Gas Prices and Bike Commuting

Retail Gas Prices

The highest historical gas prices we’ve seen in the U.S. were in 2008. That was the summer we saw $4 per gallon and a corresponding explosion in the number of bike commuters across the country. Locally, you could barely squeeze a bike on our commuter trains and waiting lists for bike lockers were running months long. That was also the year the bicycle industry woke up to the commuter market, with the selection of dedicated transpo bikes greatly expanding as a result. By December of the same year, gas prices dropped to under $2 per gallon and things went back to business as usual, with the influx of new bike commuters vanishing nearly as quickly as they appeared. The bicycle industry took a big hit the following year due to ramping up for a highly anticipated, but mostly unfulfilled, spike in business.

Retail gasoline prices topped $4 per gallon in California this week. The reaction doesn’t seem nearly as intense as it was in ’08. As a matter of fact, there doesn’t appear to be any reaction at all on the commuting routes I ride. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been there before, or perhaps it’s because people have been expecting it, but there appears to be a general nonchalance about the idea of $4 per gallon gasoline this time around.

I wonder what it’s going to take to trigger another spike in the number of bike commuters like we saw in 2008? A repeat of $4 per gallon gas is clearly not going to do it. I wonder if $5 will do it, or will it take $6 per gallon? What do you think?

Which gas price will trigger another spike in bike commuting?

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43 Responses to “Gas Prices and Bike Commuting”

  • Wannes VdA says:

    Hi Alan,

    Just wanted to let you know that the official (government decided) max price for gasoline in Belgium is currently 1,6560 euros per liter (tax incl).
    After the liters to gallon and euro to dollar conversion this seems to be 8,88078499 U.S. dollars per gallon…
    Just so you know what to expect in the not so distant future…

    Greetings from Belgium!


    P.s.: keep posting the good stuff! ;-)

  • Matt DeBlass says:

    I think we’ll see – if not a huge spike in numbers – some increase in cycle commuting as the weather gets nicer as well. We’re still seeing the tail end of winter here in the Northeast, but as we get over-60 days AND over-$4 gas at the same time, we’ll see some folks take to two-wheelers.

  • Ryan says:

    Sadly, in my area it would take driving to be illegal for people to stop their commuting by car.

  • Pete says:

    Very curious to see what happens this summer.
    In ’08, the reaction was pretty remarkable, and most people hadn’t even been clobbered by the recession yet. On the other hand, I think there is some immunity effect to consider – it takes increasingly larger shocks to elicit the same reaction.
    I think the chart also illustrates a real problem in our economy when we are so dependent on a resource that can swing wildly in price. You just can’t run a business when you can’t predict the behavior of a major driver like oil. Not only did the bike business suffer, but even industries like airlines nearly went broke when the price of oil spiked, then nearly went broke AGAIN when the price collapsed and they were stuck with over-valued hedging contracts! No way to run a country.

  • Andy says:

    I’m really curious to see where it goes from here. Is it just another temporary bump, or is peak oil really starting to affect prices? I heaven’t heard much about shortages yet, so I don’t expect any major spikes, but apparently oil companies have always been lying about their supply, so we won’t have any warning about when demand for gas really becomes an issue.

  • Matt says:

    Argh, my rear tire is totally shredded right now from glass and other debris left over from the winter storms. Waiting for my replacement tires is agony! Otherwise I would be commuting on most fair weather days. I think in general a lot of people have compensated by becoming more efficient with their car use by combining trips. Personally I see a big difference when I just start running my 3-6 mile errands by bike not even counting any days that I commute.

  • John says:

    I think it’s not a matter of how high, but how fast the price rises. Think of the folklore of the frog slowly being brought to boil in a pot of water – that’s what we’re seeing now. In 2008, it was a spike in price, like throwing the frog into the boiling pot and he promptly jumped out.

  • Pete says:

    @Matt – You only have one set of tires for your bike? I have at least 4 each for my 26 and 700c bikes!
    Guess maybe we’re not all gear junkies. :-)

  • steve says:

    There has been some work looking at some of the new bikers who tried commuting in 2008. Most of them gave it up very quickly because they found it impractical. The roads felt too dangerous, finding a place to put their bikes was too difficult, they were out of shape and so on…

    Any major increase in cycling will probably only come in areas with pre-exisiting bike friendly infrastructure.

