$4 no more: Gas prices drop, has biking followed?

That was then (04/22/08)…

What a difference a few months makes.

Back in April, high gas prices were on everyone’s mind — especially those in the bike business. The rising cost of gas was having an impact on people’s transportation habits like no advocacy effort of policy change ever could.

People seemed to be ditching cars and hopping on bikes in droves — or at least that what you were supposed to believe by reading all the headlines about the severe “gas price crisis”.

This is now (10/29/08).
(Photos J. Maus)

One local shop, River City Bicycles, decided to have fun with the gas spike and ran a contest. They gave away a fully decked-out commuter bike to the person who correctly guessed when gas would reach $4.00 a gallon (it happened on May 23rd).

Fast forward five months and we see that gas prices have dropped precipitously. It now retails for well below $3.00 a gallon at several Portland-area gas stations.

Does that mean the party’s over and that all those eager new bike commuters will now hop back into their cars? Not exactly.

Mark Ontiveros, co-owner of River City Bicycles says he thinks Portland’s love of biking makes us insulated from behavior changes tied to gas price fluctuations. “I think we’re on a roll in this city; it’s (the number of people biking) going to continue to grow no matter what.” Business at River City, he adds, has been strong in October and sales are ahead of last year’s pace.

Beth Hamon, behind the
counter at Citybikes.

Citybikes on SE Ankeny is a haven for commuters as well as being located on a busy bike route. Employee-owner (it’s a co-op) Beth Hamon also doesn’t think there’s any direct correlation between gas prices and bike riding. “Interest in bikes as transportation has grown exponentially in Portland over the last 3-4 seasons,” says Hamon. The larger concern she sees is the overall economy.

“Joe Sixpack is not paying attention to OPEC (an influential oil cartel), he’s more worried about how much money is in his pocket at the end of the month.”

Corey Cartwright, owner of Seven Corners Cycles, says once people got a taste of biking to work and for short trips, they liked it and they’ll keep riding no matter what. “I think the high prices encouraged more people to re-consider how they get around, but I don’t think we’re going to see a big drop-off in riding.”

It’s not just bike shop owners who are optimistic that biking habits will hold regardless of gas prices. Yesterday, The Oregonian published a story titled, Despite price drop, drivers stick with fuel-saving habits. Erica Cates, a teacher who lives in Southeast Portland told The Oregonian that even with lower gas prices, she, “expects to continue using her bike…for shorter trips”.

“I’ve kind of got in the habit now,” she told The Oregonian.

And it’s a good habit to get into. According to noted author and thinker James Howard Kunstler, we might be facing not just high gas prices, but outright gas scarcity. Here’s a snip from an article he published on Monday:

“I hope you’re enjoying the temporarily cheap prices at the gas pumps…My guess is that oil and its byproducts will become much more difficult to get in the months ahead — not just more expensive, but literally not available.”

The larger concern for all the shops I spoke to for this story is the uncertainty with the global economic crisis. I plan to do a follow-up story on how the financial downturn is impacting local bike retailers (it’s not all bad).

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amanda
amanda
13 years ago

On the one hand, while I do bike commute, I drive plenty — enough to feel it with the high prices. And enough to limit my driving even further.

On the other hand, I’ve really been looking at these big SUVs and Hummers and seeing them as bizarre dinosaurs — on their way out. We’d all be better off for it. So, I’ll be sad if Hummers start selling again.

canuck
canuck
13 years ago

I see a number possible causes for lower bicycle commuting in the coming months.

1. Lower gas prices.
2. Lower temperatures.
3. Less daylight
4. Combination of above.

The numbers drop this time of year due to the temps and short days so making a direct correlation to the price of gas would be bit difficult.

While it is pretty easy to ride to work in the summer, the shorter days means you need lights. The lower temps means you need appropriate insulated clothing. The coming monsoon season means waterproof clothing. All of which can get pretty pricey.

Had gas stayed at $4 a gallon some people would have felt the added expense for the equipment was more than offset by the cost of gas. Now that the price is down to $2.25 (Costco) it might be a harder sell to keep people riding if they have to pay more for the privilege due to weather etc.

matt picio
13 years ago

I wouldn’t count on this being a permanent change – nor even a lasting one this season. Gas prices are low because we’re in the driving lull – the summer driving season is done, and refiners are busy switching from summer gasoline blends to winter ones, and reducing the overall production of gasoline to increase heating oil production. Next month, holiday travel starts and prices will rise again along with demand. (contrary to the conspiracy theories, the election has little to do with prices – it’s because the election sits in the right spot of the year when no one is traveling more than they need to)

Brad
Brad
13 years ago

I suspect that $60 / barrel and vastly reduced consumer spending is the cause.

