Did the Carmaggedon Cyclists Really Outrace a JetBlue Flight?

Tyler Cowen points to one of many news stories reporting that a group of cyclists “raced” the promotional JetBlue flight between Long Beach and Burbank and won.

In the great tradition of the land of reality television, Los Angeles created its own.

First came a clever marketing ploy from JetBlue Airways: $4 flights Saturday between Burbank and Long Beach airports.

A flurry of Twitter activity ensued, followed by tough talk from the Wolfpack Hustle, a local cycling club, that six of its best riders could beat the 150-seat Airbus A320 — including drive time to and from the airports, check-in and security screening.

In the end, the cyclists crushed it, cruising along the Los Angeles River to reach the final destination, the lighthouse in Shoreline Aquatic Park, in 1 hour and 34 minutes.

The plane had barely taken off. Cyclist Joe Anthony, on board as part of the challenge, said there was only one advantage to the airliner.

“It’s legal to drink beer and fly, whereas the cyclists have to follow all the rules,” he said.

Just a moment of thinking about this is going to give you the sense that it was a bit of a sham bet: JetBlue flights 405 and 1405 were 29 miles in the air. Can cyclists really outrace a plane, even over a short distance?

Of course, the cyclists only ‘beat’ the flight because it was a one-way proposition/bet.

This wasn’t exactly a fair test agreed-upon in advance by both parties. Instead, the cyclists defined the test as being between two locations they selected, and then adding in driving time between those locations and the airports. Between any two short distances it may well make more sense to even walk than fly. When the cyclists pick the spots, you already know it’s not going to be a fair find.

What’s more, the cyclists were ‘competing against’ a cyclist-as-passenger who decided how early to turn up at the airport for security and how much time to hang around the airport before the flight.

The giveaway is that the cyclists were crossing the finish line while “[t]he plane had barely taken off.” For a reasonable test it would not have been necessary to turn up especially early at one of the secondary Los Angeles vicinity airports.

Of course, JetBlue wasn’t offering the flights because it was the most efficient means to go up the 405 freeway. It was a publicity stunt, hence the one flight in each direction and tickets available for $4. But the cyclists are getting more than their share of the fame, it just seems like someone should call them out for the test that their media attention rests on being something of a put up job.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. I don’t think there’s a need to call out the cyclists at all. We know it took the cyclists 94 minutes. Say you live 30 minutes from BUR. It would be reasonable to arrive 60 min before departure, even from an airport like BUR, given the current condition of airport security. That’s already your cycling time. Even if you cut it close and arrive later, you still arrive by bike ahead of plane on that route.

  2. It was a one-sided ‘race’ and they gave themselves too much of a head start. They chose the parameters, designed to cause themselves to win. That’s not news.

    They could have called a press conference, called out JetBlue, developed mutually agreeable terms, and then the result would have been meaningful.

    Sorry but the news reporting here — which is what I’m really calling out — is extremely poor.

  3. Really Gary?

    The entire Carmageddon thing was a ridiculous media event, including the Jetblue publicity stunt. And you are singling out the cyclists out of the entire thing? Where is your normal “voice of reason” this time around?

    Even Jetblue asked for a rematch, but on the rematch, they said they wanted to race the cyclists on an LAX-JFK flight. That was also in the story I read.

    Everybody else seemed to know this was all done in humor. 🙂

    -David

  4. I was on the BUR-LGB flight and arrived at the airport at 11:30am for 12:30am takeoff. Though I’m from the area, I always fly from LAX so didn’t know what BUR is like (plus I thought there’d be some sort of a party at the gate, which there was).

    Nevertheless, for a 12:30am flight and without checked baggage (which no one did), one doesn’t need to reach BUR until noon at the earliest. We reached LGB within an hour of that.

  5. I’m sorry, the cyclists definitely lost and from my point of view, still haven’t finished… because my destination in the foreseeable future wouldn’t be any lighthouse. The obviously race would have been door-to-door between BUR and LGB, but the cyclists intentionally avoided that proposition.

