Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When there is no alternative, then what?

It started as a friend's Facebook status, one person adding a comment, then a second person, and ultimately eight people adding almost three dozen comments over the span of a couple of days. But as Facebook conversations are essentially lost to the sands of time, and I did make a couple of salient points, I felt it was appropriate to record my point of view as a blog post.

The conversation began with the simple observation, "I think that instead of the news just covering how expensive gas is now, they should present that fact and then remind people that riding a bike does not cost you at the pump." This rapidly expanded to discussions of oil companies, assaults on cyclists, inadequate public transportation, and, in particular, hockey practice. In essence, the argument by one friend of a friend was that the price of gas didn't matter, there was no alternative to getting four people and a large amount of equipment out to a big ice rink many miles out in the suburbs and back.

He's right, there isn't. I fact checked this a couple of ways.
  1. Equipment aside, the nearest bus stop is almost seven miles away, and even that is a one-hour bus ride from Downtown, assuming one was already Downtown, which one likely is not.
  2. Even if one could travel that seven miles in a flash, the last trip back is before 10 p.m., likely before practice would be done.
  3. Even with a bicycle, the seven miles from the end of the bus line to the rink are on a very bike-unfriendly limited-access high-speed state highway.
  4. The rink is far enough out that even if the road was pleasant, weather and darkness were not factors, and the 40+ pounds of equipment and the bob trailer to carry it were not issues, it cannot be done by a bicycle and still have the stamina to participate in a physically demanding activity, and then also bike home afterward.
That makes him absolutely right, you just cannot do it without a car. Kudos to him for even trying to get four people and stuff out there, instead of four people driving separately.

Here's the problem: When the situation makes the car the only travel mode feasible, that activity is itself in jeopardy should the fuel game change. Gasoline goes to $4, $6, pick a number, and the alternative becomes simple. You just don't go anymore. Never mind the money invested in the equipment, never mind fees for ice time, if you're dropping a large piece of $50 just to get there and back a couple times a month, that is simply going to shut down that activity as a viable way to spend the evening. Ditto anything like it. The soccer mom with her SUV full of kids would be in the same category if they have any significant distance to go.

This one change, the inexorable rise in the cost of fuel, will change this country. The majority of the population has something similar to this to do. "I have to go to X. I drive to X. I do X. I drive home from X." For four generations, this has been the status quo.

Over the last 40 years, though, we've seen many occasions where fuel prices spike, retreat, then settle at a much higher plateau than before. After each spike, we get used to the new plateau and life continues unchanged. There is nothing to suggest this will not happen again. All rational signs point to higher fuel prices in the future. Among the unknowns are when, to what extent, how rapidly, and with what accompanying trouble, if any. A rise without a plateau? It could happen. Some sort of rise will happen, though, count on it, just as it did in 1974, 1979, 1991, 2001, 2005 and 2008.

In the meantime, pick your hobbies and their locations wisely.

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