Besides, our new best friends, Cuba, just discovered 20 billion barrels of crude! Gitmo closure and ending the trade embargo begins at 12:01 EDT on 1/20/09. I can taste the cigars already!

AndresM
AndresM
13 years ago

So has it been proven that the higher gas prices actually drove up bike business? I remember a couple of conversations I had at bike shops back in April regarding this, and the impression I got was that they were still waiting/hoping for an increase in business due to gas. TriMet ridership increased, and I think that was attributed directly to gas prices; but I think most people’s first step away from gas prices was getting on the bus, not on their bicycles. That being said, I also think that any increase in bike business is independent of gas prices, and therefore won’t drop off if gas becomes cheaper.

Also, gas may fluctuate down a bit, but it’s never returning to the $1.20 neighborhood – too much global demand. Only if a big sector of our nation switches to a better energy source will the demand for oil ease and the price drop.

Glen Bolen
Glen Bolen
13 years ago

Bicycling is empowering, provides freedeom, and makes us healthier and stronger.

I also drive, and indeed enjoy cars. However, it is because of the above that once people get a taste of riding, they will have a hard time breaking the habit.

As members of the cycling community, we owe it to our family and friends to help them discover cycling.

Shortages, shmortages, we’ll ride because we love to.

plunoak
plunoak
13 years ago

I tend to agree with Matt. I would also add that when one considers that global demand for oil and it’s related products is growing and that the supply is becoming scarce (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_reserves_in_Saudi_Arabia), the reality of an ever increasing cost of this commodity, and the inevitability of widespread shortages is imminent.

What does this mean for Bike ridership in Portland, good ‘ol U S of A? I’ll answer with another question: How are people going to get around when only those in the uppermost income brackets will be able to afford a vehicle and fuel to drive it?

A return to human power is the unavoidable future of transportation.

Joe
Joe
13 years ago

ROCK ON!! plunoak wrote: A return to human power is the unavoidable future of transportation.

some will never get it, they are “trapped” as i put it..

K'Tesh
K'Tesh
13 years ago

My observation is that there are fewer motor vehicles on the roads, but highway speeds have increased (I commute on Hwy 217, I know). My own family has been driving less, but the biking hasn’t really increased as they live in walking distance to the grocery store near them.

I’d love to see some more covered bike parking provided (especially near my own workplace), to compensate for the increased need for it… Say perhaps if we were to sacrifice one of the parking spaces (to make up for the three bike staples that the cafe removed… Grrr).

ambrown
13 years ago

Here in the Twin Cities, I saw gas for $2.15! Am I supposed to be happy about this?

Martha R
Martha R
13 years ago

I think that there is a big mental block for people who don’t bike (ohhh…I’ll get sweaty, it’s too scary, it’ll take too long to get there, I don’t know what to wear or what route to take…). The higher gas prices pushed some people to try getting around by bike, and many of those people figured out that it’s actually an efficient and enjoyable way to get around. With the mental block gone, many more people can now count bicycling among their various transportation options.

Lower gas prices and the coming winter may make driving or transit more appealing on many mornings, but it’s hard to resist hopping on a bicycle on one of these gorgeous, sunny fall mornings that we’ve been having lately. It’s the “try it — you might just like it” syndrome. Lots of people have started to try it, and they’re beginning to find that they like it.

Robert Dobbs
Robert Dobbs
13 years ago

Ugh.. Kunstler? Really??

Opus the Poet
13 years ago

We had gas @$1.89/gal here in Big D as the gas wars started heating up. Now that the Chinese have stopped stockpiling oil for the Olympics while their ports were closed to prevent terrorist attacks and are just buying what they need for the day, that reduced the demand to next to nothing. Thus the huge drop in oil prices.

Donna
Donna
13 years ago

Gasoline supply and prices aside, there’s another rather large reason to keep biking and drive less – the economy.

Transportational biking is a very good way to maintain a higher standard of living in the face of unemployment increases, wage declines, and diminished spending power of the USD$. Thanks to getting rid of my car and biking for transportation for the last 3 years, I have eliminated my consumer debt, put a nice dent in my student loans, and been able to save up a decent emergency fund that I hope to increase so long as I have a job.

