Principles of Urban Riding, Part 3: Nonstop Theory

My commute from Park Slope to Midtown Manhattan is an 8.5 mile trip. People are pretty impressed when I tell them that 35 minute travel time is the norm. After all, it's "so far" in their minds, and the F train, on a good day, would take 45 minutes for that same trip. If you're a true cyclist, you would be less impressed. You'd know that a strong rider like me ought to be able to average 22 MPH on such a short run, making this a 24 minute trip, in theory. When I move out to the West Coast, and my "commute" is a 10 mile run on a flat, straight road, I'll break out #7 and get to work averaging a hell of a lot faster than 22 MPH!

So, why does it take 35 minutes to get to work, instead of 24? The answer is simple: stops. Stopping - for traffic lights, pedestrians, cross traffic, construction, or anything of the sort - is a huge delay. It's something I try to avoid whenever possible.

I employ a number of advanced techniques in order to navigate city traffic with as few stops as possible. I'll list a few of them here, and leave the explanation of the individual points to future blog postings:
  • Equally Weighted Grid Traversal. By this, I mean that New York City is a grid, and, so long as you are able to corner quickly and all of the streets are on a true grid, it really doesn't matter which streets you take from Point A to Point B.
  • Heuristic Traffic Preditction. If you ride a route every day, you start to know which streets tend to have more or less traffic on a given day.
  • Early Scanning. I usually know when a driver is stopping, slowing, or turning before they do. Subtle changes in speed and direction offer major clues. This happens for pedestrians as well.
  • Back-Passing. People tend to not think about the space immediately behind them, and rarely move in reverse. I try to pass pedestrians immediately behind them when possible.
  • Route Knowledge. On a route that I ride regularly, I will know where the major potholes are ahead of time. The only events that lead to new potholes are constructions or major storms, and I know to look for new potholes when those conditions occur.
  • Equipment Knowledge. I know the limits of the bicycles I ride, and keep them in top condition.
  • Traffic Light Timing. Here in New York City, traffic lights all follow fixed patterns. The walking signal offers quite a lot of information about the state of a light, and lets me know how long I have until a red. When I combine this with memorizing the cycles of each traffic light, I can optimize how much to slow down, so I never fully stop.
  • Silence. I try not to talk, much less scream, when riding. It saps energy, keeps me from getting air, and is indicative of a poor decision already made. (I do shout for children, since they don't fully understand the implications of a 180 lb bicyclist moving at 25 MPH.)
I'm able to use all of these aspects, and more, in my daily commute to and from work. I make decisions on the fly, with a surprising degree of accuracy. There is not much that surprises me on the road these days.