Archive for the 'Substitutes' Category

Mar 10 2011

The economic benefits of bike commuting

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!

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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!

6 responses so far

Sep 23 2010

Is bicycle transportation an “inferior good”?

This article was originally published on May 12, 2008. It is being re-published since it relates to our current units in AP and IB Economics.

The Associated Press: Gas prices knock bicycle sales, repairs into higher gear

Greg Mankiw has an ongoing series of posts linking to articles illustrating the impact that rising gas prices have had on demand in markets other than that of the automobile.

One of the determinants of demand for goods and services is the price of related goods and services. As gas prices rise, drivers tend to switch from automobiles to alternative forms of transportation. A few days ago I blogged about the switch from tractors to camels in India, one illustration of the relationship between the price of one good and demand for its substitutes. Mankiw has so far linked to articles about the impact of high gas prices on demand for bicycles, small cars and mass transit.

These three “goods” are all substitutes for the most common form of transport among Americans, the private automobile (often times a gas-guzzler in “the bigger the better” America). When the price of a good like personal vehicular transport increases (in this case due to the price of an input required in private cars, gasoline), the demand for a substitute good will increase.

In the case of bicycles, evidence indicates that just such a change in demand is already underway in America today:

Bicycle shops across the country are reporting strong sales so far this year, and more people are bringing in bikes that have been idled for years, he said.

“People are riding bicycles a lot more often, and it’s due to a mixture of things but escalating gas prices is one of them,” said Bill Nesper, spokesman for the Washington. D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists.

“We’re seeing a spike in the number of calls we’re getting from people wanting tips on bicycle commuting,” he said.

Interestingly, the increase in demand for bicycle travel in response to high gas prices might be even more pronounced due to America’s sluggish growth, 4% inflation and rising unemployment. Real wages have seen little gain in the last couple of years as growth has fallen close to zero while prices have continued to rise. It may be possible that a fall in real incomes in America has spurred new demand for bicycle transportation, which could be considered an inferior good, meaning that as household incomes fall, consumers demand more bicycles for transportation.

Since bicycles represent such a drastically cheaper method of transportation, high gas and food prices, a weak dollar, and falling real wages accompanying the economic slowdown have had a negative income effect on American consumers, leading to increases in demand for inferior goods such as bicycle transportation

That said, having worked in a bike shop myself for two years in college, I can say that most consumers looking at new bicycles are not doing so because of falling incomes. Quite the opposite, in fact, indicating that new bicycles are normal goods (those for which as income rises, demand rises). However, the article states that in addition to increases in new sales, “more people are bringing in bikes that have been idled for years”.

It may be that while new bicycles themselves are normal goods, bicycle transportation as a whole is an inferior good. The increase in demand for new bicycles could be explained by the substitution effect (as the price of motor vehicle transportation rises, its substitute, bicycle transport, becomes more attractive to consumers) and at the same time explained by the income effect too (as real incomes have fallen, demand for the bicycle transport has risen).

This phenomenon is an excellent illustration of how the income and substitution effects work in conjunction to explain the inverse relationship between price and quantity demanded for automobiles (the law of demand), as well as the concept of cross-price elasticity of demand between two substitute goods.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Both the price of substitute goods and income affect demand for a particular product. How have both the prices of substitutes for bikes and the income of bike consumers influenced the demand for bicycles in different ways?
  2. What is the definition of an “inferior good” in economics?Do you believe bicycle transportation is an “inferior good”?
  3. Are all bikes the same? Do you think demand for some bicycles responds differently to changes in income than demand for other bicycles?

97 responses so far

Sep 29 2009

Letting markets work: the Malaysia fuel subsidy goes bye bye

This article was originally published on June 9, 2008

Asia Sentinel – Malaysia cuts fuel subsidy

One of the recurring themes of this blog is the conflict between good politics and good economics. Most of the time in government, smart economic policy is sacrificed in order to achieve political favor with voters. Whether it’s price ceilings on petrol in China, Zimbabwe’s slashing of food prices, harmful import restrictions to benefit domestic producers, or the proposed suspension of gas taxes in a time when fuel conservation is really what’s needed, politicians often act in economically stupid ways to bolster or hang on to their popularity.

So when a government makes a bold move that is economically sound, it sometimes comes as a surprise, as in the case of the Malaysian government this week. The government in Kuala Lumpur has for years subsidized domestic fuel prices, which at under 2 Malaysian Ringit per liter have been the equivelant of roughly $2.40 US per gallon, far below the average price in the west. Drivers benefited from this subsidy, but were not forced to bear any of the burden of rising oil prices, nor had they any incentive to conserve or switch to more fuel efficient automobiles or alternative forms of transportation. The Malaysian government, on the other hand, has had to allocate more and more of its limited budget towards subsidizing petrol prices.