    $6 gas will only produce a demand for high mpg cars and accelerate trade-ins. (sadly)

  • Adam says:

    I’ve recently purchased a bike intending to use it to do my around town travel. Why? Gas prices are going up, and it seems ever shall. The price point is going to be different for different people. Distances that must necessarily be traveled along with what a person can afford.

    God bless

  • voyage says:

    I’m thinking a stable and inflation-adjusted $6 will get USA people to finally use their gasoline vehicle more intelligently and do so on a permanent basis, and a stable inflation-adjusted $7 will trigger a push for mass public transit that meshes with bikes…we call that intermodal, right?

    To date, we’ve been playing Rubik’s Cube.

  • Ira Kinro says:

    I voted $4 because I’m already seeing a noticeable increase in the number of bicycle commuters. A couple months ago, I would see a couple other cyclists during my commute. Now, I don’t bother counting. I can see a cyclist I don’t know at almost any time during my commute.

  • Graham says:

    This is Graham’s Law of Gas Prices in effect. When prices jump to a new high, people freak out and protest and ride their bike and so on. Then prices come back down for a little while (though not as low as they were previously) and everyone calms down. Shortly after that prices will creep back up to the former freak-out level and since we’ve all seen these prices before and survived, no one says anything… until the prices climb even higher and we’ll repeat the whole thing over.

    Oil companies are really just taking advantage of our short attention span.

  • John says:

    Steve, care to back up what you were saying about why people who tried biking gave it up? Do you have any sources. I’d really love to know. Sincerely and truly.

  • Daniel M says:

    This may be a bit off-topic, but let’s remember that gas prices aren’t the only reason people take up practical bicycling. People are also realizing that driving itself is really unpleasant. Traffic, parking headaches, etc. make it way more enjoyable and convenient to bike instead of drive for trips of a few miles or less. I’ve basically given up all in-town driving and the price of gas has nothing to do with it.

  • JaimeRoberto says:

    I’ve certainly seen more bikes on my commute lately, but I don’t know how much of that is due to gas prices and how much is due to warmer weather and more daylight. I expect fewer bike commuters now than in 2008 because there are simply fewer commuters period.

  • Pete says:

    I think it’s reasonable to expect that there would be a percentage of people who are compelled to try bike commuting/ utility cycling for economic reasons who will feel it is always an inferior alternative, and will go back to their cars at the first chance. Some, however, will be converts. (And will come hang out here, with us.)
    In general, I suspect that for a vast majority of people the first reaction to high gas prices isn’t “switch to bike,” but probably to forgo or reduce discretionary driving, work in some kind of public transit, or seek out a more efficient car. In other words, I think the inclination of many is to figure out how to keep driving at all costs.

  • steve says:

    John – I haven’t seen anything published, but this was from one of John Pucher’s talks. He has done really excellent work on what it takes to get people to bike in various countries.

  • Garth says:

    Live in Chicago, wife doesn’t drive, old car broke down, using CTA for work, so we were using the restored Volkswagen Beetle for grocery getting and occasional trips. Finally got modern Honda (with heat!) and I was happy to not be waiting for busses that never come in the middle of December. It’s amazing how a car will let you become so weak, yet keep you so comfortable. I was having aches from the lack of exercise and desperate to ride my bike again.

    So, with it costing fifty dollars a gallon every week or two to drive the car, I had enough. With that type of money, I could buy really nice Nitto parts to make my bicycle comfortable. With a sad twist, the earthquake in Japan also prompted me to purchase these Japan-made goodies.

    So, now I’m thinking if the gas prices keep going up, I’ll be getting that new wheelset I’ve been wanting with the Phil rear hub and Schmidt generator! Not to mention the green Brooks… : )

  • Mitch says:

    In my opinion the “do it because it has lots of benefits” people represent a small minority. Most are feeling it in the wallet, just like cigarette smokers who decide to quit when cigarettes get too expensive.

    I had one conversation a month or two back in an Ace Hardware store. Somebody was curious about my rain gear. He said he’s starting riding his bike to work on Sundays because he couldn”t afford the gas in his truck. He didn’t seem like he’d got religion, nor did it seem he was begruding the riding. He was just being practical. How typical he is, I don’t know.

    I’m in Beaverton, OR (Portland suburb). This time of the year the seasonal bike commuters start to reappear, though it seems there are a few more than usual (which still isn’t a lot).

