Bike Boom or Bust?

Driven mostly by high gas prices*, we’ve seen tremendous growth in the number of bike commuters in the U.S. this past year. Bikes are everywhere you look in the media, and the bicycle industry is awash with cash. And as was seen at Interbike, manufacturers are directly targeting this influx of new transportational cyclists. It’s possible we’re looking at the beginning of new era in cycling, where bicycles are viewed more as tools than toys.

But, as exciting as it is to see more people on bikes, there is some cause for concern. On the way to work today, I saw gas as low as $3.29 a gallon, and in some Midwestern and Southern states prices have dropped below the $3 mark. This begs the question whether this new found interest in bicycles for transportation is here to stay, or whether those that took up bike commuting solely to save money will soon hop back in their cars.

With an ailing economy, many people may still be motivated to save money by driving less. There are also other significant reasons to commute by bike such as reducing our environmental footprint, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and improving our health and well-being by incorporating exercise into our daily routines. Let’s just hope our fledgling bike commuting friends find these other factors as compelling as the pocketbook. If they don’t, we may see this bicycle bubble pop like so many others in recent years—at least until gas prices go up again.

*Americans consumed 800,000 barrels of oil a day less during the first half of this year than the same period last year

23 Responses to “Bike Boom or Bust?”

  • John A says:

    Low gas prices will be a great test of whether people actually come to enjoy bike commuting or whether they only do it so save money.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    Though the price of gas is decreasing, it is offset by the economic calamity in other areas. I think we have a few years to set this behavior in.

  • Shawn says:

    Don’t expect this lowering of gas prices to last. No way the OPEC ministers will allow that to happen for long. Expect production cuts and the reality of a finite resource to come crashing back into our lives by next Spring.

    Honestly, I look forward to it. We’ve had it easy way too long.

  • Andoni says:

    As the demand for oil continues increasing ( China, India, etc.), the oil extraction costs are increasing ( no new easy oil wells found since the late 80s forcing to get oil availailibility from tar sands, Siberia, Alaska, Antartida) the oil prices will continue going up, with more or less dramatism.

    I haven’t seen, yet, the big cicle names positioning clearly on the commuter/utilitarian bikes ( Kona’s step with the UTE is the only one I have seen around: Giant and the rest are forking it on the pseudo-utilitarian sporty bikes .. but haven’t seen the alternative to the car, yet).
    I haven’t seen new utilitarian bikes my 60 years old mum would consider buying for daily transport: they look too sporty .
    Demand drives the offer, but new offering could make people see bikes as means of transport, not just toys, sport machines , “only for loonies” or “only for believers”.
    The bike industry can help to speed up the transition, but I can only see them skimming the cream. This are just my thoughts from what I see in the UK. I conmute to work, and I know all the bike conmuters in my route ( 17 miles): we are no more than nine people ( and the gas price here is $2 per litre … $10 per gallon?). We love cars .Happy ride

  • Jason says:

    In Ohio, I’ve seen gas as low as $2.71 a gallon, but I don’t expect to see a surge of SUV sales or bicycles left on the curb for trash pickup. I don’t think there are many people out there that still believe days of cheap fuel will return, even with the latest drop in gas price. In my opinion, fuel is still too cheap. Additionally, the decline of available credit makes it harder for dealers to present affordable deals on large luxury cars and trucks.

    The high gas prices seen for the last couple of years have been a great benefit for the bicycle and motorcycle industry. Even here in rural Ohio I’ve seen a raise in the number of people riding bicycles. It has also been a benefit to mass transit and pedestrian friendly development.

    My concern is that higher material costs and economic uncertainty will stifle the current bicycle building boom. I do enjoying hearing about the new trends in bicycles built for transportation. Some writers are comparing it to the mountain bike boom. I didn’t see that coming, but it makes perfect since. The best part of this new trend is the wide verity of different style bicycles being offered.

  • RJ says:

    I think bicycles will stick around when it becomes part of mainstream culture. ‘Hip’ cultures, such as the fixed messenger scene in Portland, come and go. These small groups may bleed into mainstream (now TREK offers a fixed gear?), but just because you wear VANS doesn’t mean that you’ve actually touched a skateboard.

