Cyclists Pedal Past High Gas Prices

Tessa Dover wants everyone to win. As an avid rider since college, Dover knows that using her bicycle as a commuter vehicle keeps her healthy, decreases the size of her carbon footprint, and takes one additional car out of the California traffic jam.

But another concern weighs heavy on the mind of Dover, a 23-year-old Ph.D student at University of California, Santa Barbara. As it has across the rest of the country, gas prices in her neighborhood have made commuting to work ever more expensive.

“Going around town and seeing the prices go up, I’ve absolutely noticed,” says Dover, who also has a car but uses her bicycle for the five-mile commute. “I definitely ride more often than I think I would if I didn’t have to pay for gas, or if gas wasn’t so expensive.”

According to people in bicycle sales across the country, pretty high — but the trend has already begun. They hope to gain from what many expect will be a turbulent summer, when increased travel, seasonal fuel efficiency standards and ratcheting tensions in the Middle East are expected to result in even higher gas prices. These retailers stand to benefit from the coming rise, offering an alternative means of commuting to those looking to save at the pump.Just how high do gas prices have to rise for more commuters to park their cars and go to work on a bicycle instead?

“Everybody in the bike business is talking about it,” says Rick Teranes, manager at Bikes Blades & Boards in Detroit, Mich., since 1993. “It’s got great potential.”

As the price of a barrel of oil tops $110, drivers along the West Coast are regularly paying over $4 a gallon to fill up. In the Midwest and Northeast, as well, drivers are spending over $3.70.  And in turn, the Federal Highway Commission estimates that driving in the United States declined 1.3 percent in 2011, from an already low year in 2010 — meaning Americans drove 38.3 billion fewer miles than they did the year before.

The trend breaks into two waves. The first comes in the form of an increase in commuter-related accessories, which can be added to any bike to transform it into a vehicle for daily use. Such accessories include lights for the commute home and baskets to hold personal items, as well as locks, racks, backpacks and fenders.

Across the country, these items have seen a notable rise in sales.

“Accessories are huge,” says T.J. Windmiller, online sales manager at Mad Cat Bikes in Sacramento, Calif., where oil prices have increased dramatically. “A lot of folks have bikes already, so they just need lights and a basket and a rack so that they can go to work.”

Neal Wechsler, owner of Montlake Bike Shop in Seattle for the past 31 years, says that bike stores could likely run a profit on these accessories alone.

“The commuter aspect is such a huge part of our business already,” he says. The biking industry in the United States is already a $6 billion business, according to Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association.

Edwin Shafer, a salesman at Big Shark in St. Louis, said, “When oil prices first started shooting up, we saw an increase in the sale of commuter accessories, as well as a bit in the bikes themselves.” He says standard hybrid and road bikes, geared toward the commuter, have become hot items in his store.

But for most, the second wave of this is yet to come: a surge in sales of the bikes themselves, which can be high-priced items, especially for Americans seeking to cut down on costs in the first place. Teranes in Detroit notes that customers making up the first wave of this commuter transition tend to be thrifty shoppers, taking a bike out of the garage after a few years of neglect to ride to work in the record warm winter.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens this summer now that they’re predicting $5 a gallon,” Teranes says, noting that industry followers “predict a milestone. That’s the magic number.”

Says Windmiller: “We notice a correlative relationship with sales and both low oil prices and high prices. We’re experiencing a lot of sales, especially for this time of year. A lot of people here in California usually hang up their bikes the first time it rains. So we’re definitely feeling it.”

Dover says many commuters view driving as a necessity, since their workplace is too far to bike or too close to feel the rise in gas prices.

“Sometimes it’s about making myself feel better for going to L.A. over the weekend, for example, if I’ve biked to work that week,” says Dover. “I’m definitely conscious of it. And not seeing it as an all or nothing thing is important. I can bike to a bus stop that’s a little further down without having to drive.”

But if Californians are particularly sensitive, those in the Northeast, where gas prices have also risen, still have to take weather into account. Many bike stores in states such as New Hampshire and Maine see bike sales drop off reliably each year in wintertime, regardless of gas prices. And in the South, where gas has remained under $3.50, bike retailers have seen few changes at all.

“As oil prices of risen over the year, folks have come in and I’ve heard people talk about it, but the prices haven’t stayed high enough for a long enough period to really impact sales,” says Jim Snider, manager at RideSouth Recumbents in Jackson, Miss. “At this point it’s still about how much money you’ve got.”