Those of us in the retail bicycle business tend to recall 2008 with a mix of fondness and trepidation. That year was probably one of the best in the bicycle industry ever, certainly our highest grossing year by far at HC, arguably because of a summer of gas prices approaching $4/gallon. I recall that people who felt squeezed by $75 fill-ups were inclined to fix up old bikes rather than buy new ones, and we kept busy refurbishing older bikes that summer. Millions of people rescued long-neglected 1970s and 80s vintage 10-speeds from their garages. For months we couldn't lay our hands on ANY 27" tire (the usual size on the old 10-speeds), regardless of brand, model, or which distributors we called. Even the New York Times picked up on the story, and published a review of 27" tires in, get this, the Style section.
Of course, there was a downside to soaring gas prices. Although the academics can argue over how to attribute causality more precisely, I thought the connection was pretty clear: our economy cannot handle $4 gas. Housing developments in the outer suburbs became ghost towns. Many people lost jobs, and mortgage defaults soared. With fewer people going to work everyday, and a corresponding decrease in consumer activity, the demand for gas dropped, and prices fell precipitously. Our business at the shop was way down in 2009 and 2010 because gas was cheap again and because people had really tightened their belts.
But it looks like gas prices are escalating quickly. A quick survey reveals that my facebook friends are talking about political turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, Peak Oil globally and specifically in Saudi Arabia, a conspiracy by President Obama and Democrats to force us to be "green", a conspiracy by Republicans to make Exxon richer and destroy the middle class, etc, etc. Personally, I don't care about assigning blame to various bogeymen, but I think constantly about how to deal with the reality of $3.47 gas in February, months before the driving season actually begins.
I've been paying attention to this stuff for long enough to know that any notion of predictability is an illusion. Will gas get much more expensive this summer? Or will our fragile economy crash again, and send gas prices plummeting for lack of people able to afford to buy it at any price? Or perhaps some completely different scenario that will lead to rationing and long lines? Who knows! Volatility and uncertainty seem certain. Expect the unexpected.
I am probably preaching to the choir - if you read this blog, you are probably on-board with the magic of getting around on a bicycle and not being a slave to the gas pump and political upheavals 10,000 miles away. If by some chance you started cycling because of the cost, uncertainty, and geopolitical/environmental implications of the hydrocarbon economy, then I'm betting that you very quickly discovered countless other benefits, for example: improved fitness, fresh air, a fun new social life, daily adventure, and being more in tune with your natural and man-made environments.
Ah listen to me, I'm ramblin' again. But this is probably a good year for transportation-oriented cyclists to BOTH lead by example, AND to gently encourage non-cyclists to discover all the great things about getting around by bike. It's probably best to not be a bike Nazi or overly preachy about internal-geared hubs or fenders or helmets. In the near future, I will write up some of my thoughts on commuting bikes, and the myths and fetishes that, in my opinion, get in the way of bringing new cyclists into the fold.