High gas prices provide a chance for change

  • Alternative energy sources, like wind, are being touted as a way to reduce our dependence on oil-based fuels like gasoline.

    Alternative energy sources, like wind, are being touted as a way to reduce our dependence on oil-based fuels like gasoline.

  • Pace bus officials said July was the best month in the agency's history in terms of ridership.

    Pace bus officials said July was the best month in the agency's history in terms of ridership. Daily Herald file photo

  • People have rediscovered their bikes in the wake of a spike in gas prices.

    People have rediscovered their bikes in the wake of a spike in gas prices.

 
 
Published9/4/2008 12:12 AM

High gas prices hurt. They make it more difficult to get to work, feed the family and heat the home.

Thankfully, prices have come down in recent weeks, easing the pain a bit. Still, the AAA Motor Club shows the average price in the Northwest suburbs hovers at or near $4 a gallon - a burden for those who have to drive.

 

But might some long-term good emerge from our pain at the pump? It's a difficult thing to think about when you're shelling out up to $100 to fill your tank, but many people believe the answer is yes.

Since gas first surged over the $4 mark in the spring, people in the suburbs and all over the country have turned to healthier, more environmentally friendly behaviors and products to keep fuel costs down. People have walked more, biked more, taken public transportation more. Hybrid cars are all the rage, and a serious debate about the use of alternative energy sources is under way.

Which isn't to say that high gas prices are "good," particularly for the working poor and middle-class families who struggle to stretch their paychecks each month. But many believe that today's pain could give way to a better tomorrow.

Let's take a closer look at some of the ways that might be true.

Bicycle boom

Jeff Provisor isn't surprised by what he sees these days, but he's pleased.

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Provisor is the owner of Main Street Bicycles in Carpentersville, just a short ride from the Fox River bike trail system. He says high gas prices have definitely pushed more people into his store.

Some customers are bringing in dusty old bikes for tune-ups, he said. Others buy accessories that will allow them to use their bikes for light errands and shopping.

"A lot of our new customers are telling us they're even biking to work once or twice a week," he said.

Provisor's experience isn't unusual. The Associated Press reported that bike shops all over the country enjoyed a surge in business after fuel hit the $4 mark, with some shops selling twice as many bikes as planned.

Provisor hopes the extra interest will stick. Aside from the gas issue, biking is great exercise - a key fact in a time when obesity is a big concern - and an inexpensive activity to enjoy with one's family, he said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Of course, biking can be tough in the suburbs, many of which were built for car traffic only. Provisor hopes the uptick in the number of people biking will encourage local and federal leaders to create more bike lanes in the suburbs.

"That would also allow people out here to get from their homes to area bike trails more easily," Provisor said. "We're fortunate to have so many trails in the suburbs, and it would be nice if people could get to them without driving."

Get on the bus!

In addition to bicycles, suburbanites have been turning to buses in an effort to beat high gas prices.

Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said that ridership increased throughout the spring and summer, leading to the best July the agency has ever had. In early August, Pace's total ridership for the year was 4 percent higher than it was at the same point in 2007. Metra and the CTA saw similar boosts.

"People clearly are looking for ways to reduce the amount they travel by car," Wilmot said.

Taking a long-term view, it's unknown what effect high gas prices will have on public transportation agencies. Increased ridership means more revenue, but is it enough to offset the agencies' added expenses?

"It's tough to say right now," Wilmot said. "We're taking a hard look at it. What we feel good about is that there's a great potential for people to keep using our service, even if gas prices (continue to) go down. It's a reliable way to get around. The buses are clean and comfortable. I think people in the suburbs who might have had a negative idea about public transportation were pleasantly surprised."

A windy nation

Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens didn't invent wind power; environmentalists have been talking about it for years. But the fact that Pickens is spending so much time and energy to spread the word about alternative energy sources shows just how far the debate has come. And experts believe high fuel prices have a lot to do with that.

"This never would have happened a year and a half ago," said Barry Matchett, co-legislative director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, an advocacy group. "Now that fuel prices have gotten so high, we actually have a reasonable debate about energy going on."

In a series of Internet and television messages, Pickens has called for the U.S. to end its reliance on foreign oil by tapping into wind and natural gas for the country's energy needs. He joins a growing number of leaders at the federal level interested in exploring new energy sources, Matchett said.

"I think we've moved beyond where we were in the past, when these kinds of ideas would just sit on someone's desk," Matchett said.

Helping to keep the debate active is the arrival of new technologies, like the plug-in hybrid car, that could also reduce society's reliance on oil-based fuels, Matchett said. General Motors, for example, hopes to unveil the Chevy Volt in 2010. The Volt will be powered by a battery and a supplemental fuel such as gasoline. According to the Chevrolet Web site, drivers can go 40 miles before burning a single drop of gas.

The combination of the two - the search for new energy sources and technological advances - could result in a future when fuel is cheaper, cleaner and more plentiful, Matchett said.

"The high cost of gas is not beneficial to society at large," he said. "It's a real hardship for many people in this country. Having said that, we're at a point now where some positive, long-lasting change could grow out of this, and that is exciting."

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