Ah, 2008 (The Good Ol’ Days)

As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I keep coming back to the idea that the real game changer is going to be an increase in gas prices. I believe this because I saw it with my own eyes in July 2008 when gas prices topped out at $4.12 per gallon. During that summer, you could barely get a bicycle on the Amtrak commuter train in Northern California. It got so bad (good?) that there was one car completely dedicated to hauling bicycles, with full racks and bikes overflowing into the aisles. That was also the period when bike industry insiders were heralding the new era of transportational bicycling, and in some cases, even gloating about the industry being recession-proof.

Ah, how quickly things can change.

By December of the same year, gas dropped to under $2 per gallon, effectively putting and end to the party. By July of the following year, the bike racks on my train were once again only half full, and the bike industry was straddled with an excess of inventory that was purchased during the prior year’s feeding frenzy. It appears we’ve pretty much been on a flat line ever since.

Certainly, there’s a no limit to the amount of work that can be done in the areas of advocacy, education, and product development. Improved infrastructure, public outreach, riders’ training, and more-and-better tools designed specifically for the transportational bicyclist are all well and good. I’m afraid, though, that these won’t be enough to spur the ten-fold increase in bicycle use we’re all hoping for; it appears only a permanent increase in gas prices will do that.

23 Responses to “Ah, 2008 (The Good Ol’ Days)”

  • Brent says:

    I think you’re right, but I find it problematic that we’ll have to change our ways only in response to crisis (a position of weakness) rather than a shift in sentiment (a position of strength). When high gasoline prices are finally here to stay, we may end up being caught flat-footed and unable to change quickly enough.

  • Fergie348 says:

    Even the auto makers have been calling for a price floor so they can effectively plan their models 3 – 5 years in advance. Easily done with a modest increase in the federal excise tax. That tax currently sits at 18.4 cent per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuels. Let’s reset at a nice round $2 a gallon for unleaded and $1.75 for diesel. That should fix things up right quick..

    Unfortunately, every politician I’ve talked to about this has changed the subject. They’re scared and gutless and it won’t happen until we demand it in sufficient numbers to scare them the other way.

    I don’t know how to convince my car driving brethren that this is a good idea and that in the end they would benefit. Ideas?

  • Grateful says:

    The reason gasoline went to $4/gal. in 2008 is because a very corrupt group of very powerful people conspired to make it happen, (at the end of an out going administration), so they could all make a whole lot MORE money before leaving office.

    We won’t see another spike in gas prices again until another coop like that can be orchestrated – by a new set of folks & and some of the old ones.

    Only the naive do not realize that it WILL happen again.

    WISE folks aren’t waiting, they’re already on their bikes. I really respect those who already have sense enough to go car-free of car-lite. It’s SMART on so many levels.

  • Ak Mike says:

    The dramatic rise in oil prices in 2008 was a result of global oil demand bumping up against the peak of oil production. Oil production globally has remained in a flat to slowly declining plateau since 2004, and the future shows a continuing decline as the major oil producing regions strain to produce with their old and declining fields.

    During that time global oil demand surged with the increasing affluence of many rising economies (China, India, Brazil, Russia, etc.). With the global population growing to near 7 billion, the demands for food, water and energy will be strained by the ability of the world to produce and deliver these necessities to the people.

    These issues will frame the future we live in. There will be conflicting price signals as the world lurches forward (ie. extreme price volatility). The herd will be confused as they attempt to maintain business-as-usual in a world where major systemic changes are required.

    The ability to see past the price volatility and plan for the coming transportation evolution is critical. However, I think Brent is correct that we may be caught “flat-footed”. Waiting for the price signals will certainly mean we have waited too long, which I believe has already happened. We seem only able to embrace complacency or respond to panic.

    I’ve asked myself why I love reading this blog so much, and I think this is a big part of it. It highlights one of the solutions to the systemic changes the future requires, and it does so in such a positive way. Bicycle culture advocates must “keep on keepin’ on”, lighting the way for the herd mired in the mindset of business-as-usual and waiting for the situational panic response.

    Ak Mike

  • peteathome says:

    Right now, oil demand is low due to the world-wide recession. As mentioned above, production has been flat or declining for a number of years. When the recession ends and demand increases, I expect that the price of oil will rise dramatically.

    A secondary factor is that we lack adequate refining capacity in the USA, perhaps because of NIMBY attitudes. Again, when the recession ends and gasoline demand goes up in the USA, we will again find gas prices shooting up because refining capacity can’t keep up with demand.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    I think a higher gas tax could be part of the solution, but it would have to take into account rising disposable income.

