persuaded to take a bike...)

    The NI travel survey doesn't seem to have comparable data other than 14% of trips were under one mile.

    Unfortunately the NI travel survey makes somewhat depressing reading from a cycling perspective...an average of only 28 miles cycled per person per year compared to over 4,800 miles as a car driver or passenger so cycling virtually doesn't register (<1%) as a mode of transport.

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    1. It will be interesting to see whether the successful new bike share in Belfast will change that in the next survey.

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    2. I'd be surprised if bike share has an impact beyond a fraction of a percent. Residents of Belfast do walk more than people outside the city and this is common for urban areas.

      I don't see cycling modal share growing unless it is a viable option for kids going to school. The reports show over 70% of children are going by car or bus and the remainder are walking. Cycling is 0%. I think this means it is statistically insignificant rather than absolutely nobody is doing it.

      BTW, the reports are available here: http://www.drdni.gov.uk/northern_ireland_travel_survey.htm

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    3. Walking and cycling have a higher modal share if you measure trips rather than kilometers. But I agree, getting kids to walk and cycle to school is a key issue. According to one study, it concentration more than eating breakfast does.
      Walking, Biking to School Improves Concentration

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    4. The figures I referenced for N Ireland are percentage of trips, unfortunately.

      I find the "thinking time" provided by cycling is good if you are an adult as well!

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  2. Last Friday, I accidentally found out that a fun place to ride a bike was Marconi Station Rd in Wellfleet at the Cape Cod. It's flat, nearly empty (almost no car traffic), it's high up on the dunes and once I got some tail wind from the ocean I was cruising at 25mph with no effort and not even in the drops (and that's max. my bike can do due to gearing). On a time trail bike you could reach some wacky high speed over there.

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    1. I have cycled there many times and love it!

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  3. Recently went on holiday with my wife and children to Quebec city - which emphasized such stark differences between cities that developed before the automobile became ubiquitous (such as Richland, WA - where I live).

    There HAVE been huge efficiency gains with the auto - broadening the geography for living, work, transport and general commerce. Walmart and strip malls would not be possible without the car - but with these efficiency gains and reduced prices have come with costs.

    By far, IMO, we less enjoy "the ride". Our destinations are more specific and simultaneously less unique. There's a lot more concrete, and far fewer open and wild spaces.

    IMO your experience in N Ireland has an element of specificity to it - you are (despite disclaimers and protestations) fit and probably have modest requirements to schedule and cargo capacity. Still, within a city your point is broadly applicable, and even in places where it isn't, in exchange for some inefficiencies we would have a better world.

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    1. The last time I held a 9-5 job (actually it was more like 8-8), I was living in Vienna, Austria. My commute into work was 4 miles, plus I usually had a couple of meetings in various parts of the city throughout the day. I remember, when I switched to cycling from using public transport (which was already far better than a car), it changed my life in the amount of extra time it gave me to get places; I just couldn't believe how much faster and easier it was. In Boston and NYC it is similar in terms of saving time, though scarier to ride because of lack of infrastructure. Can't remember where I read this now, but I believe in many major cities they now find that bike>public transport>car for urban trips under 4 miles.

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    2. I find a bike slightly faster than public transport for my commutes to locations in London and these are 7 and 10 miles away. A car isn't a viable option as there is no parking anyway, not to mention congestion charging and how slow it would be.

      "Station to station" time on public transport would be slightly quicker than a bike but the bike is quicker for door to door journey because of the walking time to and from stations at both ends and the need to change trains for one location.

      I find "door to desk" time about the same for bike and public transport as when cycling, I shower and change at work rather than at home (except on occasions when I've been dragged into a discussion when coming into the building and it has been lunchtime before I could change!)

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    3. I've taken to cycling to get around the greater Boston area since you hopped the pond, Velouria. I can safely say there are roads and intersections I'll go out of my way to avoid, but on the whole it's not nearly as hair-raising as I'd feared. There are moments once in a while that genuinely make me angry but on the whole it's simply the best way to get around town. There's nothing quite like cruising around, getting some exercise and (relatively) fresh air. It makes me realize how much you miss while cooped up in an enclosed space, like a car or bus.

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  4. About the only time I don't enjoy riding my bike is when I feel that I'm racing it…..I don't know, it seems to be a mindset and level of exertion which detracts from what matters. True enough, bicycling gets me around and through town easily and quickly. It's convenient to park and fun to ride but, mostly, I could care less about time. It's not the most meaningful way to measure my enjoyment. BTW, I'm assuming you didn't reach 28mph using the bike in this photo, correct? Do you have computers on all your bikes?