    Quite frankly, the cyclists were one of the most ridiculous things to be covered during this ridiculous non-event… and the media ate it up. I believe the point is that their publicity stunt was ill-gotten.

  6. Sorry to see this post. As a previous poster said I think it was done in humor. Plus why should we be bashing bicycling as a means of transportation? If I can bike from BUR-LGB in a reasonable amount of time and save the billion tons of emissions, at the expense of some well-needed exercise, I say that’s a win win. Plus I’d save $4 😉

  7. I will say that as someone who was the first to show up to the gate area for JetBlue 405 yesterday (had to fly in early in the morning for it due to schedules), the cyclists were in the gate area a good 75-80 minutes before departure. Security was a breeze yesterday, but they said that part of the challenge was showing up (not leaving) to the airport 90 minutes before the flight. 90 minutes just seems like an awful amount of time…but this is coming from someone who tends to get to the airport 45 minutes before departure and this week cut it as close as 16 minutes before departure (yes I made my flight and this was at a major hub to boot).

  8. @patrick nobody is bashing bicycling. Although don’t overestimate the environmental benefit, either. Bicycling burns tons of calories, which need to be replaced, which means more carbon-intensive farming. Driving is often more environmentally friendly than walking when total carbon outcome is accounted for. And a full plane can be more efficient than bicycling, depending on distance and assuming same number of bicyclers.

  9. @Gary, what is your angle here? This was just a David vs. Goliath act by a bunch of guys looking to have some fun on an otherwise lousy Saturday afternoon. It was a PR stunt where everyone wins – JetBlue got some publicity, cyclists (and transit riders as there was another competitor) stirred the pot to make people think about why a single freeway should all but end life for millions of people. And a few thousand followers found some cheap entertainment by cheering for their favorite. Finally, the whole thing took no more than a single tweet, which was the most amazing aspect of the event.

    Now, you could have had some environmentalists try to picket the airport and tell you how much CO2 is released by hurling a 10 ton jet 9,000 ft into the air for a measly 30 mile trip. Yeah, I’d take the cyclists any day.

    I’m not going to argue about who left when or by how much they won, but I do question some of your claims about the environmental friendliness of driving and flying. Might want to check some facts here. In fact, all else equal, the public transit rider was probably the best choice for both time and efficiency.

  10. @Jason npbody’s hating on the cyclists, it’s a bit of a fact check and criticism of the poor job the media did in reporting, but best check your own facts, predominantly surrounding public transport under low ridership and environment impact. 😉

  11. Don’t get all butt hurt that the cyclists beat you. Next time we’ll just handicap them more.

  12. @Gary, I was one of the people who helped organize this and one of the participants, who opted at the last minute to do the same route walking on foot and taking public transit (which came after the bike racers but long before the plane travelers). Jet Blue was obviously using this as a marketing stunt, and we came up with idea just 2 days before the flight to flip it into our own marketing stunt to promote bicycling in Los Angeles, and later include transit as well. It just so happened that the North Hollywood and Burbank area to Long Beach, as this flight was for, lends itself well to bicycling and transit. There is a direct bike path along the L.A. river to Long Beach with few stops for traffic lights, and train service all the way to Downtown Long Beach with only one transfer.

    If you look at the times, team Wolfpack came in about 80 minutes ahead of the plane travelers. So even if the Jet Blue passengers had cut it much closer and arrived at the airport only 20 minutes before the flight, far less than is recommended, the plane riders still would have likely lost.

    It was decided to do door to door from an actual residence in North Hollywood, to a landmark in Long Beach, because that is more like real travel. No one flies from an airport to go hang out at the airport on the other side, and airports tend to be further from their city centers and destinations. Hailing a taxi and actually getting somewhere is part of traveling.

    As for carbon impact, in what fantasy world of pseudo science do you live in to believe driving is often more environmentally friendly than walking, and that a loaded plane more efficient than bicyclists. I’d be shocked to see real science that suggests anything of the sort. From a time stand point there are clearly trips that make sense by air (Burbank to Long Beach is clearly not such a case), and ones that make sense by driving, but certainly driving and flying are not more “environmentally friendly”.

