Uphill Ride

This month's Grid Magazine (warning: shameless plug coming!), sponsored in part by my firm, is on bike sharing, which is coming to Philly.  I had to wince, though, when I saw this blurb next to this article on bike share programs in the US:

"The average American commutes to work 16 miles each way.  The average car gets under 23 miles per gallon.  That's seven gallons of gas per week to commute.  At today's prices - $3.68 per gallon on average - that's roughly $25.75 per week, or nearly $1,300 a year!"

Maybe others won't take things this way, but it seems to me the logical conclusion that is meant to be made is that we should switch to bicycling because we'll save a bunch of bucks.  Alas, if only it was that easy.  Not that deciding to ride a bicycle isn't a hard choice to make by itself, given that it involves physical effort, exposure to the elements, and the risk of injury.  But the harder choice is to put yourself in a position to even consider a bicycle as a suitable form for commuting.

Consider the first sentence of that blurb: "The average American commutes to work 16 miles each way."  So if the average American decides to get to work by bike (unless they're Lance Armstrong), they'll have to pedal over an hour each way!  I assume that 16 miles one-way is a non-starter for all but the most hardened cyclists.

In other words, for the average American, the harder choice is not giving up your car for your bike; it's making a fundamental shift in where you live and work.  What's unsustainable is less that too many of us drive and too few of us bike; it's more that we've organized our homes and our workplaces to be so sprawled out that it is impractical for the vast majority of us to even entertain using our bikes to get to work.

Maybe, 50 to 100 years from now, the average American won't commute to work 16 miles each way.  Maybe dearer energy prices and a profound premium on denser urban settings will result in less far-flung distances to get from Point Home to Point Work.  But to get there will take some big changes, at the individual and community and government levels, changes far bigger than one person deciding to hop on a bike instead of a car or than one government offering bike share for the first time.  Let's not forget that.
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