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    1. I wonder at what cadence I would need to be going to reach 28mph on the 60" gear single speed I'm riding in the photo... without doing the math I would guess well over 200rpm!

      You're right of course. I was riding my roadbike. That is also where I keep my cycling computer. But even without computers, over time I've become aware of the typical speed I do on most of my bikes, including transport. There are trips that I do over and over again, and I notice how long they tend to take me.

      Obviously I don't race bicycles. I don't even go especially fast most of the time. And I feel no sense of competitiveness with others. But there is a playfulness and joy to riding a bike that sometimes find a way of expressing themselves through bursts of speed. It's really about that more than anything.

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    2. I think whizzing along a trail can be such fun - though I have no means of knowing how fast I am actually going - I also have no sense of competitiveness with others and even with myself - like the poster above speed does not determine my enjoyment, however there are times when going fast just feels good! In regards to car v bike, I am sure in my town that getting around by bike is faster than by car - but people here love their cars. I cannot count the number of times people have congratulated me on using a bike for transportation - like I have done something remarkable - it's actually embarrassing because there is no sacrifice involved :)

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    3. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy speed as well, just not competitiveness. Kills all the joy. The photo and title suggest a bent over, grit your teeth, mindset of beating that car to the local shop kind of thing. I'd rather promote the notion that the rhythms of riding can stand alone, as idea enough, to others as a different way of thinking about time and space. On that's rewarding and healthy in immeasurable ways. I'm like you, spokeswoman, whizzing along is fun, so too is coasting, climbing, cornering and all other forms of bike riding or watching. People tell me they see me everywhere on my bike and seem impressed that I'd put up with the changing weather and distance, but I guess we're just wired for it :) I don't know if getting somewhere nearby is faster or slower via bike, and I really don't care.

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    4. I don't own a car - so the difference in time between car and bike is of no matter to me and to be honest, if I was in an absolute hurry to be somewhere I would use a taxi rather than ride my bike under stress :) There are many peaceful bike/walk paths here which are just made for meandering along, enjoying the surrounding bush lands - I have ridden mtbs for years and have the handlebars set to a height that allows me to observe the environment I cycle through - head down and flat-out does not appeal to me at all. During the hot summer months I like nothing better than to cycle slowly around the town centre on a late afternoon - just watching what is going on then perhaps buying a take-a-way coffee or ice-cream and heading to the central gardens.

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    5. Agreed. I do whatever it takes to eliminate stress from my life. Bicycles are a key and marvelous component in that quest. It takes time to get anywhere, but I'll choose the manner I most enjoy and forget about comparing that to any other options. I gave up cars long ago and of course everything has it's limitations but for the purposes of this blog I'll stick to promoting all the loveliness of bikes as the best option.

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    6. I have had experiences I would never have if I used a car to get from A to B instead of a bike - perhaps because with a bike it just never seems to be about getting from A to B - I haven't had a car for 20 years and never regret that decision - life is not only simpler, it's more enjoyable.

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  5. I know many in the city who gave up their cars because of expense and inconvenience and seem to be okay with it, but finding rural friends who are willing to substitute bike for car is far more rare. In fact I know of none. True enough, it's possible but they often need to get shit done and move kids around. Often, small motor bikes or ATV's are used by kids on the dirt roads. They like their motors!

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    1. Hands up, we are car-free! Two middle-agers plus two teenagers. We have the village Co-op within walking distance but everything else of any possible interest or use is 3+ miles away. The kids use the (infrequent & unreliable) rural bus service, plus a lot of walking, the odd taxi, lifts from their friends. I resort to those if especially tired but otherwise it's bicycles all the way. My commute to the train station is 6 miles each way, daily. Adam does the weekly shopping, mobile bike repairs, trips to the DIY store, you name it. Yes, we have a cargo bike which is a godsend. Adam installed a battery assist rear wheel and it's truly a car replacement, albeit fully open topped one. Shit gets done. Kids do what they want with no complaints whatsoever -- neither have any interest in learning to drive, getting a licence, etc. It can be done!

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    2. Congrats! Indeed, I know it can be done and it takes families like yours to just simply provide an example. Still, I know of no one here in the rural of midwestern US, nor did I know of anyone in rural central NY who got around by bikes exclusively. When living in Oregon in the 70's and 80's I knew of many but they had no kids at the time and we always had some friend with a pick-up or a van. I sense that much of Europe does a better job with regard to all forms of transportation. It's a battle to convince many to give up their cars here.