    Once bicycles become a normal (not eccentric), practical (not inconvenient) and cool (not geeky) option- I’d expect to see them stick around.

  • brett says:

    Another factor: GM will finally release an electric car next year, and the other manufacturers (those that still exist by then) won’t be far behind. That’s going to steal some of the impetus to enact pro-bike policies, and that would be a major mistake.
    I do hope the shift to biking and public transport continues, because the oil / gasoline aspect, while colossally important and devastating to the planet, the economy, and our quality of life, isn’t the only downside of the whole car culture. Our lives would be much improved by vastly increasing the use of bikes regardless of the price of gas.

  • Roland Smith says:

    I wonder when the US government will discover that you can put a huge tax on gas, and people will still buy it? It is an easy way to get your defecit down.

    Here in the Netherlands, 64% of the price of regular gasoline is taxes (that includes VAT). Think about your current gas price and multiply it by 2.5, that should give you an idea.

    The thing is, I’m not sure how significantly these high prices have reduced petrol usage here, even though we enjoy excellent cycling infrastructure.

  • steve says:

    Many people don’t see an immediate drop in expenses. They don’t bike enough to get rid of a car and are only saving on gas – it takes a large amount of riding for many to save a few hundred dollars. Add to that the fact that many bikes are not cheap and budgets are getting tighter. People have a mental idea of what a bike should cost and our neighbors were shocked when they found my wife’s new city bike cost about $750 (and it is very basic)

    Of course there are many other things that need to happen. Hopefully a few more people are pushed over into biking and will start doing it enough to make real changes in their health and pocketbooks, but I don’t see any lasting changes at this point. Remember it took Holland and Denmark a few decades to get where they are today and part of the formula was taxation that would not fly in the US.

  • Taylor says:

    here in Kentucky gas has already dropped below $3/gallon – however, I helped coordinate a bike study here at the University of Kentucky and bicycling to and from campus has increased 37% in the last ten years, far outpacing any population or enrollment increases at UK or in the area. so while those numbers only show the long-term increase in cycling, I would bet that most of that 37% increase isn’t going to be giving it up just because gas is a little cheaper now than it was during the summer. and while the number of new cyclists may end up decreasing, utilitarian cycling is one of those things that once you pick up the habit, it’s pretty hard to drop.

  • Alan says:

    @Taylor

    I wonder what percentage of those surveyed were students (a large portion I suspect)? It would be interesting to follow the same people once they leave school to see if they continue cycling. My guess would be that a high percentage give it up once they start careers and families.

  • Alan says:

    @Steve

    I agree, unless you ditch one car completely, the savings are minimal. In my case, keeping the second car would have resulted in something around a $1000-1500 savings per year, whereas, eliminating the second car has resulted in a savings of over $8000 this year.

  • Steve Fuller says:

    Here in Iowa, two things will mean fewer bikes on the roads; Cheaper gas, and colder temps. I’m personally hoping for a mild winter. With a 3 mile one way commute, I’m hoping to try and keep commuting through most of the winter. Now if I didn’t have to travel due north on my commute home…

  • Donald Moore says:

    As always gas is going to go up-up-down, up-up-down, and end higher than it was at the begining of the cycle.
    A lot of people who do not like us are living off of our petro-dollars (Iran, Russia and most Middle East countries) so we are not only paying for the war ON terrorism but the war OF terrorism as well.
    If we were honest with ourselves we would have placed a $1.00 per gallon tax on gas to pay for the war on terrorism and decrease the petro-dollar flow to those supporting the terrorists.

  • Gene says:

    Think back folks. Gas prices always go down before an election so that they are not an issue. Shortly after we vote, the prices will start increasing. And the bicycle will be on the upswing again.

  • beth says:

    I am far less concerned about the ride and fall in gas prices than I am about several governments’ decision to start playing banker.

