Bikes win Flight vs. Bike challenge at Carmageddon

Cyclists at the Critical Mass bike ride in Vancouver

When I visit Los Angeles, I am chauffeured from hot tub to bar to party to beach in private automobiles and therefore learn nothing of the city’s freeway system. There’s a 110* and a 101, and until last weekend there was a 405. That last one is really important, apparently, since its closure for construction prompted LA city officials to declare “Carmageddon” and urge Angelenos to stay home all weekend. The predicted final reckoning of good vs. evil cars didn’t really happen, but it seemed like enough of a possibility that Jet Blue offered a special flight from Burbank to Long Beach airports. Solving a traffic jam by taking a jet airplane across town was so stunningly American that it, in turn, prompted the Flight vs. Bike Challenge, in which a team of cyclists tried to beat the Jet Blue plane from BUR to LGB—and won, easily.

It turns out that while a jet airplane moves much more quickly than a bicycle, getting on a bike takes about six seconds, whereas getting on a plane takes ninety minutes/away your constitutional rights. By the time the Jet Blue passengers had their waters poured out and genitals inspected and were actually lifting off the tarmac, the bike team had reached downtown LA. From there it was gravy, and they arrived at the Long Beach lighthouse 80 minutes ahead of Team Plane.

So it was a good day for cyclists, and it offered some small insight into the larger question of what to do when gasoline costs $10 per gallon and 120 million people live in the greater Los Angeles area. That day is coming, and I can only think of two solutions:

  1. dinosaur ranches where cloned versions of Cretaceous-period herbivores are raised, slaughtered and then pressurized in gigantic nuclear furnaces that melt them into more oil, or
  2. something other than cars.

Frankly, option (1) seems more plausible. One of the many ways in which America is awesome is that everything west of Pittsburgh was built after the automobile was invented. Hence the practice of suburbs, which offer the relentless neighbor contact of city life with the dramatically increased likelihood of DWI that comes with living six miles away from everything. I grew up in West Des Moines, Iowa, and if you stand in my mother’s front yard, A) she will come out with a shovel and B) the nearest food source is two miles away. Unless you want to go to a gas station—there are gas stations everywhere.

My point is that the use of cars is not just a habit; in the United States it is structural, a paradigm literally built into our daily lives. There are exceptions, of course—Manhattan, where owning a car is regarded as a liability, and the densely urbanized downtowns of certain mid-market cities. For the most part, though, the decision to just ride a bicycle is the decision to either limit your mobility to poorly planned trails designed for recreational travel only or to throw yourself into a stampede of two-ton steel cell phone booths while balanced on an aluminum trapezoid. Fun? Yes. Commuter solution? Not so much.

Here we run into what is called a collective action problem. If every able-bodied person in, say, Los Angeles committed him- or herself to taking a bicycle for all trips shorter than ten miles, an enormous number of that city’s problems would be solved. Yet if only one person does it, he will be run over by a Bronco with no license plate on the third day. The collective action problem is distinguished by A) collective benefit, provided everyone behaves a certain way, and B) individual disincentives for any one person to behave that way.

One can view the history of civilization as the progressive solving of collective action problems. The Golden Rule/Categorical Imperative/Christian ethical system is a classic example of an early solution to a collective action problem. The individual in Romanized Judea benefited from relentlessly exploiting/deceiving/enslaving every stranger who crossed his path. Yet the larger Judean culture benefitted from viewing individual behavior from a collective standpoint and asking everyone to be nice—benefitted so evidently, in fact, that the idea spread throughout the Empire.

Then barbarians sacked everybody in an instance of network externality, but I digress. The point is that collective action problems are all over the place, and they must be solved, and the classic solution is ethics or—if you insist—morality. Those of us who like to imagine that moral concerns are anachronisms of an older society might consider the degree to which our LA cars don’t just burn gas and pollute the air but also make it more difficult for other people to ride bikes. In other words, our immoral behavior makes it more difficult for other people to behave morally.

That’s the thing about society—you can’t opt out. You are stuck with these people, in which case here’s another fun thing to think about: the history of civilization is also the history of failing to solve collective action problems. Given our overall good track record with CA problems in America and the present state of our institutional morality, do you think we are better- or worse-equipped to solve such problems today?


Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit


  1. Worse. We’re individualistic to the point of selfishness and we regard that as an inalienable right. Call me a pessimist!

