|Coffee I Make is Better Than This,|
But I'm no Barista
Andy, at Carbon Trace, made a very good post about gasoline prices going up. There seemed to be a consensus in the comments that high oil prices are good for bike commuting. I think that ignores the reality that automobile commuting is an incredibly efficient use of time for commutes of moderate to long distance. What’s more, many if not most, people are comfortable in their warmed/cooled vehicles which helps foster an overwhelming, if grossly overblown, fear of getting hit by an automobile. Simply put, bicycle transportation use is not driven strongly by oil prices. It is driven by personal circumstances and desires, or where it has become fashionable, which is why bicycle share tends to be high in university towns and in dense locations.
|My Coffee is NOT as Good as This|
Paying for Expensive Gas – Warning – Simple Math Content!
My v2 commute was about 20 miles each way. I already owned a fully depreciated motor vehicle, so my main variable cost was the cost of fuel. Conveniently, my Jaguar gets about 20 miles to the gallon on the commute, so it uses 2 gallons of fuel each day I commute on a 40 mile round trip. If fuel costs $10 per gallon, that’s $20 per commute. $20 to drive to work one time is certainly not chump change, but spending that $20 saves me 2 hours per day compared to bike commuting. If I didn’t enjoy the bike commute, I could work the two hours as a Walmart Greeter, or as a barista making $10/hour and break even in both time and dollars. As gasoline dips to less than $10 per gallon, I’d have to work less time to pay for the gas needed to save the commute time. At $4/gallon, I’d be WAY ahead to simply greet people a little longer or pour a few extra lattes. At my current salary as an engineer, you might safely guess I’d have to work considerably less. In the final analysis, this is supported by the European example, where auto commute modes are dominant (far over 50%) despite much shorter commute distances, dramatically higher fuel prices, and strong governmental policies intended to discourage automobile use. Even in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, you see cars all over the place. THAT says a lot, considering the size of those places compared to any large US city, combined with government policies the US is not inclined to consider in the near term.
Managing Commute Distance
Well, you might ask, why not simply move closer to work as Andy Cline has done? I own my home already. Lots of people own their homes. Assuming our Walmart Greeter/barista is a homeowner a household member residing at an owned home, there are large costs associated with moving. Keeping things simple, between real estate commissions and taxes and loan assumption costs, it costs at least 10% of the house value to move from an owned house. For a $200,000 house, we’re talking a moving cost of $20,000. $20,000 buys a lot of gas, even at $10 per gallon. When my company relocated me to Texas, the total move cost came to around $60k – and I lost money in the deal. To be specific, 2,000 gallons of $10 per gallon gas – at 20 miles per gallon – represents 40,000 miles of driving. If the new house was walking distance from work, it’d take five years to break even. Five years is a long time to count on holding a Walmart job. If North Texas was a high price area, or there’s a spouse that doesn’t also work near the new location, or something that gets better mileage than a Jaguar, that break even point would get longer. Kids in school add further to the barrier to relocation.
|Where Would I Live to be Near All Four Work Destinations I've Had During the Last Seven Years?|
Some of you are spluttering at this point; noting transit usage and bike commuting both soared when prices rose in 2008. What’s more, motor vehicle usage dropped. These are different phenomenon, but neither suggests that a large increase in bike commuting will be sustained from fuel price increases. Instead, there will be short-term “deal with the panic” increases, such as occurred in 2008. Once the “panic” becomes “normal,” people will return TO “normal.”
Bike Commuting Soars
As I said, I enjoy riding my bike. The economics of bike commuting are different for me than for someone doing it just to save money (but that is another post). I’m not alone. Many people that enjoy riding a bike do not bike commute. When prices of fuel rise, some people (that enjoy bike riding) decide to try bike commuting and some of them might continue after the price rise has been absorbed. Other people (that may NOT care about bike riding) get the notion that riding a bike to work (or take a train to work) might be a good idea to save money and they buy a bike (or ride the train). Mostly, this second class of new bike commuters don’t keep at it. They don’t really like bike riding to start with, or maybe they believe the danger propaganda, and they might well have purchased a poor quality bike from a big box store (but not MY Walmart).
Regardless of the motivation, in the long term, the economics and convenience of driving versus riding a bike (or taking transit) sink in, and people go back to their car, and I suspect this would be true even with $10 per gallon gas (since the US is comparitively rich, such a price would certainly hit hard at most of the rest of the world more than us, limiting any really giant rise in price). A very few new alternative commuters would discover non-car-commute factors that overwhelm the raw dollars cost per hour saved factor. A bike commuter may come to realize that he/she gets to ride his/her bike for less total time investment than if he/she had to drive to work and THEN ride the bike. A train commuter may find friends to chat with on the train, or discover all that time can be used to indulge a desire to read.
Driving, in contrast to bike commuting, drops when gas prices go up because people start to think and consider their trips much more. Instead of making separate trip to the grocery store, a deli, a restaurant, and to work, trips will get combined. Some of the marginal trips will be simply omitted. The phenomenon is similar to that which sometimes occurs when a prospective dieter keeps a food consumption log. Simply paying attention to the food intake reduces donut consumption. Simply paying attention to all the car trips reduces them. Unfortunately, after a while, the new situation seems normal and usage returns as focus is lost. It is no accident that Starbucks now emphasizes drive through restaurants much more than they did even five years ago.
Involuntary Bike Commuters
There are, and will be, many bike commuters due simply to the costs of driving. You see their bikes locked at the backs of restaurants. These people are not driven by the price of fuel so much as the inability to raise the amount of money or credit to purchase and operate a car, or even a good bicycle. For them, the economics are the economics of survival. They don’t drive to work now and they won’t drive to work if gas hits $10 per gallon, or if it drops a buck.
|Many, if not Most, Bike Commuters Simply Can't Afford the Motor Vehicle They'd Rather Have|
Of course not! Bike commuting, except for the desperately poor, is not driven by the cost of driving. That is reality. It will remain so for many years to come. However, that does not mean that bike riding can’t play a much more important role in our society and even reduce the costs our society pays to keep all those cars in streets and parking lots. Namely, we can foster the fun and safe aspect of riding to nearby stores and restaurants – “the one mile solution.” How can this be accomplished? I don’t know. I’m not an advocate, but I know things would be cheaper if all the stores I shop at didn’t have to use up so much land and effort to maintain giant parking lots. The good news is they wouldn’t have to buy any extra land at all to put in a bike rack at a prime spot near the front door, nor would they alienate cycling customers with a sign saying “bring your bike inside while you shop at Walgreens” or some such.
OR, we can encourage people to show their patriotism by the one mile solution. A bit different narrative and that miller guy could be riding a mile for his beer. He ain't doing it because gas is expensive. It's just what he can do to help his country and himself. It's a politically neutral, and positive approach. On the other hand, it MIGHT have the negative side effect of encouraging people to honk at innocent cyclists so maybe we ought to simply forget the whole thing.
Ride a Mile for a Miller