    I think mandatory parking minimums are another important issue. In most places, it’s illegal to build commercial space or multi-family dwellings without car parking, even if it’s a very central location with excellent transit, ped, bike and taxi access. Typically you need one or two parking spots per dwelling, or else you don’t get a building permit. This makes it easier and more convenient to drive, while making dense developments more difficult and expensive. I believe the amount of parking should be left up to developers and building owners.

    According to the article below, 90% of car journeys end in “free” parking spots.

    There is no free parking

    Obviously, an end to highway expansion would save tax dollars while also letting people figure out their transportation for themselves. And that would be green.

  • John says:

    I think you are on the Wrong Continent to get the full Picture. The US is and was always Cheaper than Europe for Fuel . In Europe Bicycles for Transportation was and is thriving ,always has been except Britain and Ireland since 1975 when they discovered the Car. However since 2000 Cycling has really took off again in Britain and most certainly Ireland,everywhere you go Bicycles everywhere.

    The People are developing a Strong liking now for Pashleys and Dutch Bikes and also a lot of Old Raleighs are surfacing from Sheds and are being done up together with all the Modern Style of Bikes and Road Bikes MTBs ETC.

    The Price of Unleaded Petrol/Gas is around €1.35 Euro a Litre which Translates as €5.60 Euro an Imperial Gallon ,in US Money I would say about $8 Dollars. A lot of Taxation on Motor Fuel and now a Carbon Tax.

    It did come down in Price at various times during the last 20 Years but not by that much. Now it has been Consistently this Price for 2 Years at €1.25 then €1.35 a Litre and no sign of it ever going down again. The Diesel is around € 1.25 a litre so lots of Diesel Cars on the Road. Peak Oil has definitely arrived in Europe it is the Era of a Renaissance in Cycling again ,A New Golden Age. Dublin Ireland.

  • Ak Mike says:

    Fergie348 asked, “I don’t know how to convince my car driving brethren that this is a good idea and that in the end they would benefit. Ideas?”

    I absolutely agree with you on increasing Fed (and State) Excise taxes on motor fuels. Turn that revenue into alternative mode transport (ie. light rail networks, cycling / pedestrian infrastructure, etc.). Europe has done it, we should have a long time ago.

    Politically speaking, I have run into the same headwinds as you when mentioning it. One of the major problems here is that corporations, not “the people”, hold the true power, and the politicians pander to that. That’s a whole other issue that would take volumes.

    When you ask for ideas, try and start local and be vocal. As an example, I live in a small Southeast Alaska community with a very vibrant and popular library. The only “problem” is that when they built it the parking lot was very poorly planned out – very small, narrow and hard to navigate. Right now, when we go there, my wife and I prefer to walk or ride as parking is such a pain.

    There has been talk about extending / reworking this parking lot to make it more useable for automobiles, and I plan on fighting this with all my might if and when this happens. To extend this parking lot to make it more user-friendly for automobiles contributes to the car-culture and fosters this automobile dependency.

    This is exactly the mind-set that needs to change. If I think to myself that driving my car is a hassle because of these kinds of issues, and riding would be easier, then we’re headed in the right direction. Look around and find similar examples of planning / zoning that contributes to or fosters the automobile dependency, and then get vocal.

    Ak Mike

  • Garth Madison says:

    Americans’ automotive habit is deeply ingrained, and perpetuated by a pervasive automotive culture and continuous, insidious marketing. Without fundamentally changing American culture, the only way to increase the use of alternate transportation is to 1) economically disincentivize the automobile, and 2) make adoption of the alternate means of transportation as easy and seamless as possible.

    Increased gas prices would certainly be one external factor that can have an effect. Unfortunately, corporate lobbying, political impotence, and public apathy combine to make it unlikely we will do much to intentionally disincentivize the automobile. Perhaps the wisest course would be to attempt to implement a system that taxes drivers for the true cost of their automobile use on our society and economy. Back in the good old days after September 11th, when gas prices spiked and political and public will solidified, would have been the ideal time to reexamine our dependence on and overindulgence in oil. Unfortunately, the administration in power at the time had other priorities on which to squander the collective momentum created by that confluence of events, and so we are left hoping for an externality like a rise in gas prices. Of course, that will not occur until the economy improves, a fact generally overlooked by the public, which seems to accept lower gas prices as a general beneficence encouraging them to greater excess, rather than as the warning sign that it is.

