Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Cycling to work

 I can understand the desire to drive as quickly as you can to get somewhere. However, there are situations in which driving as fast as you can is impractical (and which can end up with the driver getting extremely frustrated for being unable to travel continuously at speed). One of these is driving in a city.

Although not a huge city, Ann Arbor's traffic pattern changes in three ways from where I live (just west of town) to where I work (at the University of Michigan's central campus):
  1. 45mph, little traffic (almost always moving at speed), 1 stop/2 miles
  2. 30mph, moderate traffic (usually getting up to speed limit), 1 stop/1 mile
  3. 25mph, moderate traffic (usually flowing at <25mph), 1 stop/block
In stage 1, drivers are cruising easily... until they reach the edge of town (stage 2), marked by a stop light that usually catches about 4 or 5 cars during my morning commute. The drivers are not done thinking about driving casually, however, usually speeding to the next stop light, and then the next. When the drivers reach the town center, they have either calmed down or are really annoyed and the latter group drive like they are at a drag race: pealing out of each stop, only to be forced to stop one or two blocks down the way.

As a cyclist, I cannot hope to keep up (let alone pass) the drivers going at 45mph (or more) in stage 1. However, thanks to the timing of traffic signals, my average speed of 15mph means that I'm often able to play traffic hopscotch with many drivers through stage 2 and definitely so in stage 3. I think, though, that this merely makes those annoyed drivers even more annoyed. When I see one of these guys, I try to let them have the road, but it's not always an option in the more-narrow streets of the city (that also have street-parked cars lining them).

A while ago, I did a back-of-the-envelope style of driving time vs. cycling time assessment of my commute, and noted that - on average - it is actually a little faster for me to cycle in to work than it would be to drive, park, and walk, and much of that is due to the traffic being slowed by signals in town.

When I drove, I tried to learn if there was a traffic light pattern, one that would consistently allow me to have an overall higher average driving speed (even though I might not have a top speed). I found that east-bound on Washington, one could drive most of the distance from Ashley to State at 15mph and not have to stop; east-bound on Huron, one could drive almost all the way from Maple to State at 30mph and not have to stop; north-bound on Division, one could drive from Packard through to the Broadway Bridge at 30mph and not have to stop; etc. It annoyed me, however, to note that few other drivers actually figured this timing out, and I would pass them - again and again - at a slightly slower speed as they sped (time and again) to the next waiting red light. Traffic light hopscotch isn't only a bike and car game, I suppose.

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