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    3. Sounds lovely, Rebecca!

      I am rural and do not own a car. Granted this is less impressive now that I live with a car owner. But I don't actually have access to his car most of the time, and even when I do I use it once in a blue moon - basically only so as to not let my driving skills die out again. Certainly for work related trips and shopping and various errands and social visits and medical appointments and pretty much anything else I do, I have no access to a car. I was not sure whether this would work when I moved here initially. But so far it's been over 2 years, and it has worked just fine. I live 1 mile from a small shop which is kind of the village hub. And although the selection is small, if the weather is uncycleable I can at least always walk there and get the basics. The nearest towns with supermarkets, cafes and other conveniences, are 7.5 and 12.5 miles away in opposite directions. It's hilly terrain and not exactly a casual commute, but unless the weather is horrendous I can cycle to either just fine. Finally, I live only 2 miles from a train station. As long as I can get myself there, I can get to the “big cities” (Derry and Belfast) quite easily, and from there to Dublin, or any of the airports, etc. So… all in all, I prefer not having a car and getting around via a combination of cycling, walking and trains. Most of the time it’s absolutely great, to be honest. And even in those times when it is challenging and frustrating, all it takes is a conversation with a car owner to realise that’s no picnic either!

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    4. Sometimes it feels weird/ridiculous/silly relying on a combination of cycling, walking, and public transportation (and some rides with other people), so this is really inspiring!

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    5. weird/ridiculous/silly is underrated IMO : )

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    6. I think it's weird to expect one mode to work well for all types of trips. I think that if there had not been the interference by the auto industry, and things would have been allowed to develop naturally, everyone would be multimodal now.

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  6. All these years and miles have made you a fit and strong rider. It's impressive that your average cruising speed is so fast. Ah, if only I, too, were young and strong! Kudos.

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  7. My "commute" by bike is a leisurely 5-7 minutes, door-to-door, half of which is on a multi-user path along a creek. Driving takes close to 15 minutes door-to-door, with twice as many lights, and a 2 block walk from the upper levels of the parking garage to where I actually work. So if I'm running late, I would most definitely grab my bike to save time.

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    1. I have seen people here drive to visit their next door neighbours. Even though walking is faster, for some it has simply become culturally unfathomable to go anywhere without a car.

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  8. Ah yes, but beware the Range Rover (with London plates). Last time I was driving those single-lane carriageways in County Cork, a Range Rover came through like Mr. Toad at speed, blowing off everything in its path, including me. Unfortunately I was in the smallest rental car every made, rather than a bicycle, which made for a hairy few seconds as the RR took the wax off the rear view mirror.

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    1. They call those Chelsea tractors : )

      Here you are more likely to see a Defender circa 1984 with a couple of sheep in the back seat.

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  9. when it comes to speed, cars win out. when it comes to happiness, bicycles win out.

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    1. Not disputing the happiness argument, but bikes can also be quicker (as well as healthier, more economical, more environmentally friendly...) The Federal Environment Agency in Germany carried out a study recently that concluded that bikes were the fastest option for distances up to 5 km, while e-bikes (pedelecs, the bikes where the electric motor cuts out at 25 km/h and not the faster ones that need license plates etc.) were quicker than cars for distances up to 10 km and insignificantly slower than cars for distances up to 20 km. (I'm taking this from German newspaper Die Zeit: http://www.zeit.de/mobilitaet/2014-09/pedelec-umweltbundesamt). So there is absolutely massive potential in the rural hinterland of our cities for people to do 20 km each way commutes by bike comfortably and longer commutes using bike and ride facilities which need to be developed. Instead of getting stuck in congested traffic trying to get into Galway or Limerick or Dublin in the morning, people could be starting their day with a gentle cycle (with or without an electric motor) and then sipping coffee on a train as they digest news and e-mails and map out their day and chill for a bit.

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  10. The two images of you riding seemingly from afar and now about to pass from view are pretty cool. A bit startling to see, though, how low you seem to be able to get on these transpo type bars of rather an upright bike? Is it the long reach and some saddle height that makes you look almost in the drops of a drop bike? Enjoyed the post as always. Jim Duncan

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    1. Oh I bend my elbows as much as I can possibly bend them. The headwinds have provided lots of opportunity to practice this posture on even the uprightest bikes!

