15 May 2017

The Last Miles, The Longest Miles

Paris and Los Angeles are "the last cities standing", if you will, in the contest to host the 2024 Olympics.

Upon visiting each city, Olympic Committee members noted that the City of Light and La-La Land both had, among other things, already-existing venues for hosting events.  So, while hosting the Games won't be cheap, it won't be quite as expensive as it would be in some other cities.  In other places, the need to construct everything from new stadiums to housing for athletes has spawned opposition from citizens who believe the money could be better spent on, say, hospitals or schools.  Thus, everyday people as well as high public officials in the home of Impressionism and the kingdom of the silver screen support their hometowns' bids for the 2024 Games.

The Olympic Committee, of course, also found vast differences between Paris and Los Angeles.  One of them is the distances athletes, spectators and others would have to travel to and from events.  Although its officials are making efforts to develop a real mass transportation system and to make their town more bike-friendly, L.A. is still considered the capital of car-centered culture.  The City of Angels was founded in 1781, but it didn't become one of the major cities of the United States until about World War I--which, of course, is the time the automobile literally changed the region's, and the nation's, landscape.

Paris, on the other hand, is a pretty compact city.  It's almost exactly the same size as the Bronx (with nearly three times the population).  Thus, most people can walk, cycle or take take mass transit to work, shop or do almost anything they need to do, and arrive in their destinations within minutes.  Paris, of course, has one of the largest bike-share programs in the world, and no point in "Paname" is more than 500 meters from a Metro (subway) station.

That difference is emblematic, not only of the two cities, but also (to a large degree) the countries of which they are part. You probably wish, as I do, that more people would ride bikes to work.  In fact, you might wish that you were one of the people who rides to work.  If you are, you have a lot of company:  In various surveys, people have said they would bike to work if they lived closer and there were facilities like secure parking and places where they could wash up and change clothes.

The fact that this country depends on the internal combustion engine more than almost any other is what has led people to live further from their workplaces than their peers in just about every other nation.  (The Tri-State area has now become the Quad-State Area, and Las Vegas has become a de facto suburb of L.A.)  Let's face it:  Someone who lives 200 kilometers away from his or her job isn't going to ride a bike to work, even if he or she were capable of doing so.  

The fact that this country and culture are so auto-dependent has led to what is one of the most vexing ironies of transportation.  It can be expressed thusly:  "The last miles are the longest."  So, as an example, it could take someone an hour to go the 30 miles from home to work in his or her car.  But the last three or four miles might take up half of that commuter's time.

The reason is that the last part of the commute is usually the most congested part.  Even if someone commutes on a bus or train, that last part is the longest, especially if the commuter is headed for a large terminal like New York's Penn Station or Port Authority Bus Terminal--and has to take a local bus or train from there.

Longtime New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham rides to work in 2010.

Some folks in Bedford, Massachusetts are aware of this phenomenon.  So, they came up with an idea to encourage more of their town's workforce to ride their bikes to their jobs:  They designated parking spaces near the town line for people who would, after parking their cars, pedal the rest of the way.  

A year after this program's implementation, more people are riding to work. Still, Selectmen Margot Fleischman would like to see more people avail themselves to the option of pedaling from the town line to its center, which takes less time than driving.  While she is thinking of the benefits (and possibly pleasures) of cycling, she is also thinking about traffic congestion in the town's center.

If more people are willing to follow the lead of those who park and pedal, the last few miles of a commute will still be the longest only because of the anticipation and dread of facing bosses, customers or whom- or whatever the workday might bring!


  1. A portion of the Marathon during the L.A. Olympics in 1984 was on one of the L.A. freeways. I can't think of a more boring route.

  2. Anon--I remember seeing that and thinking the same thing.

  3. Bill Cunningham was amazing. It was a terrible loss when he died.