Friday, March 4, 2011

2008 meet 2011

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.

17 comments:

Snakebite said...

Are you saying 27" tires are not Style?

Looking forward to your post regarding new commuters. I was just having a conversation regarding this with three other bike types.

Erik said...

Ooh, I sense an IGH rant coming! I can't wait! ;)

David said...

Actually I see that gas was $3.54 in the Powder horn neighborhood today

jim_h said...

What I'd like to see now is some official support for year-round cycling in Minneapolis. That involves snow removal, so it's a tough sell right now. But for serious transportation, and not just recreation, this is the elephant in the room.

KM said...

Oil is For Sissies -- part deux

brother yam said...

My co-workers look at me just a little less oddly these late winter days...

Shaun said...

How 'bout helmets are for sissies? Kidding... KIDDING!

Anonymous said...

I hear ya jim_h. That is the same in Omaha NE. Some of the bike paths get blocked at the street intersections as the plows go by.

Joboo said...

Gotta say, I love pedaling by gas stations when gas is $3.45+!!!!
Gas will be $5+/gal. By prime drive time!!
Our car 1st nation is in for a big shock!!!
Long overdue IMHO!!!!

Maybe it's time for our gov. to start dumping $$$$$ into nationwide bike trails, instead of high speed rails!!
Which sounds more sustainable to you??

Peace

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Joboo, rail is part of the solution. Any time the subject comes up in conversation with my right wing tool friends, they express an irrational aversion to spending any money on rail. So for the last couple of years, I've been pointing out that liquid fuel prices have been on a steep upward trend, and that it might be a real good idea for us to start investing in a more fuel-efficient transportation network. So far that argument has fallen on deaf ears, but one has to wonder whether real-world evidence will ever flick on the light for them.

I'd guess probably not. The current Wisconsin biennial state budget proposal cuts public school funding by $900 M and increases transportation spending from $3.2 B to $5.7 B, including $225 M for planning just one interchange in Milwaukee. All of this road spending for a transportation paradigm that has a very questionable future.

(Plus, America would have the best system of bicycle paths in the whole world if we could figure out how to get all the damn cars off of it... ;-)

--MB, the Fender Nazi

Anonymous said...

well - thankfully prices will get back down to normal (1.50 - 2.00 gal) once the stuff in Libya blows over. I'm not too worried when I see that this is an artificial price based on a phony crisis. We just all need to be patient! Hang on and the price of gas will be back to it's usual price. Probably by fall is my guess...

JJ

Brian said...

Is it bad that I don't want it to go back to what anonymous refers to as "normal" prices? I fail to see how we can normalize gas prices that are lower than ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD. ANYWHERE. Subsidize education, health care, and clean food, not the black fuel.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Keep thinking that, JJ, and I'm sure it will come true (even if all the evidence points the other way.)

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to offend, but I'm skeptical that 'rail' could ever serve as a viable transportation solution. The cost of building this stuff is absolutely astronomical (and your complaining about 5 dollar gas?). Who in the heck would pay for this stuff? And it's still inaccessible to 95% of the people who would even consider using it - if I live in Eden Prairie, how would I use the Hiawatha line for instance? I don't know about you, but have you ever crammed onto a train stuffed with people? It ain't fun - give me the privacy, comfort and independence of my own vehicle any day! Bicycles are fine of course, but riding in the winter is not realistic in an environment as harsh (and potentially dangerous) as ours. One solution would be to stagger work start times downtown - then you would not have to worry about clogged roads. Even if gas skyrockets to $5 a gallon (which I don't believe it will) it is still a fantastic value (IMHO). Anyway - just be patient and gas will return to it's normal pricing (just like it did in the 70's).

Cheers - JJ

Mauricio Babilonia said...

JJ, I'm a regular bus rider and winter cyclist, so neither of your objections to investing in more diverse transportation infrastructure impresses me very much, and this is starting to smell like the old Everybody Needs to Give Up Their Car straw man argument. That's not what I'm saying. My point is that our transportation system as a whole is not fuel-efficient, and as fuel prices increase, that has to change if we expect to enjoy a standard of living that bears any resemblance to what we have today.

Crude has risen from an average of $20/barrel in the 90's to an average of $80 today. As much as you or I may like the privacy, comfort and independence of our own vehicles, we're going to have to come to terms with how the continuance of this trend is going to affect their affordability.

I also suspect, JJ, that you are skeptical of the cost of a decent rail system because you're unaware just how expensive road infrastructure is. Not surprising given the convoluted system we have for funding them.

Anonymous said...

Wow. 3.50 USD per US Gallon. I don't think I've ever driven with fuel that cheap, and I've been driving for 10 years. It's about $8.50/Gallon here in the UK (1.40 GBP per litre).
People keep filling up though, and I keep riding past the garages with a quiet smile.

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