Bicycles versus cars that are faster

How fast are we really? The concept of effective speed

If you look at the numbers from the Berlin Senate (or a speedometer), cars are significantly faster than bicycles. But speed can also be thought of differently: In the concept of “effective speed”, bicycles (and sometimes pedestrians) are almost always faster than cars.

How fast do we move in cities? In Berlin, the average speed for cars is around 25 km / h. This number takes into account the time from the start of a journey to the end. But when does a journey really start? Does the time it takes to scrape the windshield or inflate a tire count? Does that include tying shoes? Or the hour in the office in which you have to earn the money to be able to finance the gasoline for the drive home or the bicycle mechanic?
If one wants to calculate the speed, one usually divides the travel distance by the time necessary for the journey. This is how you get to kilometers per hour. Cyclists in Berlin then reach an average speed of 12.3 km / h compared to 24.9 km / h for drivers. The difference seems big - but what if we add the time that cyclists and motorists invest to buy and maintain their means of transport? It's time to rethink our concept of speed. But then what should we include? Fortunately, there are alternatives.

The concept of effective speed

The concept of "effective speed" is one such alternative. The underlying principle can already be found in Henry David Thoreau's Walden of 1854: He stated that he would get around the world faster on foot than a friend who would take the train. Because in order to finance the tickets, the friend would have to work a long time. With this Thoreau has already described the core of the concept of effective speed: The entire time that you spend to be mobile is included in the distance-per-hour calculation.

This means that you measure the speed in the same categories (distance per unit of time), but you include more in the measurement than the pure driving time. My personal effective speed on the bike is around 15.5 km / h (I live in Berlin, earn a little less than a public employee, ride my not too expensive bike and arrive sweaty).

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I cycle an average of 17 km / h, earn around € 15 an hour and spend around € 300 a year on my bike. The average speed for cars in Berlin is 24.9 km / h and the ADAC estimates the costs for a Renault Twingo at € 4,392 and for a Mercedes S 500 at € 24,792 per year.

If I were to cover the same distance with my own car in Berlin, my effective speed would be around 8.1 km / h with a Renault Twingo and around 2 km / h with a Mercedes S500.3. (The following applies: If you earn more than I do, then you are “faster”!).

Of course, I could add to this calculation by including the oiling of my chain, the inflation of the tires and the bill for the bicycle mechanic. All of this should really be taken into account when talking about the speed at which you are moving. Paul Tranter, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales at Canberra, does such extensive calculations. He showed that city dwellers could retire 10 to 15 years earlier if they took the bike instead of the car! Tranter also calculates the so-called »social speed«, i.e. the effective speed plus the external costs that society has to bear (e.g. road construction and maintenance, damage to health due to noise and greenhouse gases).

But back to actual speed: Tranter calculates that his hometown Canberra is one of the few places where you have to cycle really fast to keep up with a car (21.5 km / h). In Melbourne, Tokyo or Los Angeles the effective speed of cars is only 14 km / h, in Hamburg 12 km / h and in London or Delhi around 8 km / h. Almost all cyclists should be able to do that. *

The next time you get in your car, get on your bike, or use the Segway, you may remember how fast you really are. Better still, at the end of a long day, think about whether the last hour or two of your sitting in the office is really worth driving home. All in all, it's not just about two hours, but maybe ten years.


* Tranter, P., 2012, ‘Effective Speed: Cycling Because It's“ Faster ”’, in J. Pucher and R. Buehler (eds.), City Cycling, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.