  2. Worse. Our highest cultural expression is the empty vanity of reality television.

    This is a great post.

    My favorite example of this Collective Action issue is roll-aboard aircraft bags. To shirk $25, or whatever, and avoid a 10 minute wait at the baggage carousel, people cram all their belongings into tiny bags. But there’s not enough room for everybody’s tiny bags, and it invariably takes everybody a really long time to realize this, making the onboarding and offboarding process worse for everybody. The resulting clusterfuck is literally the expression of the sum of120 peoples’ minor selfishnesses.

  3. Great post. Haplito, I absolutely agree with the carry on collective action problem. I think about it whenever I fly.

  4. Sadly, a lot of our “selfish” behavior has its roots in prior experience and disappointment. You spend five days in NYC without luggage; you start carrying your bag onboard. You spend an entire movie listening to a baby scream behind you; you want babies banned from theaters. You spend three nights in a hot apartment with your screaming baby; you take the baby to the air conditioned theater.

    Somewhere, there’s got to be a sweet spot.

  5. I like it when your sentences A) make car drivers and good ol’ boys seem like assholes and B) are arranged like this.

  6. Ten years ago when I arrived, Paris was frighteningly unbikeable. The socialist mayor’s policies since have added bike lanes and a bike sharing program (for 30 euros a year you can pick up a bike on any street corner) that have revolutionized Parisian’s attitudes toward bikes. Cars now more or less accept that they have to share the roads. The roads are full of bikes. It makes an enormous difference.

    America needs a similar cultural change, but in conjunction with policy change.

  7. Somewhat realted comment:

    Bicyclists need to hire a PR firm and/or chill the fuck out. I have been a bicyclist in my past and appreciate all the benefits of having more bikers and fewer cars. However, I just can’t shake the overwhelming contempt I have for the majority of them. I can’t tell you how many fingers and “Fuck you”s I have received as they pass me on my right as I am making a right turn, or as I block the bike line attempting to parallel park. Either bikes are just like cars and therefore accept all rights and responsibilities of cars. (i.e. no weaving through traffic or blowing through stop signs) or you are not a car and should only ride in bike lanes.

    I guess it’s sort of how I feel about Planned Parenthood and Pot Smokers. I support your cause, but the more I encounter your representiatives with clipboards, the more I wish you would die in a fire.

  8. Tim M.: I totally agree with you on this point: “Either bikes are just like cars and therefore accept all rights and responsibilities of cars. (i.e. no weaving through traffic or blowing through stop signs) or you are not a car and should only ride in bike lanes.”

    However, you’re overlooking two key things. First, most cars don’t treat bikes like they’re cars so it’s an unfair, and often dangerous, requirement to demand bikers to act like one. Second, when a biker bikes acts like an asshole vis-a-vis cars it inconveniences drivers and/or pisses them off. When someone drives their car like an asshole vis-a-vis bikes a biker dies or is seriously hurt.

    I’m a relatively safe and conscientious biker; but I make damn sure to go out of my way to let drivers who are not paying me the same courtesy know what I think about it. I consider it a public service.

  9. This is what I yell to myself alone in the car (or with my poor wife and children) all the time. “Why are you placing your trust and your life in every driver’s ability to follow every rule? If you pass me on the right in an intersection, and I unexpectedly turn right without signalling, then you can say, ‘Hey, Asshole! You’re supposed to use your signal!’ That is, if you can form words around the fire hydrant that is raping your mouth.”

    When we all took drivers Ed at Valley High, we were taught to be defensive drivers, to protect ourselves from negligent drivers. And that’s while seated in a 2 ton automobile with seat belts and 16 airbags.

    I understand that some drivers have no respect for bicyclists and that is regretable. But after observing their reckless behavior and agression towards drivers as well as pedestrians, I refuse to view them as victims, which they appear to view themselves as.

  10. I get that there is some give and take, but as others have mentioned the bikers are the ones who’s lives are at stake. Therefore they should show proper deference is what I have to say.

    As an example, do not ride to the front of a line of cars waiting at a red light. This only forces the same drivers to repeatedly find a safe way (or in most cases a frighteningly dangerous way) to pass the same bicyclist. The rule here is that a bicyclist on the road is supposed to be treated as a car, and can’t be lawfully passed willy nilly. But I ask you, does having streams of 30 cars riding around at 20 mph really help our traffic situation.

Leave a Comment.