Bicyclists gear up for gas-free Fourth of July
TRANSPORTATION: Bicyclists gear up for gas-free Fourth of July (07/03/2008)
Robin Bravender, ClimateWire reporter
While soaring gas prices have stopped some motorists from making Independence Day forays, others are venturing out for road trips that don’t involve expensive stops at the petroleum pump.
Bicycle enthusiast Rebecca Jensen, 23, is planning to spend the day on a bike trip with her parents, “winery hopping” around Walla Walla, Wash., in the southeast corner of the state.
Jensen doesn’t own a car and travels almost everywhere on her bicycle. She commutes to her job at a coffee shop on her bicycle and started a program at a community center teaching others how to fix their own bikes. She said since gas prices have increased, she has seen more bikes and “definitely more two-wheeled vehicles in general” out on the road with her.
“When I’m with people and they complain about gas, I do smile to myself, because I don’t have to directly pay for it,” Jensen said.
In a country famous for its love of cars, lifestyles like Jensen’s are still far from the norm. Yet with gas soaring above $4 per gallon, industry leaders say a growing number of summer travelers are eyeing bike trips with new appreciation.
For the first time this decade, AAA predicts a decline in the number of U.S. travelers over the July Fourth holiday. About 400,000 fewer people are expected to drive this holiday weekend, a 1.2 percent drop from 2007. It’s the second consecutive travel holiday this year, following Memorial Day, when AAA has forecast a decline.
And the drop-off might be even steeper than the organization has predicted.
Gas price spike ‘an opportunity’ for creative traveling?
“It’s possible that the actual numbers are actually worse, because gas prices have actually increased,” said AAA spokesman Mike Pina.
But just because some people aren’t driving doesn’t mean that they’re sitting at home, idling away Independence Day. Just ask national biking groups.
The Adventure Cycling Association, a Montana-based company, has seen a 22 percent increase in memberships this year. And at Bike Vermont, a company that offers vacationers organized bicycle tours through Vermont, Maine, Ireland and Scotland, the July Fourth weekend was booked about a month in advance. While no agency keeps national statistics on bike travelers, individual companies say they see the evidence of pumped-up interest in their sales records.
The surge in tour bookings this year has been “way beyond anything I anticipated,” said Bike Vermont President Larry Niles. The Vermont tours are up 26 percent as of a week ago, he said, and Maine tours have increased almost 10 percent. Bicyclists travel between two and eight days, staying in small-town inns along the way.
“I think the gas crisis is really creating an opportunity to think outside the box,” said Ginny Sullivan, new routes coordinator for the Adventure Cycling Association.
“There are people out there with a lot of interest in leaving their car behind and trying new things,” she said.
With more people searching for alternatives, bicycle suppliers also are among those benefiting.
“Things are going pretty well, at least for the cycling industry,” said Patrick VanHorn, corporate communications manager for Giant Bicycle Inc. “As gas prices go up, people are looking for different ways of getting around, of commuting.”
Plenty of Americans still revving their engines
The decline in Fourth of July car trips may be steep, but more than 34.2 million Americans still plan to drive over the holiday weekend, according to AAA.
That holds true even among the bikers. Jensen’s parents plan to drive about 300 miles from their home in Marysville, Wash., outside of Seattle, before embarking on their bicycle trip, and Bike Vermont tourists come from all over the country.
“While the numbers of travelers are a bit off from last year’s levels, it is important to note that there are still millions of Americans that plan to travel,” AAA President and Chief Executive Robert Darbelnet said in a press release.
“Clearly, gas prices are continuing to take a toll on the traveler’s budget, but the travel industry is responding, as they have in the past, with discounts, promotions and other incentives to get people traveling this holiday,” he said.
Yet motorists aren’t the only ones affected. Air fares over the holiday weekend are up 13 percent over a year ago, and car rental prices are up 12 percent, according to AAA.
A push for a national bike corridor
As travelers reconsider their modes of transport, a growing number of bicycling advocates are calling for comprehensive bike routes throughout the country.
Adventure Cycling started as Bikecentennial “way back in the ’70s when the first gas crisis started,” Sullivan said. Among its crowing achievements was establishing the TransAmerica Trail for the celebration of the 1976 U.S. bicentennial. The trail, which remains popular among serious cyclists, begins in Astoria, Ore. and traverses the country, ending in Yorktown, Va.
Now, with gas prices again squeezing consumers, the group is working with several other organizations and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) to develop a complex interstate bicycle route system that would make commuting and long-distance travel easier.
Sullivan said the goal is to create a comprehensive and easy-to-use network that is rural, suburban and urban.
The second phase of the project has involved drafting a plan for a national corridor. The plan is currently under review by AASHTO subcommittees, Sullivan said.
Once implemented, AASHTO would designate the routes and help state transportation departments implement and maintain them, Sullivan said.
She said several states, including Virginia, have already shown interest in having bike routes designated through the program. “There are states that are really resistant to the idea, but they’re really in the minority,” Sullivan said.
The biggest hurdle to getting states on board will likely be a funding shortage, Sullivan said.
“States support the concept, but they aren’t ready to invest in the implementation yet,” she said.