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If gas is so expensive, why do we still drive everywhere?

Yes, I'm a gigantic dork. (Photo by Keiko Wong)

I’ll go ahead and own up to a major personal bias I have: I ride a bike for transportation.

That doesn’t make me anti-car. My family owns a RAV4, and we’re rather fond of it. It’s just that for a lot of trips, it doesn’t make much sense to drive. To me, it seems like overkill to use a 3,000 pound vehicle to haul myself, a sandwich and a cell phone three miles to the office each day (yes, even in winter).

What does this have to do with energy? In my case, admittedly not much. I save roughly 60 gallons of gas each year by not driving to work.

The real savings come from not having to own a second car in the first place.

Matthew Amster-Burton, a finance columnist for Mint.com, calculates that by not owning a car, his family saves about $400 a month (he based his figures on the cost of owning a used, 2005 Sentra). Granted, Amster-Burton lives in an area of Seattle where it’s actually more inconvenient to own a car than to do without one, but his point is that we tend to not fully account for just how expensive driving can be.

What’s funny is that, with gas now at $4 a gallon, and on a perfect 65-degree day, people driving cars will look at me, on a bike in my work clothes, as though I’m the crazy one.

Grist writer Elly Blue has just wrapped up an excellent five-part series on the economics of cycling. She covers a lot of ground, from infrastructure costs to health benefits, but the main point is similar to Amster-Burton’s. Driving is incredibly expensive.

It also uses a lot of oil.

So logically, if we want to use less oil (and virtually everyone agrees this is a good idea), one way could be to find ways to make it more practical for people to choose alternatives to driving.

The problem we run into is that people tend to think of transportation modes like a religion you must adhere to rigorously. Cyclists can be as guilty of this as anyone, but more often, people tend to dismiss cycling as an option because it isn’t practical all the time. In reality, though, most people use different modes of transport depending on the circumstance — maybe you need the car to get to work, but what if you could bike to the library on Saturdays?

The fact that, in most of the U.S., that very proposition is nothing short of an insane dance with death ought to tell us something.

But, of course, building infrastructure to enable those choices is easier said than done. Look no further than New York City, where not even cyclists can agree whether bike lanes are a good idea.

But it can be done, and Blue cites multiple studies showing that bike infrastructure is not only comparatively inexpensive, but can also pay for itself quickly through reduced health care costs.

The transportation infrastructure we have now, where the majority of trips are taken by car, didn’t happen by accident. The infrastructure in Copenhagen, where roughly half of all trips are taken by bike, didn’t happen by accident, either. If we want to be insulated from the shock of high gasoline prices, we need to, among other things, seriously rethink our transportation priorities.

Remember, the guy on the bike may look silly, but he might be on to something.

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