City Bicyclode

I want to ride my bicycle!

Oh bicycle, you are a beautiful machine. So simple, a highly efficient human powered vehicle with two wheels. You have quite the history don’t you, and how you have matured! We can take you anywhere now; down a snowy mountain, through dingy city alleys, even across the country. Your practicality for urban transportation is nothing short of perfection.

biketech and efficiency

As an engineering student and professional, I have to praise the bike as a machine first; particularly the drive-train. A well oiled, top-end bike can reach efficiency levels above 96%. In other words, of the energy that you expend, 96% is used to move you.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account your body’s efficiency to extract energy from food, air drag, rolling friction, tire deformation and bumpy roads. I’m excluding our body’s thermal efficiency because of the complexities in quantifying how much work we can do. We are small thermal engines, but we also have energy necesities for thinking, life processes, digestion, and tend to exert more under mental stress; all very difficult to understand the energy use.

I like to compare this efficiency to automobiles. All thermal engines, which includes gasoline engines, have efficiency maximums governed by the Carnot Cycle. Basically, using the difference between the temperature of a burning substance and the ambient temperature, an ideal theoretical thermal engine will never exceed about 75% efficiency. Your car’s piston engine operates on the Otto cycle, with a maximum of about 35% efficiency. Now incorporate friction, incomplete burning, leaks, forgotten maintenance schedules and your car’s thermal efficiency dwindles to between 25-35% (diesel cars about 40%) to actually move the thing. Now account for the relative weight of the car to yourself. A 170 lb average dude and a 4000 lb average car.

170 lb/4170 lb = [0.040 weight ratio] * [35% avg. gas car eff.] = 1.43%

So, this means that about 1.5% of the energy stored in gasoline is actually used to move you. This is grossly over simplified, but the principle is there.

For a 25 lb bike (avg. bike weight)

170 lb / 195 lb = [0.87 weight ratio] * [96% bike drive train eff.] = 87%

As an aside,  the most efficient piston engine ever made by Wartsila-Sulzer and boasts 52% thermal efficiency, the highest ever from a combustion engine. It weighs 3000 tons and offers 109,000 HP, you won’t drive this unless you need to move your space station (or oil tanker!).

city biking

Enough with the tech jargon and car bashing, especially because I love driving equally as much as I love biking!

I want to pay my respects especially to the city biker and what it means to straddle that leather seat and pedal through the urban streets.

why bike?

A bike is a versatile vehicle. Fully capable of riding on the street at a speed similar to automobiles traveling on a main urban road (say comm ave in boston) and exceeds average speed of automobiles on urban back roads. At the same time, bikes are fully capable of riding through parks, walk ways, hiking trails, and side walks. Bikable terrain options open wide with different bike types, i.e. mountain bikes.

In a dense city such as Boston or New York, the bike is the fastest mode of transportation available. Drafting busses, shirking traffic lights, cutting through alleys all at near car speeds can shave significant times off your commute. Not to mention the health benefits of the cardiovascular activity. It is a great way to tour a city, linking you intimately with the surroundings while providing short transit times.

rules of the road

There are rules of the road. Because the independence an automobile gives us, because its a dangerous piece of heavy equipment, and because its an extremely commonly used mode of transportation, it is subject to a long list of laws. At the same time, as a result of the automobile infrastructure, there are a some laws (or recommendaitons) that pedestrians must follow, mainly ‘traffic’ lights). There are no bike lights in Boston and the bike laws extend to about no riding on sidewalks and no riding through the public gardens, if you can even call them laws. This leaves a void in the law structure for the bicyclist, a dream come true for the transportation system.

dangers of rippin’ the city

Because of the versatility of the bike and its niche in the rules of the road, the bike can go anywhere…fast. Bikers are able to use both automobile traffic lights and pedestrian lights to pass through interesections. Bikes can cut down alleys, one-way streets, parks, even sidewalks (though this tends to anger people) to find a more direct route to a desitination. There are some interesting incidences that a biker can come across on their travels through the urban environment.

Just Cruisin’

Opening car doors!! Need I say more? Give yourself some birthing room, cars coming from behind you are more apt to slow down and/or go around you than someone checking their side view mirror before opening their door after parking.

For all those car more info


Red light backups


Theres a red light causing a line of cars at an intersection. I will focus here on a double lane (2 lanes, same direction).


