Mar 10 2011
I feel like I’ve been here before. Gas prices are rising, approaching $4 per gallon. American drivers are freaking out, demanding the government “does something” to halt rising fuel costs. The next thing you know, people start buying bikes and riding them to work. Just like that, Americans change their lifestyles, abandon their cars, and reinvent themselves as bike commuters!
The economics of this phenomenon barely requires explanation, but since this is an Economics teacher’s blog, I suppose I should explain it. A major determinant of the demand for a product is the price of related goods. In the US right now, fuel and cars are related goods; in economics terms, they are complementary goods. “You can’t have one without the other”. As gas prices rise, demand for driving cars begins to fall, since it becomes more costly to drive. The other good related to cars in this picture is a substitute mode of transportation, bicycles. The more expensive it becomes to drive a car, the greater the demand for bicycles.
Now, allow me to take my econ teacher hat off and put my avid cyclist hat (or helmet?) on. Bikes are way more than just a substitute for cars. The fact that every time gas prices approach $4 per gallon bicycle sales start to spike is bewildering to me. Do consumers really not know that riding a bike is always cheaper than driving a car? Why does it take slightly more expensive gas to motivate consumers to think about buying a bike?!
Okay, economist had back on now: You see, operating a car involves monetary costs that far exceed the price of gas. When I last had a car in the US, I paid nearly $200 per month in insurance (young males always pay the most), far exceeding my expenditures on fuel. In addition, there’s the fixed cost of the car itself, which once spent is a “sunk cost”, so should not affect an individual’s decision to drive or not to drive when the price of gas changes.
In addition to these explicit, monetary costs, however, there are also external, invisible costs of operating cars that make them an even less perfect substitutes for bicycles. More traffic on the roads, more accidents, more air and noise pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental impact of the production and ultimate disposal of the car itself: these external costs are not even born by the driver when he or she decides to drive to work every day, rather they are born by society, taxpayers, and the environment.
My point is, making the decision to switch to commuting by bicycle should not require a 25% spike in fuel prices. The cost of filling your tank is in fact the least significant cost associated with driving a car when you look at the whole picture, and include not only those explicit, monetary costs paid by the driver, but include the external, social and environmental costs born by society as a whole.
Maybe I’m just on a bike high right now, since I got my new 29 inch wheeled fully two weeks ago and have ridden the 30 km round trip to work nearly every day since! Then again, maybe it really would make more economic, environmental, physical, spiritual and social sense if more people would park their cars and hop on a bike tomorrow morning!