They say once you learn to ride a bicycle, you never forget. Raising the cost of gas, it seems, helps people to remember.
As prices at the pump rose to punishing levels this spring, more Mercer County residents began turning to two-wheeled transportation in hopes of saving their pennies, according to area bike shop owners and a local transportation association.
"When people come in to the shop, after we get through introductions, the first thing we ask the person is what they plan on doing with the bicycle, so we know what to do with the bike to make it happen," said Charlie Kuhn, owner of Kopp's Bicycle Shop in Princeton.
"Recently, we've had more and more people tell us they're bringing their bike in because they want to start commuting," he said.
Kuhn said he picked up on the trend almost immediately after gas prices started rising in April.
Just like 2008
It reminded him of a nearly identical surge in repair business in 2008, when steep price increases hit.
"I'm seeing old 10-speeds coming out of the woodwork, and other commuter-type bicycles," Kuhn said. "People haven't used them in years, and they think, "OK, instead of my car, I'm going to use my bike to get to work.'"
In Hamilton, Economy Bike & Skateboard Shop owner Charlie Swope said he was also seeing increased demand for repairs, especially of old 10-speeds.
"I have more people coming into my store even though the economy's still really not good," Swope said. "They can't spend four or five hundred on a new bike, but the repair business is doing really well right now."
Swope said his business got a boost not long after the price hikes both this year and in 2008, when the national average for a gallon of regular gas reached an all-time high of $4.11.
"I always tell people, riding a bike is $0.00 a gallon," he said.
During that previous period of high prices, Hopewell Township resident Rob Schell began riding his electric bike the six and a half miles to his job in Ewing two to three days a week.
"It's nice to get out in the fresh air. It gets me some exercise," he said last week.
"Sometimes in not so nice weather it's not so fun, but most of the time I enjoy it."
Paid for itself
Schell, a supervising environmental specialist at the Department of Environmental Protection, said the electric bicycle -- which gives his pedaling a boost on hills and windy stretches -- paid for itself within a couple thousand miles of riding. Driving his car less often both saves on gas and reduces pollution, he said.
"My expertise is in motor vehicle emissions. That should it put it in perspective as to why I ride a bike," he said.
"I know the impact of vehicles on the environment. It is truly a motivation."
The price of a gallon of regular gas hit $3.86 a month ago in the Trenton area before falling back to $3.67 last week, according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report.
That's slightly higher than last week's national average of $3.61, and far higher than the $2.74 national average of a year ago.
While the high cost of gas may have led to more bike riding, the slow pace at which it crept to the brink of $4 earlier this year had the opposite effect of desensitizing consumers, said Cheryl Kastrenakes, executive director of the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association.
"People have gotten a bit more used to the $4 for a gallon thing, so they weren't as shocked when it got up that high this time," she said. "It's really difficult to change behavior, so it's really important for us to help people recognize how much they can save by riding a bike."
Change in behavior
Kastrenakes said one successful effort to change behavior was last month's National Ride Your Bike to Work Week.
The event drew four times as many signups as two years ago, showing that "the interest is there," she said.
As an alternative, her organization's website, www.gmtma.org, offers a system to connect people who want to carpool to work. The service saw a 25 percent uptick in May, she said.
"People are definitely reacting, but you have to keep the message out there," Kastrenakes said.
"Don't fall into the false sense of security that the price of gas isn't so high. Whether it's high or low, you're saving by biking."