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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Bike commuting: Reaching the tipping point?

When it comes to bicycling, are we approaching a favorable tipping point?

A recent Bike Commute Tips Blog post on the surge in bicycling in Massachusetts prompted a comment from a reader:

All these stories about high gas prices getting people back on their bikes...It makes me wonder, is all of this a momentary blip? Or are these stories...chronicling a sea change? Is it possible that we are at a tipping point in American culture, where the idea that bikes are a viable means of transportation becomes mainstream? One thing is sure: people's attitudes are changing, and we are at a unique and exciting time in our history.
Another reader commented that $4 a gallon gas isn't a tipping point, as motorists can adapt to improve efficiency by buying smaller cars or hybrids, and the collapse of SUV sales is one sign this is happening.

Have we reached a tipping point?

I agree that higher gas prices alone--even the much prayed for $10 a gallon--aren't enough to break America's auto addiction. Proactive advocacy by bicyclists will still be necessary. The media and policy makers are paying attention, bicyclists are being heard and we are making our case. Which makes this moment an exciting one for alternative transportation advocates.

Transit demand is also surging, and this presents an opportunity for bicycle activists. I've always believed that bicyclists succeed when they build coalitions with transit, environmental, and community advocates. We can help foster bicycle commuting by joining with transit advocates to call for improved transit, while simultaneously demanding improved bike access.

This opportunity is illustrated by a recent article in San Jose Mercury News, 'Large shifts in behavior' during commutes create new problems:
Transit ridership is up across the Bay Area, but riders say parking at Caltrain and BART lots is so jammed that you have to arrive before 6:30 a.m. to find a free spot. More drivers appear to be leaving their cars at home and bicycling to transit, but bike racks are filling up on local buses and Caltrain, and some riders are being left behind.
Many of these rapidly crowding transit agencies might be tempted to reduce bicycle capacity to make more space for passengers. Bike advocates need to join transit advocates to demand more frequent service to relieve overcrowding and more dedicated bike parking facilities such as the Palo Alto Bikestation or Warm Planet Bikes.

We should also challenge free vehicle parking at transit stations, and urge fees that could be used to improve transit service. To me, this would be the tipping point: Seeing public support for raising the cost of driving to support alternatives. We're not there yet. But there is clearly a favorable trend--which I trace back to the passage of ISTEA in 1991--which bicycling advocates need to exploit.

What would you consider the tipping point?

Visit: Americans Driving At Historic Lows: Eleven Billion Fewer Vehicle Miles Traveled in March 2008 Over Previous March, U.S. Department of Transportation
Visit: GM Mulls Dumping Iconic, Gas-Guzzling Hummer Brand, CNN
Visit: Will We Ever Get Out of Our Cars, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Bicycling against car culture, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


dr2chase said...

There was an article in today's NY Times, talking about how poor workers in places like Mississippi are getting hammered by fuel costs.

I don't know that bicycles yet have a lot to offer them; they've got long commutes, often night shifts, and it's nasty hot.

Kevin Love said...

In my opinion, the tipping point will be a function of culture, not gasoline prices. After all, the rate of bicycle commuting in Canada is three times that in the USA, in spite of similar geography and gasoline prices.

John Pucher writes about this at:

Another point is that gasoline prices in Great Britain are over $8.50 per gallon, and that hasn't been enough to break the car culture there.

So what's the tipping point? I predict that it will come when one or more of the following countries experiences political instability that distrupts its oil exports:

Saudi Arabia

The general level of political instability and/or anti-Western feeling in each of these countries is such that I feel it safe to predict one or more will experience a distruption in its oil exports. Particularly Saudi Arabia, which supplies one third of the world's oil exports - and is a highly unstable anti-democratic government with a powerful Islamic Fundamentalist opposition that really wants to overthrow it.

Yes, its about oil addiction. And there won't be any change until the addict can't get his fix because the pusher stops selling.

Anonymous said...

The tipping point will be reached when Tata in India and other asian carmakers start producing their 2,500$ cars. When these vehicles become reality, millions of people in Asia will trade their bikes for cars.

Each new car over there will mean one less car in America, because when they start sucking the world's gas reserves to refuel these cars, there just won't be any left for our car drivers, unless they are ready to pay the price. BTW, in 3 or 4 years, if not before, gas will hit 200$ a barrel.

People will have no choice but to either move closer to their workplace or get a job closer to home. "It's only a 30 minutes drive" will become "it's only a 30 minutes ride".

BTW, if you can read French, here is an interesting text:

Kevin Love said...

jimci wrote:

"The tipping point will be reached when Tata in India and other asian carmakers start producing their 2,500$ cars. When these vehicles become reality, millions of people in Asia will trade their bikes for cars."

Kevin's comment:

If gas prices are low enough to allow millions of people in Asia to be able to afford to drive cars, then I predict that they will also be low enough to allow millions of people in North America to be able to afford to drive cars.

In other words, although Tata will certainly drive up demand and hence gas prices, rich North Americans will always be able to outbid poor Indians.

Anonymous said...

China and India subsidize the gas so their "middle class" who are poor compared to Americans can afford it.

The car > bike tipping point will apply to those with a short enough commute. For those with long commutes where there is no choice but to drive (suburb to suburb) it's move closer, get a job closer, or get screwed. I have some coworkers with long commutes, one of which is in a race against the price at the pump to retire in 2 years. Jack up the prices and he loses. With a 50 mile drive, a bicycle is out of the question.