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    2. I believe I could also cope with the headwinds, tiring as they are - but I do wonder how yourself and other cyclists manage with freezing cold and snowy weather - when it is very cold here I actually prefer to walk because there is just (for me) no pleasure in riding my bike in those conditions - I have seen photos of cyclists bundled up in huge coats, riding through snow/rain and it just looks miserable :(

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    3. @spokeswoman: though I'm still in summer mode (I try to get as much summer fun in as possible due to the short season) I'll take a shot at your question. I've found that happy cycling during winter depends on three things: dressing appropriately, equipping your bike appropriately, and your own personal tolerance for cold weather. Winter clothing can help overcome the third to an extent. I have a high tolerance for cold so my winter routine comes down to: long pants, long-sleeve t-shirt, boots, thick gloves, earmuffs, and helmet. I've arrived at that ensemble through two winters' worth of experience. The act of cycling at even a moderate pace will also warm up your body. That may help compensate for the cold weather.

      Can there be misery in winter cycling, even with your clothing and bike dialed in for the cold weather? Sure, no doubt about it. But winter cycling can also give rise to some of the most serene moments in cycling. Such as riding down an empty path, at night, in a light snowfall, with fat snowflakes lazily drifting about; the only sounds being the clicking of your freewheel and the whoosh of the tries along the path. That very scenario happened to me many times last winter. I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything.

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  11. Do you think all rural areas are equal? Are there certain minimum requirements to one's location which make it more doable than others?

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    1. I imagine differences in terrain, road safety and proximity of amenities will play large determining roles in how cycleable any given rural area is. The cyclist's own attitude matters quite a bit as well.

      For more detailed notes on this, see -
      Transportation Cycling in Rural Areas: Some Food for Thought

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    2. I've started several times to write about this subject. Must get on with that.

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  12. Your photo intrigues me. You are on a sit up and beg bike, but want to ride it like its a road bike. I'm puzzled as why people would choose to ride in the racing position when it is so much more comfortable to sit up, sit back and push a bicycle before you. Or is it? We are all different of course, and have our own preferences.

    I've tried bikes in the racing position and find I end up with a crick in my neck, a pain in my back, sore shoulders and arms and hands all jarred up. I've not enjoyed the ride because its always turned into something I want to get over with as quickly as possible and I've missed all the things I love about being on a bike, i.e. looking around me at our beautiful countryside. I would love to know how you do it, I really would. For myself, I prefer my old 3 speed roadster and truly believe I would happily circumnavigate the globe on it, the comfort is sublime. I don't lean forward going up hills, I lean back and push that bike ahead of me.

    When I started reading your blog you seemed to be into Dutch style bikes, but you have evolved into a cyclist with roadie habits - that's not a criticism, just an observation, I am genuinely intrigued as to how you cope with riding that way - don't you like to sit up and look over the hedges and at everything around you rather than just the road ahead?

    Genuinely intrigued - do you have to develop different muscles?

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    1. Ha. Well firstly the photo was done as a joke. You know, to illustrate the post, but obviously (or so I thought!) not with the bike mentioned in the post. Well maybe not everyone gets my humor. But point being, no I don't normally ride upright bicycles in this manner! And yes, I do prefer a (fairly) upright position for transport cycling and I love to look over the hedges. My roadie habits have not ruined me that much (though perhaps some other ways in which they've ruined me is worse!).

      That said, we do get harsh (as in 40mph!) headwinds around here. And being able to get down low on any bike is an advantage when confronted with such a phenomenon. Believe it or not, even Dutch people do it. On Dutch bikes!

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    2. Then I guess you also get 40mph tailwinds. Now that's a nice ride!

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    3. The sensation of being pushed up a hill by a 40mph tailwind is a particularly thrilling one. Nature's e-assist.

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    4. Yup, or stopped dead on a downhill or blown across the road in an instant with a crosswind. Had them all!

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  13. From the way the branches on that large tree are pointing toward the left of the picture, it looks like you were being buffeted by a pretty stiff crosswind. Or could it be that the branches are simply growing in that direction? Nevertheless, I'd love to see a video of a 200-rpm pedaling cadence.

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    1. You can see my hair is pointing in that direction as well!

      It was the wind. Though the trees do tend to stick that way -
      Taming Trees

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  14. I live in rural Ireland, without a car and on top of a hill with heartbreaking hairpins. Yes Im faster than cars on the descent, but for me the speed I travel isn't important, the journey is always rewarding. It influences the way I live my life. Everything I consume and any packaging, has to be peddled in and out, thats something I consider. It also encourages me to make and mend. Even on those headwind horizontal rain days when I'm cursing and convinced I need a car, by the time Im home and before the kettle has boiled Im happy with my choices.

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