    Gas would have to be at least 15 to 20 bucks a gallon before a large enough number of Americans would permanently change their lives and have a serious effect on infrastructure and the economy. Remember that we’re a lot more spread out than our friends over in Europe, and that reality is at the heart of our transportation and infrastructure challenges.

    Meanwhile, I worry more about banks’ willingness to float enough money to sustain the bicycle industry over the long haul. Now that government is playing banker — with our taxes, mind you — I predict they will try to follow a course that keeps things as status quo as possible so as not to alarm an already shaken American public. Don’t look for radical changes in municipal infrastructure or road-calming policies anytime soon, certainly not in the current economic environment.

    Rather, the solution may well lie in developing relationships with people in our communities, where we live and work and play; shrinking our own personal footprints as much as possible within our means and building economies of scale that are far more local and not as car-dependent.

    The changes many of us seek — in transportation, in healthcare, in livability — will only happen from the ground up, by working together with our neighbors and hopefully creating strong frendships, by choosing to live simpler lives that are less dependent on far-flung travel, by being more mindful about where and how we spend our money. If we wait for change to happen at industrial or institutional levels we will be disappointed, and we will have missed the point. The individual bicyclist can do far more to effect that change than the bicycle industry as we know it currently can.

    So I swing my leg over my bike each day, well aware that the world may not change fast enough for my liking, and I keep pedaling. I know that for over thirty years I have been a “loony”, and the sudden rise in the number of folks now joining me in the bike lanes only makes me smile, because I don’t feel so alone anymore.

    happy riding –

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Beth, “we’re a lot more spread out than our friends over in Europe”

    Actually, you’re not. 50% of the working population in the USA commutes five miles or less to work.
    http://1world2wheels.org/get-involved

    As Brett says, saving money is only one of the many advantages of cycling. Health, noise, and congestion all speak for more cycling. The media coverage over the summer has normalised transportational cycling. It has made it easier to advocate and implement facilities for cycling, which will get more people cycling over the long term.

  • s says:

    my view of things will be obviously skewed to what is happening here (calgary, alberta, canada) but my observation has been that more people are choosing to ride a bike, more often, for more reasons. here are some reasons…

    – a growing awareness of climate change
    – high gasoline prices (dont be fooled by the low prices. the overall economy is down and oil is just following suit. as soon as the markets recover so will oil prices)
    – higher costs for consumer goods and food
    – (hoepfully) the beginning of the end of the North American mega-consume-till-you-drop-or-your-creditcard-sets-on-fire culture – obviously unsustainable.

    i firmly believe we are entering a new renaissance in bicycle use and we will see huge growth in the numbers of average joes/janes who decide to try riding bikes more often.

    another important aspect is bicycle advocacy is growing quickly in many cities – read, safer streets for average joes/janes.

    one more important thing to remember is that if people use bicycles for errands/commuting/etc more often (even just once a week) the end result will be a huge jump in people who consider them selves cyclists and an overall positive impact on the bicycle industry and environment.

    i think it is fair to speculate that this could be the beginning of the next big boom in cycling, like MTB’s in the 80-90’s and road bikes back in the 70’s. the big difference this time is that this boom will not be about recreation, i will be about transportation.

  • brad says:

    A couple of thoughts:

    First, as someone who moved to Canada from the US when gas prices were not much higher than $1/gallon it’s funny to see people talking about prices “as low as $3.29 a gallon.” Even in places where gas has dropped below $3, it’s still expensive compared with what most of us have been used to over the past couple of decades.

    Second, I agree with Beth that gas prices would have to be quite a bit higher to cause permanent changes in behavior, although I think you’d start seeing behavior modifications once it gets between $5 and $10 per gallon. And while it’s true that most Americans don’t commute very far to work, the automobile is used for a lot more than just commuting. Gasoline prices have been subsidized forever in America because people travel long distances for shopping, visiting friends and family, etc., and for commercial carriers to deliver goods and services.

