Cycle Industry News)
By Mark Cramer, travel author and Mieux se Déplacer à Biciclette member. This article originally featured on Suburbano.net
I had the honour, in the mid 1970s, to be among six people invited to share a round table conversation at the University of Illinois, Chicago with the great iconoclast Ivan Illich, author of classic books like Deschooling Society. I could have arrived to this gathering by bicycle but I assumed that my car was faster.
The discussion theme was education. I was unaware that Illich was also writing about transportation and that he had proved, mathematically, that the bicycle is faster than the automobile.
Gross speed vs. net speed
In business, net income measures profits better than gross earnings before taxes and overhead are accounted for. Could net speed and gross speed exist as well? I ignored the distinction, perhaps because the education system Illich had excoriated had failed to emancipate my mind.
It would take 15 minutes by car from my apartment to the university where I worked. Add at least 5 minutes to find a parking space, to make it 20 minutes. The same distance by bike took 40 minutes, with immediate parking at my office building.
If we’d spoken about transportation, Illich would have asked me how many work hours per week were dedicated exclusively to support my car. I’ll answer him now, four decades later. From the 40 hour work week I needed at least 8 hours (480 minutes) to earn enough for car expenses, which included the car itself, gas, oil changes, repairs, license, insurance, tires, wash, parking, tolls.
My 40-minute daily commutes by car equaled 200 minutes per week. To that amount Illich would add the 480 minutes of labor squandered to support the car. In total I spent 680 minutes per week driving, parking and working to pay car expenses.
Conversely, if the bicycle were my means of transport, I’d need to work less than 50 hours per week to cover minimal expenses: repairs, waterproof clothing for rainy days and the cost of the bike itself.
Net speeds summarized
Car: 200 minutes driving/parking plus 480 minutes working to pay for car= 680 minutes spent
Bicycle: 400 minutes cycling plus 50 minutes working = 450 minutes spent
The bicycle was faster than the car because it consumed much less net time.
Consider how Illich explained it in 1978:
The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour [about half the speed of an urban cyclist].
(The figures change according to the period but the concept remains the same.)
Illich’s concept is applied to our contemporary period by Paul Tranter, using Google Maps and official statistics from transportation departments for painstaking calculations. For this, Tranter’s credentials are impeccable: Ph.D, School of Physical, Environmental, and Mathematical Sciences, Universi ty of New South Wales, Australia.
Tranter confirms Illich’s theory in his articles “Effective Speed: Cycling Because It’s Faster” and “Effective Speeds: Car Costs Are Slowing Us Down”. Considering the costs of paying for, maintaining and parking a car, in function of hours worked, Tranter calculates the effective speed in dozens of cities around the world, including:
New York: 10.6
Los Angeles: 14.9
The effective car speed in all the cities he measures is slower than that of a bicycle.