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Friday, March 06, 2009

Bike commuting and economic downturn

Image of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists on a bridge
The economic situation is bleak, and getting bleaker. In some sense the current economic crisis is primarily an energy crisis.

The American economy rose to global hegemony on a wave of inexpensive petroleum. An assumption of perpetual cheap energy is the foundation of the business plans of nearly every corporation traded on the NYSE, NASDAQ, and other exchanges. The global economy assumes cheap oil, and no economy assumes this with greater enthusiasm than the prodigiously profligate U.S. economy, which consumes 25 percent of total annual global production of petroleum, most of which fuels the country's motor vehicles.

However, the era of cheap abundant oil is over. That's the dope slap now causing panic in the equity markets. Despite the momentarily lower price of oil, the long term trend is for increasing scarcity and rising prices for petroleum. Alternative fuels on the massive scale needed to fuel the global economy are scant, unrealistic, underdeveloped, and distant at best. Welcome to post peak America.

The new energy reality will have significant impacts on the economy. The first domino to fall was the housing sector, having powered economic growth for several decades through sprawling development of energy-intensive exurban "McMansion" subdivisions. The mortgage driven banking industry was the next domino to fall.

Other sectors approaching collapse include consumer credit cards, mall retail, automobile makers, and the airline industry. Business is eroding for the restaurant, travel and hospitality sector. Energy-intensive and credit dependent corporate agriculture is in trouble. The fuel-guzzling military-industrial complex will be challenged. Sadly, America's political leadership fails to understand this pivotal paradigm shift, and seems determined to launch another frenzy of stimulative highway spending in a futile attempt to reinvigorate the "Happy Motoring Era."

Those interested in more detailed examinations of the new energy future might consult the work of thinkers such as James Howard Kunstler, Michael Klare, and Paul Roberts, or films such as The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream or A Crude Awakening-The Oil Crash. Eventually the American economy will reach a new equilibrium, but it will doubtless be at a lower level. This will require a fundamental shift in how we live.

What does this mean for the future of bicycle commuting? In short, I believe the prospects are very, very bright. Those of us who now commute by bike will be less lonely on our streets. The relative appeal of travel by bicycle will increase, as Americans become less affluent and energy prices continue to climb. Some speculations:

• Urban Rebound: sprawling suburbs will lose their appeal, as gas gets scarce and costly. Dense, walkable cities will become more attractive, making transit and bicycling more practical.

• Transit Renewal: strapped public agencies will find even basic road maintenance an expensive challenge, let alone new highway construction. Fixed rail transit (trolleys), bus rapid transit (BRT), and passenger rail will all become more critical. Multimodal systems--combining bicycles and transit--will become more common.

• Power-assisted Bicycles: as much as bicycle commuting purists think pedaling is a virtue, many others will look to electric bicycles, scooters, mopeds, and other energy-efficient two-wheeled transportation. We will need to negotiate better accommodation for all two-wheeled vehicles, so bike lanes are not overwhelmed with motorized transport.

• Bike-Sharing: many municipal agencies will experiment with bike sharing, as a form of cost-effective public transportation. Boston, Washington, and San Francisco are among the early movers pursuing Paris Velib-style bike sharing systems.

• Bike Parking: companies looking to reduce the expense of providing employee parking may become more supportive of their bicycle commuting staff. The Bicycle Commuter Act is a hopeful start; possible new initiatives to provide more equity in transportation provision will emerge.

• Health Care Reform: cost-containment efforts are long overdue in American healthcare, which may shift the emphasis from medical intervention/treatment to illness prevention. This will provide more support for healthy activities such as bicycling.

The shift away from an oil-intensive economy and transportation system will be traumatic and difficult. But it doesn't have to be. Much has been done in many communities around the U.S. to facilitate bicycle commuting. We need to encourage even more public investment in bicycling, and end support for gas guzzling foolishness. The future of bicycle commuting may be very bright, and may be the foundation of economic recovery.

What do you think of the future prospects? Is there a silver lining for bicycling in the dismal economic trends?

Image: Web capture.
Visit: The Ruins of the Unsustainable: Searching For Answers to the Suburbs,
Visit: Did Your Car Cause the Crisis?, American Prospect
Visit: Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Permanent Energy Crisis Hits Home,
Visit: Dilip Hiro: The Energy Reality We Face,
Visit: The end of oil is closer than you think, The Guardian (2005!)
Visit: Will The End of Oil Mean The End of America?, (2004!)
Visit: From the Wilderness
Visit: Peak Moment TV
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site