TECH

I Raced A Helicopter Through NYC Traffic On A Bike. And I Won

It was close, but a bike is the way to go.

Fighting Manhattan gridlock to get across town is notoriously difficult. It's even more difficult during rush hour on a morning when a good chunk of Midtown streets are shut down because the Pope is delivering an address at the United Nations.  

The helicopter on-demand service Blade had a great idea to help people bypass the #popepocalypse gridlock on Friday: It announced a promotion where it would fly passengers back and forth between the far east and far west of Manhattan for a mere $95. The flight route would go around the tip of the island, rather than across it. Blade said it'd take 10 minutes.

That's a pretty good idea, but I had a better one -- why not just bike? Biking is hands down the best way to get across the city. You slide right by the traffic and are often going just as fast as the cars around you, if not faster. 

Not to mention, the Pope's visit gridlocked Manhattan as he traveled around the city spreading his message about climate change. A 10-minute helicopter ride is not the worst thing in the world for the environment, but a Blade passenger's carbon footprint is not zero. Biking is a far more climate-friendly way to travel.

So I challenged Blade to a race:  

The company accepted!

After some back and forth to get a route that simulated a real commute, we decided that we'd start on the East Side, at the 34th Street heliport. It happens to be a block from the East River Ferry terminal (and a Citibike station), so plenty of people start their day at that location and need to head west. We'd race from there to the Citibike station on 27th Street and 11th Avenue, which is in front of the Starrett Lehigh office building.

This meant that my colleague Caitlyn, who'd be racing me in the chopper, would need to disembark at the West Side helipad and walk to the Citibike station to meet me. We did this because someone flying around the island would still need to walk to their final destination once the helicopter landed. 

This race didn't come totally out of nowhere: There's actually some history. Back in 2011, during Los Angeles's "Carmageddon," JetBlue did a similar promotion, flying planes from an airport on one side of the gridlocked city to an airport on the other side. A group of cyclists called Wolfpack Hustle raced the plane (and won!). This gave me confidence (overconfidence?) that I could beat the helicopter. Flying is plush, but bikes don't require spending time going through TSA checkpoints.  

Just before 8 a.m., Caitlyn and I met at 35th Street, and the race was on. I may have gotten a little bit competitive:

As Caitlyn was strapping herself in and enjoying a complimentary beverage from Blade, I was heading down 35th Street toward Second Avenue.

There was a fair amount of traffic, but not nearly as much as I expected. I headed down Second to 29th Street, which would take me all the way across Manhattan to 11th Avenue. There were a lot of potholes. Had Citibike provided me with a complimentary coffee, I probably would have dropped it on the bumpy ride. However! In no time, I was nearing my destination. Miraculously, there were no cars parked in the bike lane to block my way, and not enough construction to slow me down -- both regular issues for a bike commuter in the city.

Then I had to stop at a light just before crossing 10th Avenue. It felt like the longest light of my life. Cars came. They kept coming. There was no way I was going to get across. Finally, it was green.

As I headed down the block and readied my turn onto 11th and down the home stretch, I saw my competition walking toward me from the other direction. No way she would make it the remaining two blocks on foot faster than me on a bike. I had won!   

It took me just under 13 minutes to travel the 2.2 miles across town. Caitlyn arrived a couple minutes later.

CONVERSATIONS