Well, as of yesterday, all price supports for petrol are cancelled, and the effect will be sweeping in the Malaysian economy:

The government announced Wednesday evening that petrol prices would rise by 78 sen (US24¢) at midnight — a 41 percent jump from RM1.92 per liter to RM2.70. That means those spending RM2,000 per month to fill the tanks of their BMWs will now be paying RM2,820. Regardless of income levels, it is likely most Malaysians will feel the pinch.

The subsidy would have cost the Malaysian government 56 billion ringit (around $17 billion) this year. With the money it will now save by ending the subsidy, the government will begin making public transport cheaper and more convenient for commuters who wish to avoid paying for the more expensive petrol to fuel their personal automobiles:

The government hopes to channel the savings into improving public transportation, as it promised many years and elections ago but with little to show. In Kuala Lumpur, despite having a light rail train service and monorail, public transportation is expensive and inconvenient. Worse, intercity travel is still being serviced by old and slow trains, and accident-prone buses.

Malaysia is not the only country taking measures to end government fuel-price supports:

Indonesia has hiked fuel prices by an average of 29 percent, saving about 34.5 trillion rupiah and kicking off a series of street demonstrations… Similarly, after slashing subsidies, Taiwan will distribute US$659 million to middle and low-income families. The latest to raise oil prices is India, whose government announced Wednesday that gasoline and diesel prices will increase by 10 percent.

As more and more countries allow the market mechanism to work, and in the short-run fuel prices rise with the price of oil, the chances are that the long-run equilibrium price of petrol will actually begin to fall.Price controls and subsidies distort market demand. In Malaysia, where a government subsidy kept the price consumers paid around 2 RM, the quantity demanded exceeded the free market quantity. With the removal of the subsidy, consumers will respond by driving less, reducing overall quantity demanded for petrol. As other Asian nations follow suit, global quantity demanded for petrol will decline, while higher prices incentivize producers to increase output. New prouction facilities will come online, just as drivers begin to find alternative ways to get to work, either through carpooling, public transportation, cycling or walking.

The combined effect of slowing increases in demand (or perhaps even a decline in demand if enough substitution of alternative forms of transportation takes place), and increases in supply as new production facilities come on line will be a stabilization and eventual fall in the price of oil.

The future fall in oil prices is explained in more detail here. Malaysia’s repealing of the fuel subsidy is one example of how markets work to restore equilibrium in a market such as that for oil today, where short-term bubbles always burst. $135 oil is probably not here to stay, if only the market is allowed to works its magic.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does a subsidy create disequilibrium in a product market like the petrol market in Malaysia?
  2. Give two examples of how consumers may respond to the 40% increase in petrol prices once the subsidy is removed in Malaysia.
  3. How could making fuel more expensive to consumers in the short-run actually lead to a fall in oil and fuel prices in the long-run?

41 responses so far

Dec 17 2008

The questions no one seems to be asking about the auto industry bailout! | The Economists’ Forum | Will Americans demand the cars that Congress wants the big three to build?

It’s been driving me nuts, this whole bailout debate. My frustrations are definitely appartent to my students, who have had to put up with my occasional rants about the insanity of the whole affair since the issue came to the media forefront over a month ago. Here are some of the issues that just don’t add up from the perspective of a high school economics teacher:

The three companies asking for a bridge-loan supposedly want the money so that hundreds of thousands (some reports say as many as 2.6 million) jobs can be saved. But how could Ford, Chrystler and GM possibly maintain their labor force in a time of a recession when nobody is buying new cars in the first place? In the parlance of AP or IB Economics, automobiles are normal goods, ones for which demand falls as incomes fall. By definition, a recession in the United States means falling incomes. A government loan may allow the Big Three t keep making cars for the time being, but WHY WOULD THEY KEEP MAKING CARS when falling incomes point to falling demand in the immediate future? Making cars that nobody will buy represents a gross misallocation of the nation’s productive resources, not to mention taxpayers’ money. What is required of these industries is precisely what the government loan will prevent them from doing, DOWNSIZING, meaning the shrinking of their labor force as well as the number of plants in operation.

The US recession can not be avoided by allocating the nation’s scarce resources towards a bailout of the auto industry. In fact, it will be worsened because the capacity of any nation to emerge from a cyclical downturn requires the flexibility of the country’s labor force to adapt to the structural changes the country is experiencing in the era of globalization and free trade. America’s future does not reside in labor-intensive manufactured goods, especially in the production of a very expensive durable good for which demand falls drastically during recessions; specifically, automobiles.