Yea bikes!

beth h
13 years ago

I “inherited” my father’s ’81 Escort in 1987 (he was hard on cars) when he couldn’t get any resale on it. Three years and a valve job, an alternator and a fuel pump later, I sold it and bought a bike.
Within the first year of giving up liability insurance payments, gas and repair costs (I had to pay someone else to do the valves) I realized a savings of nearly three thousand dollars.

In addition to saving money, not owning a car has allowed me to gain time; I work fewer hours per week because I no longer have to support the cost of keeping and operating a car.

I haven’t looked back. 2010 will mark my twentieth consecutive year of living without a car of my own.

Brian Johnson
Brian Johnson
13 years ago

Last year I got a new job that allowed me to work from home. I no longer have to drive down to Salem and back five days a week.

As gas prices creeped higher and higher I looked to my bike first for local errands. I discovered that riding a bike to the post office; the the store for a few food items; the movie store and the bank was faster and easier than driving.

Now I hate to drive and look for “excuses” to ride the bike instead.

lgb
lgb
13 years ago

I belive the gas prices are due to the upcoming elections. I belive that the prices will go back up right after the elections. Politics and votes needed to get into into office or back into office are the main drivers in theprice decrease. I bike for all trips under 20 miles no matter what the weather. Live to ride and ride to live by my own power

Coyote
Coyote
13 years ago

If gas prices drop, people will drive more. Yes people have found new ways to cope with increased gas prices, I keep hearing about a near double digit reduction in fuel use and VMT. I love hearing that, but it will not last without decades of continued development of public and self-propelled transit, and continued economic pressure or supply problems to permanently change our attitudes.

We have been here before, everybody was imagineering a new transportation future at the end of the “energy crisis” in the late 70’s. 10 years later the price of gas dropped below $1/gal (about 1987) and the SUV became the perfect solution to all our transportation needs.

Kernal Loose Nut
Kernal Loose Nut
13 years ago

lgb is on to something.

Gas prices always fall as an election nears and rise shortly afterwards.

Outside the US, fuel prices are $5-10 dollars a gallon. Prices in this country are very manipulated.

ME 2
ME 2
13 years ago

Gas prices are cyclical folks. They will start creeping up in April, like they do every year. The reason why is that:

– Refiners schedule maintenance so they can adjust their process and make cleaner gas for the ozone season (May- Sept);

– The dual impact of the downtime to make gas for summer and the change push prices up;

– They continue to go up because people actually drive more in the summer for vacations or weekend trips to the coast\lake\mountains;

– After labor day they go down because people drive less.

This is the pattern and we can talk about drilling more oil all we want, but without new refineries coming online their will be a bottleneck converting crude into gas.

The good news is that those valleys (the low point in price) will steadily ride year after year. This along with the fact that people would didn’t before are getting more accustomed to using bikes for errands indicates that biking should continue to grow over the longer term.

bahueh
bahueh
13 years ago

a lot of your really don’t have much true understanding of gasoline prices…
there is no election conspiracy…there is no manipulation outside of futures trading of gasoline prices…its supply and demand. period.
gas costs are cyclical…refineries in the south are coming back on line after hurricane season…people are driving less…world economies are slowing and using less…prices decline. put away the “tin foil hat”.

taking credit for it or finding some sort of cause and effect relationship is ridiculous…

there are fewer commuters now due to daylight, temperature, and rain…there will be even fewer tomorrow with the first big low pressure system of the year..this happens every single year. nothing new to see here.

John
John
13 years ago

Another reason to keep on bike commuting is traffic. On the days I do use the car the congestion seems to be getting worse.
One thing that puts me in the car more ofter is the high price of using Trimet. I used to use MAX during the winter months as it’s safer than riding in the dark and a way to deal with the wet and cold. But my car gets 30-33 mpg and my round trip is 32 miles (by car) so $2.50 for gas and a 40 minute commute vs $4.00 for bike on Max and a 60 minute commute makes it silly to use Trimet. So I’ll be a cager on the days I don’t do the whole commute by bike. The car’s paid for and needed in order to ride centuries and go mountain biking. So it’s a necessary evil.

Peter
13 years ago

Yeah – that Kunstler guy is like so, critical.