In recent days, weeks and months many conversations have been had about the current state of the US economy (and the global one for that matter) and the pressures put on Joe Consumer by the high (and climbing) prices of gasoline. Here in California, gas has been over $4.00/ gallon for weeks now and some experts believe that $5.00/ gallon gas will be here by the summer driving months. For stressed out wallets and budgets, that might just mean making some serious decisions about driving habits.
Here's the thing though: the current high gas prices are not the answer to the cycling industry's prayers. Not yet anyway.
US consumers are far too used to driving their cars. They practically live in them. We have all kinds of luxuries built into them. Our cars have become our sense of self for many of us. $4.00+/ gallon gas isn't going to change that any time soon. There are too many barriers to getting people out of their cars and onto a bike.
- Lack of infrastructure- this one always raises quite a bit of debate, but in many cases people will not ride their bikes to commute- even for a very short commute- if they do not feel safe. Bike lanes are not the end-all answer, but they sure do help and address the major concerns of most people. This infrastructure applies to public/ mass transit as well- many people live far from their work (I live 40 miles away) and need to combine some form of mass/ public transit with their bike commute. Which means that we also need more commuter stations with lockers, racks, etc.
- Lack of support- there are tax incentives for people to carpool or take public transportation, but none for cycling to work. Plus, how many of us have access to showers at our place of work? Not many, according to most studies I've read.
- The dreaded retail experience- this one raises a lot of debate as well, but the majority of non-cyclists find the Bike Shop experience to be intimidating or downright unpleasant.
- The price of gas isn't "that bad" yet. It is going to take gas prices well over $5.00/ gallon to really make people uncomfortable pumping gas into their cars. It will take gas prices, I believe, nearing $10.00/ gallon for us to reach that critical mass needed to tip the scales in favor of more people commuting.
- The Gub-ment. The price of gas is such a sensitive issue and politically charged enough that it is in the daily discourse of the power holders in our capitol. Even John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate for president, is talking about putting a temporary hold on the federal fuel tax over the summer to keep gas prices down. Driving is such an important part of our nation's economy that the politicians want to protect driving... not discourage it. The US car makers wield amazing power as well- they have successfully lobbied against legislation to improve fuel efficiency of their cars. We'll reduce federal taxes before we force car makers to improve fuel standards? Insanity.
- The cycling "stigma". In the US at least, bicycle commuting is still widely viewed as something only poor people, convicted drunks with no driver's licenses or "losers" do.
Those folks who are already on the fence, already considering bicycle commuting, might now have the needed incentive to begin commuting by bike. Maybe. An increase in gas prices is not going to be enough to drag the masses out of their heated/ air conditioned, rolling office/ entertainment centers. Not nearly.
There is hope though. There are more bicycle commuters now than there have been since the gas crunch of the late 70's. More and more manufacturers are embracing the product category. More communities are getting behind initiatives to get residents onto bikes. More companies are providing incentives to employees to ride their bikes by supplying lockers, showers and bike racks. The lobbying efforts of the industry and advocacy groups are beginning to get the attention of the check writers in DC.
All in all, things are improving. But... this continued talk about higher gas prices saving the industry from the throws of a bad economy (and rising costs) or being the catapult to move it into a post-Lance renaissance is foolish. We still have a lot of work to do and we still need to find new and better ways to reach out and pull in new consumers (non-cyclists). Otherwise, no amount of high priced fuel is going to save us.
Feeling a little gassy? I know I am...
Chief Kool-Aid Dispenser
Posted by Tim Jackson at 9:46 PM