    The other side to the coin is to improve the experience of new adopters. How positive were the experiences of the masses who flocked to Alan’s train car with bikes in tow? Were they out of shape and unaccustomed to exercise, yet prone to overdo? Did they encounter the myriad obstacles to cycling imposed by our automotive-centric infrastructure? Were they riding ill-fitted bikes with poor equipment setups that made transporting people and objects tedious and inefficient? If so, then that temporary spike in bicycle use may have created a long term negative effect once gas prices slackened. Those individuals may be more willing to cling to their automobiles at higher gas prices, discouraged by the unpleasant memories of their first attempts at weaning themselves off the pump.

    The sad part of the situation is that people continue to suffer the social, economic and health costs of the automobile in relative oblivion. If they understood those true costs, and experienced the benefits of potential alternatives, they may well embrace them. Unfortunately, habit digs its claws deep, especially when maintained on a mass scale. The cycle of the automobile is self-perpetuating, with every ad that flashes across the television seared retina of the public eye. And the unfortunate political response is to pass the Cash for Clunkers Act to prop up the failing automobile industry and encourage people to bury themselves deeper in debt purchasing luxurious, fungible consumer items, that waste even more limited resources.

    Although the picture may seem bleak, and the hope for intentional change futile, the only answer is to increase our efforts. If we wait for resources to become scarcer, and the economy to improve, until the point where we see a permanent and significant increase in the price of gas, we will have done considerably more damage to our environment and squandered the opportunity for insight forced upon the public by the recession. We are already at the tipping point, and can afford to wait no longer. A losing battle it may be, but I for one prefer to die on my feet. Or at least in my saddle.

    Garth-

  • Nick David Wright says:

    Gas was down to $1.61 in Dec 08? Why don’t I remember that? Oh right … because I sold my car in Aug 08! Ah those were the days!

  • Fergie348 says:

    Garth and AK Mike have it right – all politics is local and any real change in this country has to come from the grassroots.

    I derive great personal satisfaction from talking to other (non-cycling) commuters on the ferry I regularly ride and telling them how biking to work improves my life – and sometimes months later seeing those same people putting their new bikes on the ferry alongside mine. I derive less satisfaction from attending planning meetings and talking to people in the ‘Bicycling movement’ in my area. Those efforts seem fraught with compromise and frequently leave me feeling like I’m wasting my time.

    Being an evangelist for anything is not really in my DNA (pretty introverted..), but if I’m happy to do it for anything, I’m happy to do it for bicycles being used for actual transportation needs. It’s the future and I know it..

  • Michael says:

    We must convince the idiots running the joint (USA) to prepare and make it safer/convenient to cycle. Sadly until that occurs it’s just wishful thinking. It is impractical to cycle for many Americans because of the distances. It must be a paradigm shift in values as well as combined public transport/cycling. It will happen because we’ve no choice but will we get caught with our pants down? I believe we already have however there’s still time to pull them up. We just need the will and motivation to do it. It seems that alternative energies are getting more press and that is due to the deeply ingrained “need” for an automobile.

    I like my petrol using toys but am looking for a city in which I’d like to live so they aren’t needed just toys. At this time I live in a rural area where my current lifestyle requires personal transport that runs on gas. but change is coming.

  • Ak Mike says:

    re: Michael’s statement, “It is impractical to cycle for many Americans because of the distances. It must be a paradigm shift in values as well as combined public transport/cycling.”

    This rings true. The reason it rings true is that we in America have embraced a Suburban culture. Unfortunately we have inherited a culture and system from our grandparents and great-grandparents that evolved from a post WWII era in a time of a plentiful and growing supply of energy, specifically oil. They developed a world for themselves based on the current needs and supplies given them. And unfortunately there was little forethought as to the consequences when supplies run low.

    Now here we sit in our cul-de-sacs with a vulnerable and potentially problematic access to the amenities for daily life in America; work, food, entertainment, etc. So what now?

    Well, I believe there is some opportunity here, and there is some movement towards this opportunity. We need to bring our world closer, make it smaller as it were. Create viable villages of these suburbs. Bring the shopping closer, bring the food closer, bring the places we work closer. Bring the amenities closer to where we live and the bicycle becomes a practical mode of transport for the masses.

    Utopian dream? Maybe. But our grandparents and great-grandparents had dreams of their future, and they created it based on the situation given them. We can too.

    You can’t build anything without a vision.