To beat the traffic going in your direction and either

  1. cross the intersection straight or
  2. take a right at the intersection or
  3. take a left


Ride the gauntlet. Ride as fast as you’re comfortable through the middle of the car lanes (along the lines between stopped cars). You’ll cut in front of a bunch of people, get ahead of cars, proceed to an open road ahead and of course feel the rush. Awesome.

  1. If you want to go straight, you may have to stop at the front of the car pack. This is where your void comes into handy. Look at the pedestrian light, is the white man walking? if he is GO! Is there cross traffic? no? GO!
  2. If you want to take a right, take it. Just make sure no cross traffic cars are driving too close to the side of the road
  3. Left turns require some creativity and judgement. You may just have to wait with the rest of the cars. Definitely use the pedestrian lights to your advantage as well. A seasoned biker may extrapolate and cut to the opposite side of the road (into oncoming traffic) before getting into the gauntlet. This obivously creates a new list of interesting problems, but thats why we extrapolate!


Clearly, there are some serious dangers involved here.

1. Green light in the Gauntlet

A premature green light while you’re in the gauntlet will cause traffic to move while you’re in a precarious situation. Don’t panic. Your best bet is to speed up and move into a car lane, so the car is forced to slow down. Make your way to the side of the road (where bikers belong and you want to be) while keeping traffic behind you. They may be mad, but at least you won’t get whacked by a side view mirror in the gauntlet.

Also, be very warey of cars switching lanes. Some motorists find themselves in turn-only lanes and don’t want that. They can get nervous and make sudden, unassumed accelerations in atempt to get to the left-turn lane and may overlook the biker in the gauntlet. Its up to you (the biker) to read people.

If you can’t get over to the right, you can find yourself streaking down the middle of the road along the dotted lines with cars passing by you at car speeds. Again, don’t panic, wait for a break in the traffic and push to the right side of the road. Refamiliarize with those hand signals that we forgot since drivers-ed.

Blind Right Turners


Right lane changes to a right-turn only, a car turns right and cuts a biker off




Turn with the car. You can get mad at them later, but also understand that drivers are not necessarily checking their right sideview mirrors in a right turn only lane. You can also use foresight and experience to get out of the right turn only lanes and move more to the middle of the road where traffic will be going straight.


T-boning the car, falling, wrecking your bike and getting run over by the proceeding car. Don’t do it.

bike acceptance

People using other modes of transport, car and ankles, have begun to get more comfortable with bikes on the road with the addition of dedicated bike lanes and increased amounts of bike riders on the road (especially when gas was $4+/ gallon). However, many motorists still are not completely comfortable with bikers on the road and many of the city roads are not bike friendly.

In my hometown of Allston/Brighton, MA there are some particularly dangerous areas. Since moving in 2 years ago, at least two biker have died in automobile accidents a the same intersection of Harvard Ave. and Cambridge st. The bicycle involved in the accident is painted white and serves as a Memorial on the corner of Harvard Ave. and Cambridge st.

There are definitely some interesting inventions out there to make the lowly biker stand out to the world. There are of course head and taillights, I necessity for those twilight bikers. There are quite a few other beacons that keep the motorists aware, such as the LightLane and Bike Contrails.


The fact is, humans are not designed to travel at the high speeds our transportation machines can deliver. We are especially not designed to withstand the impact from a collision at these superhuman speeds. It is the responisibility of everyone, including those on the ankle express, to be aware of everyone else.

city biker

Oh biker, you ride the thin gray line between the traditional transportation modes. You must be hyper-alert and vigilant. A superhero, with strong quads and an uncanny sense of anticipation and foresight. The streets are unforgiving, and you use this for your advantage. You are fueled by will and possibly a burrito as you dodge small dogs, car doors and DPW workers. You are humble in your concern for our fagile energy infrastructure and take responsibility by speeding past gasoline stations.

Your goal is clear: Pedal or Die

  1. #1 by Rohan on 03/31/2009 - 9:44 pm

    loved this post a lot. I found this and thought it might be a neat appendix to your post:

    also is a very cool website in case you are unfamiliar with it.
    much love


  2. #2 by Rohan on 03/31/2009 - 9:46 pm

    Also on a similar note, there is always an annual bike ride from London to Amsterdam, which i’ve always been curious about but way too timid to actually do it. maybe one day. maybe when u come here we can do it.

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