Monday, June 19, 2017

Why bicycle mode share is (and will remain) less than 1%

I have always maintained that bicycle mode share in the U.S. will stay well below 1% of all trips as long as there's abundant and cheap gasoline. This superb article in The Guardian makes the case, brilliantly. In the early 1970s, existing high gas prices from declining U.S. production -- followed by the Arab Oil Embargo -- put prices and availability out of reach for most folks. For 3 years, bicycles sold like snow shovels on the eve of a storm; bicycle shops struggled to keep pace. Bicycling became widespread, and an accepted form of transportation.

Several brief excerpts from the article:

In 1973, 252 bicycle-oriented bills were introduced in 42 states. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of the same year provided $120m for bikeways over three years.

And hundreds of articles in the mainstream press demonstrated that there was an alternative. If National Geographic was to publish a spread today similar to the one from 1973 it would likely have glossy adverts from the likes of Cannondale, Specialized and Trek, America’s leading homegrown bicycle brands. The three were founded during the boom years

US bicycle sales, which had been rolling along at 6 million a year, shot up to 9 million in 1971, 14 million in 1972 and 15.3 million the following year, according to a Bank of America report.

The bike had turned out to be the hula hoop of the 1970s: all the rage one minute, all but forgotten the next. Bike sales in the US fell by half within months. Despite the obvious flip to cycling in America from the 1973 Opec oil crisis – when fuel was in short supply and getting around by car became expensive and, because of oil-saving speed restrictions, slower – cycling hadn’t changed the world.

The bike-friendly John Volpe left the Department of Transportation to become the US Ambassador to Italy. State highway planners reined back what had been grandiose bikeway plans. Bike shop lines thinned out to nothing. Bicycle manufacturers cancelled overseas orders.

In the words of the chairman of the Bicycle Manufacturing Association of America to a Senate committee in 1976: “The boom has turned into a bust.”  [Full article ...]

Unfortunately, we may not live to see this repeated, much less ingrained. Climate change (emissions) alone are not going to sway Americans to at least try other modes. Indications are, pump prices won't be increasing anytime soon, and even if they are, it won't be nearly enough to change driver behavior. The ability to extract vast amounts of oil from multiple sources, using advanced technologies such as "Fracking" can readily put the world in an oil glut. As such, and regardless of what some advocacy orgs like to think and preach, the prospect for bicycling as mainstream transportation in the U.S. will remain bleak.

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