BY NICOLE FORMOSA
BURBANK, CA—When Rob Stotts moved his H&S Bicycles to a new location in Burbank, California, this spring, he stepped up his stock of commuter-related accessories like panniers to hold laptops, slick tires and racks.
Stotts hasn’t changed his business model—he still sells high-end bikes and has a VIP room for custom fits—but he says if his customers aren’t already clamoring for commuter-oriented products, which many are, they soon will.
“I have a lot of friends who own bike shops and we all agree: Once gas hits $5 a gallon, we’re going to see a huge influx of bicycle sales,” Stotts said.
Some economists say the nation’s pumps could reach that benchmark by the July 4 holiday. Americans already appear to be driving less. The Federal Highway Administration recently reported the sharpest drop-off in miles driven since 1942—as of March, Americans had logged 11 billion fewer miles than the 12 months prior.
There aren’t statistics to show the bicycle industry is benefiting from all this, but plenty of anecdotal evidence points to a trend of more people parking their cars and pedaling instead.
Planet Bike’s Dan Powell said, “We can’t make enough to satisfy the orders” of its popular Superflash light set and Cascadia fenders.
Retailers across the country have reported a spike in sales of utility, lifestyle bikes and parts and accessories, and a jump in service tickets as more people look to retrofit old bikes for practical use.
In bike-friendly Portland, Oregon, Bike N’ Hike owner Kevin Chudy said all six of his western Oregon stores saw double-digit growth in May, one of which was up 96 percent.
Chudy can’t directly tie the success to a rise in the number of commuters, but noted that sales of mountain and road bikes have softened while flat handlebar 700c bikes have sold well.
Chudy said today’s commuters are recreational riders who have decided to use their car less, as well as new cyclists.
“The new people are mostly angry that gas is so high. They’re just so pissed off; they want to give their money to us and not to the big oil companies,” Chudy said.
A rise in commuting could be expected in a progressive cycling city like Portland where infrastructure and public transportation systems lend themselves to getting around on a bike.
But even in places like Little Rock, Arkansas, and Greensboro, North Carolina, where hot, humid summertime weather typically keeps people in their cars, the mindset is beginning to change as gas prices tick upward.
Patrick Barron, owner of Chainwheel, Arkansas’ largest bicycle store, has already seen a bump in sales of lifestyle bikes. Giant’s Tran Send, which comes equipped with fenders and a rear rack, surprised shop staff by selling through four or five orders of the most popular sizes. Also, more customers are bringing in old bikes to be retrofitted with baskets and rear lights.
“You can see people are making some kind of commitment to trying this here locally as an alternative to driving,” Barron said.
Dale Brown, owner of Cycles De Oro in Greensboro, North Carolina, has witnessed the same trend.
“In our region, it has been dramatic, and not just since gasoline costs have escalated. So many people are rejecting urban sprawl, returning to live in the cities, opening up communities to more active, lifestyle transportation,” Brown said.
While retailers have experienced strong sales of commuter-type bikes, some have expressed frustration over potentially being left stranded by suppliers in the midst of the commuter craze this summer as 2008 models run out before 2009 models are in.
Others wonder how long the commuter trend will last.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt it’s increased, it’s whether it will just be a blip for three months,” said Jim Kennedy, sales manager at Wheat Ridge Cyclery outside Denver, Colorado, which capitalized on commuter mania by promoting a green month in June offering discounted commuter bikes and accessories.
The increasing interest in using the bike as a vehicle could trickle into the advocacy sector as demand rises for more commuter-related facilities.
Long Beach, California’s, nonprofit Bikestation offers shared-use bicycle rentals and storage facilities near public transportation in six West Coast cities. In April, 4,000 bikes were parked at its facilities, and another 6,000 people used a Bikestation for other amenities such as showers or repairs, said Andréa White, executive director of Bikestation.
One sign of the growing popularity of commuting: It took Bikestation 12 years to open its existing six facilities, but it plans to open three new locations in the next six to nine months—in Washington, D.C., Tempe, Arizona, and Santa Monica, California.