    As far as your question, Alan, I don’t know, I’m guessing a sustained $5/gallon will start to have some noticeable effect. We’d need to see $7 or $8 or higher to have any kind of lasting effect on transpo culture in this country…but the bigger impact of such prices will probably be street riots of people proclaiming their rights to cheap gasoline.

  • John Ferguson says:

    Bikes as the new normal for trips under 10 miles. I’m wondering how much of an effect gas prices actually have on this, and it’s probably linked to the relative affluence of the area. Wealthy suburban areas are insulated from the effect by the extra amount spent in gas being such a low % of disposable income. Poor rural areas are insulated from the effect by there being essentially no credible alternative. Middle income or lower urban areas should see the largest correlation, but there another factor is congestion. Less driving means less congestion, so driving becomes a bit more palatable getting more efficiency for your transportation buck. Any way you slice it, the effects on bicycle use will probably be less dramatic (although perhaps more durable) then they were in 2008. I like the frog in boiling water analogy, that’s really about it.

  • Matt DeBlass says:

    I’ve noticed more bike lanes popping up here in New Jersey as well, I think that might help some people feel safer riding on the road.
    I doubt we’ll have any sudden shift to full-time commuting (although speaking from experience, when you’re scraping by on “recession-grade” part time work, one expensive breakdown too many will make you say “the heck with it” and leave the heap in the driveway) I know some people are making it a once-a-week thing, especially if they’ve got a job that has them come in on weekends or for an extra half day here and there.

  • David says:

    I think gas prices will have an incremental effect, both on the overall number of commuters and on their “hardiness”. At $5/gal, a lot of people will get on the bike once or twice a week when the weather is nice and they don’t need to wear a suit (casual Fridays). At $6/gal, those same people will buy better bags and some rain gear and go two or three times a week both to save money and to replace trips to the gym. At $7/gal, they’ll buy some lights and extend their commuting into the shoulder seasons when it gets a bit dark on the way in or out. At $8/gal, it’s a year-round activity 4+ times per week…

  • Brent says:

    This point is probably obvious, but gasoline prices are surely only one of many factors. They’re certainly not enough to get substantial numbers of, say, Londoners to ride their bicycles. If they’re not coupled with superior infrastructure, I wouldn’t be surprised to see limited, if any, additional commuters.

  • Eddie Hurt says:

    $5 is has got to be the next benchmark, then $6 a couple of years from that. The more significant index, however, will be the price point of gas it will take to turn bike commuting from an occasional uptick to a viable rising trend. Maybe this will likely never come to pass in a nation so deeply pledged to dependence on fossil fuel consumption.

  • Joseph Eisenberg says:

    “Beware the cyclists of spring…”

    Many people will start riding bikes as the weather gets warmer, whether or not gas prices go up. That’s part of the reason that 2008 showed a spike in bike use; it was the summer. If prices continue to go up this summer, I expect another temporarily increase in bike commuting. But unless prices head toward $8 a gallon, or more bike infrastructure gets built, we won’t see a huge sustained increase.

    People won’t do something that feels dangerous to save a few hundred buck a month. That’s why neighborhoods perceived as dangerous have much cheaper rents. And that’s why people will stick in their cars even with expensive gas, unless we build infrastructure that makes biking feel safe.

  • tommy douglas ray says:

    For quite a few years now, I’ve been wondering why gas prices are so low in Canada and the U.S.A. You’d think the oil execs would say “well, Europeans seem willing to pay eight or nine bucks a gallon, so why are we selling it for half that price in North America where public transit is generally crap ? “

  • Brad Hawkins says:

    Keep in mind that the large part of this spike is because of the many revolutions and civil wars in the middle east. This too will pass, as will our smugness. Watch for opening up oil exploration in all the National Parks before we change transportation policy or get anywhere above 10% mode share.

    Sorry, I would prefer a rosier picture too.

  • John L. says:

    Gas prices obviously play a role in getting people to drive less and getting some people to ride bicycles more. I think right now people are waiting to see if the $4/gal price is a temporary spike, as it was in 2008, or whether it is the new norm. That said, I also agree with those who have pointed out that the lack of a bike-friendly transportation infrastructure puts a real limit on the level of transportational cycling for all but a relatively small segment of the population.