    Third, the convenience and speed of the car is always going to make it much more attractive to most people than biking. When I have to run errands during the workday and even on busy weekends, the car tends to be my vehicle of choice because it’s faster, more secure, and I can haul more stuff. I can leave my groceries in the car while I run into the hardware store, for example, whereas I’d have to bring them with me if I were on my bike or else risk having a couple of empty panniers when I get back out of the store. On the other hand, if I have to go downtown or somewhere else where you have to drive around for 20 minutes just to find an available parking space, the bike wins hands down.

    I’m skeptical about the ability of a biking “boom” to last, because the car is such a formidable alternative and because people tend to be lazy. But I do think the ranks of cyclists will continue to gradually increase for many reasons, the price of gas being just one of them.

  • Darryl says:

    For bicycles to make a difference, there has to be a difference in lifestyle first. Cycling is only a means to a destination; although we enjoy the means to the destination, too.

    Besides gasoline and abuse the price thereof, cycling is as much a land use issue. Let me correct that, automobiles and the care, feeding a parking of automobiles is becoming a critical land use issue where development is restricted by zoning, geographical features and municipal bounderies.

    In order to invoke changes in government support of multi-modal transportation, there has to be a demand in change in how and where we conduct our business and lifestyle. And that will be a considerable undertaking.

    I”m confident bicycles in all its’ permutations will be a viable commodity for many years. The road ahead will be paved not for wheels, however, but where we want to go as a society.

  • Bob C says:

    I agree with what Shawn says:
    “Don’t expect this lowering of gas prices to last. No way the OPEC ministers will allow that to happen for long. Expect production cuts and the reality of a finite resource to come crashing back into our lives by next Spring.

    Honestly, I look forward to it. We’ve had it easy way too long.”

    And, especially, with what Beth says
    “[T]he solution may well lie in developing relationships with people in our communities, where we live and work and play; shrinking our own personal footprints as much as possible within our means and building economies of scale that are far more local and not as car-dependent.

    The changes many of us seek … will only happen from the ground up, by working together with our neighbors and hopefully creating strong friendships, by choosing to live simpler lives that are less dependent on far-flung travel, by being more mindful about where and how we spend our money. If we wait for change to happen at industrial or institutional levels we will be disappointed, and we will have missed the point. The individual bicyclist can do far more to effect that change than the bicycle industry as we know it currently can.”

    So, keep bicycling. The example will eventually sink in.

  • OK says:

    The fact that some people are no longer forced to cycle doesn’t bother me. The focus of cycling should be making people want to cycle.

    This can be acomplished by the industry producing fun body friendly bikes and making them available to customers through well-informed shops. The focus of the industry has unfortunately focus on bicycles that a very limited number of folks want to ride. The effect of this policy is that very few people ride bikes, which makes sense to me. The bike industry pushes the sale of bikes that are a turn-off to the general public, I estimate it’s because they are afraid of bikes themselves, or they fear sales growth.

    The mountain bikes are complex, unfreindly to the body, dull from the excessive suspension, and expensive. The salespeople swallow the salespitch of the industry, and give the customer few options when they look to purchase an all around bike. Since the trip around the parking lot isn’t long enough for discomfort to set in, the bike gets sold. It gets used a couple times then spends the rest of it’s life in the garage where it collects dust on all it’s oily parts. The car takes over the duties and the bike becomes the novelty the bike industry intended.

    Road bikes suffer the same design flaws. The extreme body position of the average road bike isn’t something the human beings should logically own or operate. The obsession with with bike weight shows again how truely out of touch the industry is with the average rider. Note to bike industry, very few customers want something other than an inexpesive comfortable bike.

    As far as riders go we need to build community, and that means we need to enjoy ourselves.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    This article in the Washington Post states that public transit ridership increased in September even as gas fell to $3.63/gallon at the end of September. And the WSJ article says driving continued to fall in October as well. If new transit users are sticking with it, maybe new cyclists are too.

    Washington Post: New Ridership Record Shows U.S. Still Lured to Mass Transit

    Wall Street Journal: Americans Continue to Cut Back on Driving
    “The fact that the trend persists even as gas prices are dropping confirms that America’s travel habits are fundamentally changing,” Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said in a statement.

 
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