    Ak Mike

  • Michael says:

    Re Ak Mike: Well, I believe there is some opportunity here, and there is some movement towards this opportunity. We need to bring our world closer, make it smaller as it were. Create viable villages of these suburbs. Bring the shopping closer, bring the food closer, bring the places we work closer. Bring the amenities closer to where we live and the bicycle becomes a practical mode of transport for the masses.

    Do a google search on Columbia Maryland. James Rouse did just that beginning in 1966. I lived there from ’69-96. Very cool to watch a city grow. Rode many thousands of miles in that town. However it was designed that way from the start. To adapt other communities would be a considerable task.

    in fact here ya go. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbia,_Maryland

  • Garth Madison says:

    The suburban model actually already is changing. Unfortunately, where I live the trend is still heavy into suburbanization, despite the fact that most cities have been urbanizing for at least the past 15 years, and faced with the city’s myriad problems the city government just keeps throwing more insane amounts of money at stupid projects. I am still struggling to understand the unique local reasons involved. Also, despite urbanization, people still seem to be driving. Maybe part of that is the persistence of poor design in many places, that creates traffic lanes instead of spaces for people to actually live in.

    Of course, I could not and would not want to live in a highly urban neighborhood myself, because I need land for my gardening. But that is why I chose to move to a slightly smaller city with good old housing stock close to the urban center. Again, the problem is that people continue to abandon these close neighborhoods, despite being convenient to so many necessities, and having, in my opinion, more to offer in terms of architecture and quality of construction than the strip mall imitation suburban culdesacs. Some of the lots are smaller closer in, though you can find large lots if you look for them. Though most people just pave over them with concrete and sod. But that’s a set of morbid reflections for a different blog!

    Fighting urban sprawl is great, but as Fergie implies, local politics can be as frustrating and impenetrable at times as the national stuff.

    Garth-

  • Paul says:

    For years, I’ve been preaching that we should raise the gas tax a penny a gallon a month to fund our military and social programs and integrate the legislation with a corresponding cut in income taxes such that it wouldn’t, in and of itself, alter federal revenues. (The same goes for alcohol, tobacco, and other products that can use actuarial data to quickly calculate the associated social cost of loss of life, limb, and property.) I predict this would curtail urban sprawl, reduce the transfer of wealth to countries that don’t like us, facilitate energy independence, reduce traffic fatalities, injuries, and property damage, reduce obesity, reduce pollution, and reduce crime.

    I understand that this has the potential to be regressive. However, I maintain that this slow rise in the gas tax would give low wage earners time to adjust their lifestyle to potentially avoid all federal taxes.

    Alas, when I discuss such a plan with cagers, they invariably perceive any increase in the marginal cost of driving as a threat to their way of life and standard of living.

  • Michael says:

    I’m sorry but the only thing raising taxes will do is give them more money to mismanage. You actually trust the government to do what it says it will do? Try to get an accounting of lottery funds. They are supposed to go to schools yet the federal government just approved funding so teachers won’t be laid off.

    Take a look at this. http://sparkaction.org/node/27056

    If change is to happen it must come from outside the government. They cannot be trusted to take care of the future.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Michael, I think you’re being a little pessimistic, but it’s true that any democracy is dependent on citizens getting involved in the political process.

  • Paul says:

    @Mike

    Did you not read anything I wrote pass the word “tax” or do you not know the meaning of the word “integrated”?

  • Michael says:

    Given the country’s current condition along with the “efforts” to repair it I’d say realistic. Sorry after the past 20+ years I have little faith in those who run the joint.

  • TJ says:

    IMO, US bikesellers are missing the boat by failing to stock and promote both electric bikes and quality, reasonably-priced bike electrification parts.

    Maybe this hasn’t happened because electrics aren’t “cool” yet, and they’re seen and priced as luxury items. This is short-sighted. The demand for electric vehicles is sky-high (the first Volts are being priced 50 percent over MSRP in some places), and I’ve seen more people “rolling their own” E-bikes lately than in decades.

    Stores that haven’t explored this angle in their locale might be pleasantly surprised, -especially- if their local terrain has a lot of hills. It’s hard to say, but this could be an explosion waiting to happen. People who offer reasonable DIY E-grades might be poised to catch a big wave.

  • Michael says:

    Yes Paul I read the post. I disagree that’s all.

    “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Mohandas Gandhi

  • Paul says:

    @Michael.

    Well then, by all means say so and dispense with the red herring.

 
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