  • wombie says:

    Welcome in France : I pay (ten times a year, thanks to my xtracycle) 8.41 $ per gallon when I fill up my medium car…
    but I can’t vote 16 $ so I double your up-to-date price…

  • steve says:

    Here is one of John Pucher’s many papers – the focus here is on what it takes to get people on bikes. Direct user costs are not the major issue

    A quick rise in gas prices with no falloff would make people think about it and perhaps some would experiment, but the perception of safety and other infrastructure issues are very important.

  • D'Arcy says:

    Gas is only the half of it. 2 years ago I consciously stopped driving in the city and started riding my bike everywhere I could, as did my wife. For the occasional days where weather was just too severe to ride, we took rapid transit.

    When you take the total operational cost of a car; gas, maintenance, parking, etc., the savings amount to hundreds if not thousands of dollars. As well, it usually takes me less time to get where I’m going. I’m always passing cars stuck in traffic. When I get to my destination, be it an office, theater or restaurant, I lock my bike up within metres of the front door rather than spend more time looking for a parking space. An added benefit is I lost 5kg. due to the daily cycling exercise regime.

    I can’t believe more people driving don’t get it.

  • Pete says:

    @ tommy douglas- A huge proportion of European gas prices are taxes. Their oil cost the same as our oil. Oil companies cannot charge different prices for oil in different parts of the world. (the exception being government-run oil companies in oil-producing nations. They can do whatever they want with their oil before it gets onto the commodity market) Nor can they charge different prices for oil that comes from different places. Since oil price is a much larger percentage of the gas price that US buyers see, our gas prices fluctuate more wildly, and our consumers are more price sensitive.
    Also agree with many above that as oil gets more expensive, and the economy suffers, there will be less government money to pay for infrastructure improvements of any kind. My guess is that a “bike path” in the era of $10 gas will actually be a gravel road which is all that’s left of a street that nobody could afford to maintain any more.

  • Sean Carter says:

    I have to agree with a few previous comments that because many Americans survived the mythical $4/gallon it will take a much higher price to get more people to choose cycling as a permanent part of their transportation – lets say consistantly above $6.

    My guess is that if gasoline stays above $4-5 for a longer period of time there will be people who get increasingly squeezed by the extra cost to fill up and may start to question their predominant transport choice.

    Here in Canada, we are already paying more than $4 – in Alberta, we pay the lowest price in the nation at about $4.45 and in Montreal they are already paying $5.25 yet we are not hearing our customers mention it and there has not been a spike in bike sales – yet.

  • mikethebike says:

    Here in Sweden we recently passed $ 8 per gallon…

  • John Ferguson says:

    Thanks for the link, Steve. I didn’t have time to read the whole thing, but reading the conclusion made me think about what makes cycling facilities so different in northern European cities.

    My wife is from Hamburg, Germany and we travel there frequently. The cycling lanes are adjacent to the sidewalk and are separated from car traffic by a sidewalk and in some places parking spaces. I’d estimate that on most major streets the combined sidewalk/bike path is almost 20 feet wide. The cycle lanes are visually marked but otherwise indistinguishable from the sidewalk. When I first walked around Hamburg, I was always wandering into the bike lane and getting ferociously dinged by passing (and irritated) cyclists. Dumb Americans.. The other interesting thing is traffic control at intersections. Pedestrians and cyclists have separate lanes there as well, and separate signals. The signals are timed so that cyclists and pedestrians going straight across an intersection get about 5 seconds to start crossing before the motor vehicle traffic is allowed to start moving, which means that the drivers see the cyclists and pedestrians in motion before they start. Makes total sense, although I don’t know how popular it would initially be here.

    I can’t really imagine this being fully replicated here, although if I could pick one feature to bring over it would be the differential signalling for bikes and pedestrians. If we set up traffic control systems to prioritize self propelled travel over motor vehicle travel, it would really send a powerful message. People in my town hate to wait at lights, and if they realized that they’d be spending less time at them when on a bicycle I can see that as being a more powerful motivator to change than the additional cost of fuel.

  • D'Arcy says:

    John makes some good observations. We should keep in ming though that these European cities in the early 70s had also embraced the car. For example, in the 70s Copenhagen used all their squares and roads for parking. The Middle East oil embargo made them wake up to the grim reality that they were almost totally dependent on oil from outside sources.

