Monday, August 2, 2010

Spatial Inefficiency Part I: Bicycles

I was late to the ballpark on Saturday when the Dodgers were in town to face the surging Giants. Knowing that I needed to get down to the park as quickly as possible, I made the obvious decision -- grabbed my bicycle and headed out the door.

It may seems strange to the average automobile driver, but the fastest way to get around the city is often by bicycle. Especially at a time like morning rush hour--or right before a big Saturday baseball game--almost any trip of five miles or less will take less time on a bike. Less time than walking. Less time than riding the bus or train. Less time than driving. Even less time than taking a taxi.

The last two points are the most intriguing to consider. Time wasted parking anywhere in the city where one does not have a dedicated space obviously slows down the driver in his personal car. But how can a bicycle be faster than a taxi cab?

It all comes down to spatial efficiency. Bicycles are not only extremely fuel efficient, but they are incredibly spatially efficient too. Just think about how many people could ride down a two-lane city street if all were on bicycles. I admit to not making any tape measurements, but the spatial ratio must be somewhere from 3 to 6 bicycles per 1 car. And seeing as most streets in San Francisco (and everywhere in this great nation) are dominated by cars, the skilled bicycle rider can use spatial efficiency to his advantage. When a line of cars waits at a red light, the cyclist moves to the front of the line -- both because it is safer at the front where the automobiles can see the cyclist, and because the cyclist can. There is enough space between and beside the automobiles for bicycles to weave through and past. In a dense urban area like San Francisco, with stop-and-go city traffic, the bicyclist's ability to take advantage of spatial efficiency renders his mode of transportation the fastest.

At no time was the spatial efficiency of the bicycle more apparent to me than after the game (a thrilling 2 - 1 Giants victory after an eighth inning two-run dinger by Pat Burrell). While a line of cars close to a half-mile long waited in frustrated traffic along the Embarcadero, I cruised by in the bike lane, riding leisurely to enjoy the summer air and soak in the excitement of the win. Without exerting much energy at all, I left the line of cars in the proverbial rear-view and headed home one pedal at a time.

Which brings us to the name of this post: spatial inefficiency. In contrast to the spatial efficiency of the bicycle is the spatial inefficiency of a typical city road. Take Divisadero for example. Two lanes of traffic and one lane of parking each way creates a road that takes too much space to move too few people. If just one of those lanes were converted to a bike lane, think of how many more people could travel quickly down the road. For an even greater example of spatial inefficiency, imagine the typical suburban strip mall, maybe one with a Super Target, Best Buy, Quiznos, you name it. How much of the space is actually dedicated to the stores and the walkways and how much is dedicated to storing the giant steel monstrosities that everyone is lugging around with them?

So, you might ask, who cares? We've got plenty of space here in America, why not use it? I will attempt to address these questions in a further installment of Spatial Inefficiency. If anyone has ideas before then--or if you love your Suburban and think bicycles are impractical toys for overgrown children--just use the comment section and share your opinion.


  1. What is interesting is, as much as drivers rail against bike lanes, once the lanes go in, over all usage in a municipality seems to go up. At least that is what the studies here in NYC seem to show.

    My own, informal, observations support that as I saw many more parents biking their kids to camp this summer than I did last summer and many more commuters over all. One man rode by me with his daughter sitting cross-legged on the bike rack (7 or 8 yrs old).

    My son rode his own bike to camp, I was just an escort.

  2. Great point Devorah. Without the infrastructure, only the most skilled (and risk-taking) people will take to the road on a bike. As biking is fuel efficient, spatially efficient, and good for public health, it seems like a no-brainer that cities and suburbs everywhere should be making room on the public streets for biking infrastructure.

    If we build it, the people will ride.