Gas Prices Just One More Nudge in the Shift to Cycling

Riding up that hill

As gas prices go up, so does bike ridership, including these shared electric MetroBikes (provided by MetroBike)

As gas prices rise, bike ridership tends to see a bump. For example, when gas prices soared in 2011, bike ridership citywide reached 2% of all commutes taken by workers over 16 years old – almost double the usual baseline. The city could be in the midst of another bump in bike ridership, as gas prices in Austin rocketed to a peak of $4.69 per gallon in mid-June, according to GasBuddy. "If you were to put a trend line it would essentially follow the same direction upward and downward basically … so they're correlated to an extent citywide," said Laura Dierenfield, manager of active transportation and street design for the Austin Transportation Department.

That correlation becomes stronger when looking at Central Austin. "We're talking about folks that are taking shorter trips to get where they need to go [that] can be converted into biking more easily and then likewise, there's generally more people in that kind of concentration, so there's more need to shift those modes around to get reliably where you need to go," Dierenfield said. "A bike trip in the center city can be time-competitive with a car trip at certain times of the day."

The pandemic also seems to have driven growth in bike ridership, although the city is still awaiting comprehensive data. For bike shops in Austin, rising gas prices were just another reason for people to buy bikes after the early pandemic rush. "Two years later, we're seeing manufacturers are catching up to demand, which means supply has increased, which means it's easier to actually get bikes for customers," said Doug Zolbert, a sales floor manager at Austin Bike Farm. He added that sales in commuter bikes and electric-assist bikes have picked up pace at the Burnet Road shop.

Cycleast, located on East Cesar Chavez, has also seen more demand for e-bikes, said Hannah Simon, the shop's general manager. She thinks they offer an attractive option for newer bike riders in particular. "I think a lot of folks who are just getting into cycling may be intimidated by the physical challenge of getting around on bikes, and I think electric bikes have made that just much more approachable," she said. "I think the heat is definitely another factor … so that's another point for the e-bike argument."

ATD also views e-bikes as an important tool in growing ridership. Hills and heat tend to be the biggest barriers for converting new riders. "I think here in Austin [we don't have many] huge, steep climbs, but we have our share of them and that can be very limiting," Dierenfield said. "An e-bike will literally flatten that from a range-and-effort and I think even [from a] confidence perspective."

“A bike trip in the center city can be time-competi­tive with a car trip at certain times of the day.” – Austin Transportation Department’s Laura Dierenfield

Beyond external factors like rising gas prices and pandemics, the city is also looking to boost ridership in an effort to achieve goals set out in the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, which aims to reduce the number of Austinites that drive cars alone as their primary mode of transport to 50% by 2039. To do so, the city estimates about 5% of commuters will cycle as their primary mode of transport.

Dierenfield said City Council has also pushed for a greater focus on e-bikes, passing a resolution in June to accelerate ownership, access, and usage of the vehicles in the city by enhancing Austin Energy's rebates for bike purchases, which are currently up to $300 for eligible e-bikes, scooters, mopeds, and motorcycles.

Ridership in Austin's bikeshare program MetroBike has also been on the rise in recent months. Following outages during South by Southwest in March, the number of rides reached 36,790 in April – the most since September 2018. The service has about 800 bikes and e-bikes in operation.

Hill Abell, board chair at Safe Streets Austin, has witnessed a lot of change in his nearly four decades of work in Austin's bike community. He ran Bicycle Sport Shop for 37 years before selling the business in 2020. He says he hasn't noticed an uptick in bike ridership since gas prices started to increase earlier this year compared to previous gas increases. "My sense is the gas prices have not driven a big push for people to get on bicycles, like it did in 2008," Abell said; 2008 was more of a shock because it was the first significant increase in more than 20 years. Still, he is confident the city will reach its goal of 5% bike ridership by 2039.

"I feel good about that, and one of the things that's going to be really important is some of the big facilities that are in the planning stage, like some of the urban trails, that are going to connect different parts of the city," Abell said. He added that other changes in the coming years to the city's bike infrastructure will make riding increasingly safer, pointing to the concrete-curb-protected bike lanes under construction on Slaughter Lane. Changes like these keep Abell and city officials optimistic that bike ridership will continue to rise.

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MetroBike, gas prices, e-bike, Austin Transportation Department, SXSW, Bicycle Sports Shop, South by Southwest, Safe Streets Austin, Laura Dierenfield, Doug Zolbert, Austin Bike Form, Cycleast, Hannah Simon, Hill Abell, Bicycle Sport Shop

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