How the bicycle economy can help us beat the energy crisis

Elly Blue at Grist has a very interesting series on “bikenomics”, exploring the impact of bicycling on economics, both micro and macro.  Her post on the economic case for on-street bike parking is great, and should be made into a flyer and sent to all small businesses in Minneapolis.  Her latest post deals with “the energy crisis”, meaning generally addiction to oil, high gas prices, and environmental externalities of fossil fuel use.

There’s no easy way out at this point. But if we approach energy as a transportation issue rather than a geopolitical one, we can at least start to see a way through it.

Instead of pushing gas prices back to even more artificial lows, we need to invest that money that is normally all tied up in oil into bikes … and places to ride them.

Bicycling makes a lot of sense in a landscape built for cars. Bikes are fast and flexible enough to fill the gap between transforming spread-out driving destinations to walkable, accessible communities. With 40 percent of our driving trips spanning less than two miles, the distances are feasible — so long as the roads aren’t designed to be terrifying.

It takes minimal investments, mostly in mitigating the effects of sharing space with motor vehicles, for bicycling to almost overnight become a convenient and attractive choice for many, many people.

She does conclude by saying that nothing can save us from our energy crisis (although the bike will help us get through it with “grace”).  But how much impact could it really have?  The statistic she cites – 40 percent of our driving trips span less than two miles – seems amazing.  What if we could convert some of those trips of that to a bike or walking?

According to the Metropolitan Council’s latest Transportation Behavior Inventory survey, the average household makes 10.3 motorized trips per day. Perhaps 9 of these trips include an automobile.  3.6 trips per day (40 percent of 9) at 2 miles is 7.2 miles per day.  Using average mileage, that is 116 gallons or $465 per year per household (at today’s gas prices).  Not a huge amount, but enough for perhaps a nice weekend vacation with the family.  As a region though, that’s about $500 million per year.  Not too shabby.  Plus, that $500 million isn’t going to countries we don’t like, much of it will likely circulate in the local economy.  That’s also 130 million fewer gallons of gasoline burned and 1 million fewer metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere, which is about 5 percent of the emissions from gasoline in Minnesota every year.

So if we can take the shortest of our short trips by bike instead of car, will we have an impact?  Not huge, but definitely measurable.  Of course, the above are numbers for just a few of the benefits, Blue offers many more.  I feel out of my depth trying to answer questions about if and how we could do it, but the most recent numbers for the Twin Cities show only cycling and telecommuting growing in mode share, so I’d venture an “it’s possible”.

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