    As for the bicycling burns tons of calories comment requiring lots CO intensive farming, a popular statement amongst those that seek to belittle bicycling, I have seen very little to back up this claim. First of all bike commuters don’t go to a gym and sit on a stationary bike like many do for exercise, so the extra calories burned are actually going toward a real purpose of going somewhere, it is useful calorie burn. Secondly, the human metabolism adapts to endurance exercise, and one of those adaptions is to more efficiently produce energy from food consumed, and maintain smoother more efficient form and pedaling as well. In other words as distance traveled increases for a cyclist as their ability develops, the extra calories needed to fuel that does not keep growing on a linear curve. When 50 miles was the furthest I could ride, it was a similar effort as 100 miles would be for me now.

    In the case of a group of cyclists riding together such as Wolfpack in this case, drafting allows following riders to burn 20-30% less energy than the lead rider, and rotating riders to the front allows the entire group to conserve energy.

    I also find rather odd and disturbing the suggestion that bicycling’s benefits are overblown because it burns calories an odd sentiment in an era of exploding obesity and diabetes in our Country.

    In any case, the event was all in good fun, and we had a blast. L.A. politicians told people to stay at home for “Carmageddon”, and we went out on a beautiful day and explored our sprawling metropolis and inspired more people to consider riding a bike, and try the Metro system in LA. This is the first of any blog post or news I’ve seen reflecting negatively on the event.

  13. This is nothing new. They’ve done this type of thing on Top Gear with planes vs. cars and boats from Miami to Key West and cars vs. bikes in San Francisco. By no means are these “competitions” meant to be scientific. As such, there’s no need to hammer the cyclists on the details. Let them have their fun, and let’s stick to more meaningful topics like frequent flier programs and associated promotions, deals, etc.

  14. What’s really absurd is that JetBlue actually suggests that passengers check in at BUR 90 minutes early. Hard to fault the cyclists for using airline policy to their advantage in this event.

  15. @Gary Kavanagh thanks for stopping in. See for instance:
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/article2195538.ece

    To be clear I am not claiming that ‘flying is better for the environment than driving is better than walking is better than bicycling’ or anything of the sort.

    Rather I’m saying that these things are much more complicated than the simple stories we tell ourselves, whether about the environment or here about “the cyclists beat JetBlue.”

    Your cyclists turn up about an hour and a half before the flight then of course they’re going to ‘beat’ the plane.

    You choose places that are easier to bike between than fly then biking will win.

    This was a one-sided bet. I’m glad y’all had fun. You even got a bit of media, I don’t think the media did a great job reporting on y’all. And that’s all I’m saying…

  16. Wow, sounds like somebody used to be the last placed kid in the “race you to the end of the street” competition. If you can’t beat ’em, belittle ’em, huh?

  17. @Gary I was one of the passengers on the plane “racing” the cyclists–and yes, it was a one sided bet because Jetblue’s lawyers never would engage in a true “race” because it doesn’t sound good to have something where so many passengers safety is on the line be rushed.

    As Gary K. said, if we had shown up 20 mins before the flight, we still would have lost. Obviously, this was a publicity stunt–No airline flies commercial flights like this–and with good reason–they too know how stupid and inefficient it is. Our organizers contacted the airline and followed the official recommendations for arrival time to the airport. And even then, we actually left my home 1.5 hrs before departure, when the recommendation was to arrive at the airport 1.5 hrs before. That was at least 10 minutes. They didn’t pick the starting point–that was my house–I was a passenger on this flight before the event was even conceived! If we’d started from Joe’s house (in Hollywood!) we would have lost by an additional 25-30 minutes!

    If we had done curb to curb, I charge you that the cyclists would have still won.

    But in the end, I’m sad that you feel the need to “call out” a group of people who merely wanted to raise awareness of cycling and public transit in the City of Los Angeles. We’re not going to be winning over JET passengers any time soon. We’re not claiming you can beat a jet from JFK to Long Beach, we’re saying that you don’t need to hire a jet to get around just because you can’t use your car!

    I hope you enjoyed the event as much as I did. Everyone on the flight was aware of the race, and really thought it was fun and pleased to be a part of something like this.