The Finanacial Times Economists Forum approaches the issue of long-term falling demand for automobiles from another perspective. One of the conditions of the Big Three accepting a loan from the federal government is the mandate that Detroit will begin producing more fuel efficient automobiles to assure Americans more affordable, more environmentally friendly alternatives to the gas-guzzling SUVs that have dominated the industry for the last two decades. But here’s the problem, gasoline has fallen to a price as low as it was when SUVs were at their peak popularity back in the early 2000s! As any high school economics student knows, gasoline and SUVs are what we call complementary goods, or two goods for which demand and price are inversely related. As gas prices fall to their 2000 levels, demand for SUVs promises to rise once again, while demand for fuel-efficient automobiles will likely decline, creating market pressures for the Big Three to make not more fuel-efficient cars, but more SUVs instead! From the Financial Times:

The basic problem is that Americans like to drive sport-utility vehicles, minivans and small trucks when gasoline costs $1.50 a gallon…

Consumers may have regretted their behaviour when gasoline prices soared above $4 a gallon, but as gas prices descend, there is no reason to believe that left unchecked they will not return to their gas-guzzling ways.

Indeed, there is a distinct possibility that if they really do increase their small car production, in a few years the big three will be back asking for more help, on the grounds that they are losing money by doing exactly what Congress asked.

The only reasonable solution to this dilemma? If Congress DOES begin mandating that Detroit increase its production of fuel-efficient cars and phase out its manufacture of SUVs, any such requirement should be accompanied by a government-set price floor on gasoline. Several months ago, my colleague and fellow blogger Steve Latter blogged about a proposed price floor of $4 per gallon on gasoline. Such a scheme would likely prove nearly impossible to initiate politcally, but may be exactly what’s necessary to add legitimacy to any government requiremens of Detroit to manufacture fuel efficient automobiles. The FT appears to support such a scheme:

Congress should put their mouths where their money is. They should make binding commitments to ensure higher US oil prices and thereby sufficient demand for fuel-efficient cars and trucks in the future.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What message does falling demand in the auto market send from buyers to sellers, and what contradictory message does a subsidy from the government send to auto makers?
  2. If the auto makers receive a low-interest bridge loan (subsidy) from the government, how will this actually undermine the efficient functioning of markets in America?
  3. Why would a price floor on gasoline be needed to accompany a government requirement that the Big Three make more fuel efficient automobiles after receiving a government loan?

13 responses so far

May 05 2008

“Living” evidence of a determinant of demand at work in the deserts of Northern India / Asia-Pacific / India – Camel demand soars in India

In a principles of economics course such as AP or IB Econ, we learn about the determinants of demand. I teach my students the acronym “TOEISS”, which stands for consumer tastes, other related goods’ prices, expectations, income, size of the market and special circumstances. A change in any of these determinants will shift the demand curve for a particular product.

“Other related goods” refers to the effect that a change in price for a substitute or a complement of one good will have on the demand for that good. An example might be the effect of an increase in the price of pork on demand for beef. Clearly, these two goods are substitutes in consumption, and if pork becomes pricey, consumers will demand more beef.

In an era of soaring gasoline prices, many consumers have made the switch from large, inefficient, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs to smaller, more efficient hybrids and compact cars, a reasonable substitute for the average commuter. For some drivers, however, a hybrid just won’t meet their everyday needs.

In northern India, where farmers rely on tractors to till their arid fields, rising gas prices have made expensive tractors, dependent as they are on large inputs of fuel, less attractive to farmers. As gas prices have risen, demand patterns have shifted among farmers in the northern state of Rajasthan:

As the cost of running gas-guzzling tractors soars, even-toed ungulates are making a comeback, raising hopes that a fall in the population of the desert state’s signature animal can be reversed.

It’s excellent for the camel population if the price of oil continues to go up because demand for camels will also go up,” says Ilse Köhler-Rollefson of the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development. “Two years ago, a camel cost little more than a goat, which is nothing. The price has since trebled…

”Market prices for these “ships of the desert”, which crashed with the growing affordability of motorised transport, are rising again as oil prices soar.

A sturdy male with a life expectancy of 60-80 years now fetches up to Rs40,000 ($973), compared to Rs5,000-Rs10,000 three years ago, according to Hanuwant Singh of the Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan, a non-profit welfare organisation for livestock keepers. Entry-level tractors cost around $4,000.

Camels, the ultimate “alternative energy vehicle”. In fact, the only fuel these vehicles need is the occasional bite of grass and a weekly sip of water; talk about fuel economy!

While it may seem funny to those of us so used to the motor vehicle, animals represent a viable substitute for farm machinery in the developing world, and it is likely that as fuel costs continue to soar, more poor farmers will switch back to traditional means of tilling their soil. Water buffalo, cattle, camels, these are all substitutes for the gas powered tractor. Demand for these “alternative vehicles” will rise as fuel costs climb.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is causing the demand for camels to increase in India?
  2. What will happen to demand for camels if the price of oil begins to fall again in the future? Explain.
  3. Do you think the camel is a viable “alternative energy vehicle”? What are the pros and cons of using a camel for farming compared to using a tractor for farming?

6 responses so far

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