    Slowly, a totally integrated transit system including trains buses, bikes, and yes, cars as well was built using both carrot and stick incentives. What you see in enlightened European cities is the result of 20 to 30 years of planning. We’re now seeing a few U.S. cities go in this direction.

    Americans have an amazing ability to implement strategies very quickly when they set their minds to it. Look at New York City who in only a few short years has built hundreds of miles of bicycle paths. Like the Danish model, they’ve also included more pedestrian spaces too. Who ever would have thought that portions of Times Square would be closed to traffic.

    Cities like Copenhagen and New York promote cycling as a very cool hip thing to do. Sort of like automobile manufactures do with cars. Once something is in vogue, everyone wants to do it, no matter what gas costs.

  • Howard Abts says:

    Most of the attention here is being directed at the price of gasoline, and very little at its availability. A good capitalist assumes that bringing enough money will always get one the product one wants. I’m no geologist, but some I’ve read lately are suggesting that declining availability of a finite resource may trump the market. When it takes the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil to get another barrel of oil out of the ground, through a refinery, and its products to the point of sale, it will no longer make sense to burn the stuff. (Especially when it’s going to be needed as feedstock to make new tires for my bikes!)

    In the 1970’s, there were days when no amount of money would get you a gallon of gas. There’s a lot less oil in the ground now than there was then.

  • dominic furfaro says:

    Gas has hit 3.79 in Minneapolis for regular. There doesn’t appear to be any change in driver behavior yet. But, I still hold out hope that when automobilist sees me pedaling that it might register with them on some personal level. It’s not why we ride bicycles but how we roll. When we spend a lifetime astride a bike there is never a dull moment. So whatever the price of gas let’s enjoy.

  • Richard Masoner says:

    we’re already seeing the big spike in the Bay Area, though the nicer weather plays as much a part in that as anything else.

    $4+/gallon is the high for this time of year. Expect another big bump after Memorial Day with Summer Blend gasoline. California supply is also a little constrained right now because of Japan and I think we can expect that to get worse as they re-open their ports.

  • Susan Tomlinson says:

    I agree that it will take more than a hike in gas prices to see a sudden increase in bike commuters. The truth of the matter is that bike commuting is not something the majority of Americans are going to embrace anytime soon. It just seems too hard, too sweaty, too dangerous to them (though it doesn’t have to be any of those things). Nevertheless, I do think we’ll continue to see a steady rise in both gas prices and cyclists in the coming years, but the latter will be more the result of the perceptions of safety on the road improving.

    What will be most likely to happen as a result of rising gas prices is that we will see people buying more fuel efficient cars.

  • JeffS says:

    A seemingly large percentage of this country has been quick to blame the current president for the recent gas price increase. Their reaction is not to demand (or utilize) alternate means of transportation, but to demand more drilling. There is a widespread belief that we have all the oil we need, but the government simply won’t drill for it.

    Sadly, the ocean’s creatures will all need to be soaked in oil and all of the national parks plowed under before the truth will start to sink in.

    As for bikes, I think we need a major shock such as a quick and permanent price change or prolonged shortage before that option will enter people’s minds.

    I am honestly shocked that oil prices aren’t higher than they are. Consumers are captive addicts right now. I have to believe that oil companies could double the price, absorb the small demand decline and still increase their profits. What’s more, they would have more to sell later at even higher prices. I suspect that the ever present US military threat is the only thing keeping the market price artificially low. Either way, the US consumer is paying the true cost. We have no way to opt out.

    I have to wonder what the endgame is for our country. Republicans are fighting for “small government”, which naturally doesn’t involve reduced military spending. What’s the plan for when the working class can no longer afford to travel to their low wage jobs? Don’t have public transit, health coverage, and have been stripped of education and public services? Do the corporations finally just pack up and move to the countries that our materialistic ways have created?

  • Raymond Parker says:

    If Jeff Rubin’s predictions
    prove to be even close–he sees $200 per barrel this year–then we’ll see 10s, if not 100s-of-thousands of cars parked.

    If not this year, it is inevitable that the day will come not too far down the road when the average North American will not be able to afford to burn increasingly expensive fuel.

    The greater tragedy is that people would rather remain blind to this fact and elect politicians with no perspective on the inevitability of these challenges. Instead of throwing everything we have into the development of alternative energy and transportation systems, we follow those with ties to the twilight industries–like Stephen Harper in Canada, apostle of the tat sands.

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