  18. Gary: Shouldn’t you be out yelling at kids to get off the lawn. The cyclists stunt was brilliant and showed a car-culture place like LA that you don’t always have to drive. And only a bitter Hummer owner would start squawking about the environmental cost of walking and burning calories… Puh-lease.

  19. Gary

    What is wrong with you? You cite four year-old now discredited studies from an opinion piece in a Murdoch-owned rag as evidence that riding a bike is more harmful to the environment than car or jet travel. You think you need to “call out” those malicious cyclists for trying to raise awareness and build interest in cycling in the most congested city in the US. You cry foul about how the media isn’t reporting on what you see as a moving goalpost in this “contest”. Do you complain about seniors getting discounted tickets at the movie theater? Are you one of those people who doesn’t stand for old women on a crowded bus because that “wouldn’t be fair”?

    You’re a pathetic excuse for a human being. And your writing sucks too. “Put-up job” should have a hyphen.

  20. Gary
    You cite four year-old (now discredited) studies from an opinion piece in a Murdoch-owned rag as evidence that riding a bike is more harmful to the environment than car or jet travel. You think you need to “call out” those malicious cyclists for trying to raise awareness and build interest in cycling in the most congested city in the US. You cry foul about how the media isn’t reporting on what you see as a moving goalpost in this “contest”. Do you complain about seniors getting discounted tickets at the movie theater? Are you one of those people who doesn’t stand for old women on a crowded bus because that “wouldn’t be fair”?

    Also, “put-up job” should have a hyphen.

  21. Gary
    You cite four year-old (now discredited) studies from an opinion piece in a Murdoch-owned rag as evidence that riding a bike is more harmful to the environment than car or jet travel. You think you need to “call out” those malicious cyclists for trying to raise awareness and build interest in cycling in the most congested city in the US. You cry foul about how the media isn’t reporting on what you see as a moving goalpost in this “contest”. Do you complain about seniors getting discounted tickets at the movie theater? Are you one of those people who doesn’t stand for old women on a crowded bus because that “wouldn’t be fair”?

    Also, “put-up job” should have a hyphen.

    Finally, to answer your question: yes, the cyclists really outraced a JetBlue flight.

  22. @Hugo aka Adam –

    1. The point of the blog post had nothing to do with the environment. In the comments this was raised as a reason why the cyclists were great and the airline evil, yadda yadda, and I was simply saying that these things can be more complicated and simplistic stories like the one I mention in this post don’t really do us a service in my opinion.

    2. The London Times article I linked to in a recent comment was just a sample of a reference to serious academic work on the subject, but a committed environmentalist. Dismiss that one newspaper account as “Murdoch owned” but it references real research which has nothing to do with your bogeyman of the moment. Beisdes, it shows what little you know of British politics, since ownership notwithstanding the TImes of London supported Labour in 2001 and 2005.

    3. What in the world is this axe you’ve got to grind about discounted senior tickets? If anything you’d expect this blog to recommend signing up for an AARP membership to take advantage of the discounts! 😛 I think you really miss your mark here.

    @No-Doz I don’t own a Hummer. My wife and I share a single four cylinder small sedan, and I walk to work.

    What is it with anonymous commenters on the internet and throwing out barbs based more on their own prejudices than on actual situational knowledge?

    Don’t like my point that these things can be complicated, and that the reporting was a bit uncritical here, that it seemed like it wasn’t a fair ‘challenge’ when the cyclists set all the rules? That’s cool. Don’t like my followup reply that it’s not justified to report that way based solely on the overwhelming environmental benefits of cycling (“so who cares about truth??”) with a suggestion that it may not be unambiguously and at all times “the Lords work” as it were? So be it, but I still don’t see where y’all think I torture cats comes from… 🙂

  23. Gary —

    Normally I’m a big fan of your blog, and your advice has helped me significantly with miles and points, but I think you’re off base on this one. Your criticisms of the bike-vs-plane “race” seem to be:

    1. The cyclists chose the start and end points and they did so in a way that was biased against flying (“cyclists defined the test as being between two locations they selected, and then adding in driving time between those locations and the airports. . . . When the cyclists pick the spots, you already know it’s not going to be a fair find.”) and

    2. The passengers chose “how early to turn up at the airport and how much time to hang around at the airport before the flight.”

    As to No. 1, both the media coverage and the comments from Gary Kavanagh establish that the start point was a typical residence in North Hollywood, an area that is well within the Burbank airport catchment basin. The end point was what is apparently a prominent landmark in Long Beach, also quite close to the Long Beach airport. Both strike me as reasonable choices for an origin and destination; as Kavanagh says, few passengers start and end their travel at airports.

    As to No. 2, it appears that the “racers” left North Hollywood 90 minutes prior to their flight, which Kavanagh says was based on Jetblue’s recommendation that passengers arrive 90 minutes prior to their flight. In a sense, then, it was Jetblue – and not the passengers – who chose how much time they should spend hanging around the airport.

    Given those facts, I’m not seeing this as a case where the cyclists structured the race in a way that biased the results. Air travel is excellent for certain types of trips, but as distances shrink so too does the utility of a flight. That’s the essence of Amtrak’s appeal in the Northeast Corridor: The air shuttles are competitive with the Acela on New York-Washington but airlines carry almost no local passengers on New York-Philadelphia. On short flights – whether it’s 40 miles from BUR-LGB or 100 miles from LGA to PHL – the process of getting to the airport, clearing security, boarding and deplaning eat up any time savings from the incredible air speed.

    So did the Carmageddon cyclists really outrace a Jetblue flight? Yep. It certainly seems that they did.

    [By the way, and for what it’s worth, though I disagree with your conclusions here, I’ve always found this blog and your postings on Flyertalk and Milepoint to be civil, and I’m sorry to see the comments to this post turn toward attacks and unjustified assumptions toward you.]

  24. Gary,
    REALLY!
    Your statement below is the real boogeyman. And I m sorry, I did not read anything beyond that.
    It really sounds so ridiculous that I had to read it twice and make sure it wasn’t from you.
    And since I don’t even know where to start, I am just going to add some more tips, smilar to yours –

    1. We should stop producing all meat in this world since we know that it is more carbon intensive. Ready to be a vegan?
    2. We as a human race, should have full airplanes to go everywhere. You know, stay home/work from home all day since we will conserve all the calories. Then have a car to carry us out only when we really have to redeem FF miles for a int’l F ticket. It’s better to burn calories from all that F class food by going to a stairmaster, rather than achieving something purposeful, like commuting. And please, conserve energy by not excercising. By god’s grace, we could evolve into hibernating for half the year.
    3. Every wondered about that meal that you barely touched coz you filled yourself up at the lounge, but you still wanted to SAMPLE IT. You know that was real economical to fly that food for 1,000s of miles.
    3. Stop producing electricity in Nevada coz water its using is more expensive than the power its producing
    4. Clear all mountains of trees since when there wildfires, they pump in a lot of CO2.

    BTW, love you blog 80% of the time, but please stick to what you do best. Frequent Traveler Tips.
    No need to side with or against cyclists OR airlines, since they had their own agenda (which I happen to support more than the airline agenda.
    If this was for shock value, you achieved it. But you gotta be careful since this kind of statement slowly erodes credibility.
    regards,

    Gary said,
    @patrick nobody is bashing bicycling. Although don’t overestimate the environmental benefit, either. Bicycling burns tons of calories, which need to be replaced, which means more carbon-intensive farming. Driving is often more environmentally friendly than walking when total carbon outcome is accounted for. And a full plane can be more efficient than bicycling, depending on distance and assuming same number of bicyclers.

  25. @StarGoldUA wow sorry that I got under your skin but read my comments in context and you’ll see that you’re massively overreacting to an argument that I did not make!

  26. If you look at all the energy required to create LA’s ever expanding freeway network and maintain it I doubt you would conclude driving is more energy efficient. Besides the fact your likely to be stuck in traffic and idling your car.

    Of course you expend energy to create bike trails, but I’ve never seen 8 lane bike freeways :p

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