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Gas price angst leads to increased pedaling
Oscar Morales pumps up the tires of a bicycle recently at Free Cycles Missoula, where many people hit by high gas prices are going to find transportation. Morales said he's going to use his bike for commuting to work and to get in shape for playing soccer.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Editor's note: Each Sunday in the coming weeks, the Missoulian will examine how the nation's economic downturn is affecting western Montanans.

Pain at the pump doesn't have quite as much ouch for folks who pedal.

Oil prices set records last week. A gallon of unleaded gas costs a buck-and-then-some more than it did last year, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report. It's a 35 percent jump, and the cost of diesel rose even more.

Economists say this winter will be more expensive than ever, and fuel prices are already burying people on the margins.

New clients are swamping Montana food banks, whose leaders are calling for help. And more shoppers are looking for deals on grocery store discount shelves.

"Where gas prices hurt people the most, I would guess, are food prices. People are going hungry," said Ward 3 Missoula City Councilwoman Stacy Rye.

There is no arguing the empty cupboards, but thin pocketbooks aren't the only story. There are bright sides to rising fuel prices - and not just for Exxon Mobil.

People are cycling more, and that's a perk for folks in the bike business. Many commuters are hopping on the bus, and that's good for the air. Some are saving money in a tough economy, and a few members of this obese nation are trimming down. That's good for their hearts.

All around, many are doing more to conserve energy and ease the drain on finite fossil fuels. So while the high costs hurt, they're forcing changes some say are long overdue.

"It's pretty bleak, but it really does send a signal that we need to wake up and change the fundamental path that we're on," said Pat Judge, energy program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Many of the folks waking up locally are heading over to Free Cycles Missoula, the community bicycle shop at 732 S. First St. W. Free Cycles is a program of the nonprofit Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation.

Executive director Bob Giordano opened Free Cycles in 1996 and said last week the shop has never been busier. On a Thursday afternoon, the bikes stands were full and so were the tables.

The past four years, the trickle of visitors has grown into a constant stream of both bike enthusiasts and new pedalers. But when gas hit $4 a gallon, the rush began, Giordano said.

Joy Simpson, a mother and University of Montana student working on a bike there Thursday, said the high cost of gasoline changed her life - for the better.

"The rise in gas prices to me is like a wake-up call," she said.

Simpson, who wants to be trimmer in the tush, said she needed a push to get fit. Paying $40 to fill up her Honda did the trick. She plans to bike when she's finished fixing one up, and she already started walking for exercise.

"My pants are starting to get so they're friendly with me," Simpson said.

She's bucking a trend, though, according to health officials. Many folks have more antagonistic relationships with their wardrobes.

"We're rapidly becoming a pretty chubby society," said Jim Carlson, director of the environmental division of the Missoula City-County Health Department.

He said many cancers involve people who have inactive lifestyles. But people who are driving less are probably going to exercise more. That's because even a trot to the bus stop a couple times a week can fend off heart attacks and things like diabetes.

"It doesn't take a lot of exercise to reduce your risks substantially," Carlson said.

The exercise can save people a bundle of money, too. Schawnn Leggett, another client and volunteer at Free Cycles, said he's riding a bike these days instead of filling his Chevy Tahoe's gas tank for $100.

"I will save over $400 a month," Leggett said.

And Giordano said that money gets to boost the economy because it isn't going toward fuel.

"I think it's better for business if more people have disposable income they're not spending on gas," he said.

At the end of the day, the rising cost of fuel better reflects the full social and environmental costs associated with using fossil fuels, said Tom Power, retired economics professor at the University of Montana.

"So it's pushing us in the right direction. (But) there's going to be a lot of hurt along the way," Power said.

Many folks in the Garden City are easing the hurt by turning to public transportation. Mountain Line general manager Steve Earle said in the first quarter of 2008, transit ridership increased 2 percent across the nation.

At Mountain Line, it jumped 13 percent, and he can see the difference just by looking. A Target Range bus that used to travel nearly empty has lately been full.

"There's nothing but eyeballs inside the bus," Earle said.

At his outfit, high fuel prices are forcing conservation. Earle is watching the price of diesel fluctuate so much it's hard to budget. If he buys fuel now on the futures market and the price dips just 75 cents later, his bottom line could take a $90,000 hit.

So when it replaces buses, Mountain Line will buy ones that get nine miles a gallon instead of seven, he said. Already, folks there are idling less and tuning up more. With a fleet of 30, the savings add up, and the carbon footprint shrinks some, too.

The air also gets a little bit cleaner. As more people drive less - especially alone, and particularly using diesel - there aren't as many cars and trucks sending up emissions and dust, Carlson said.

In an e-mail, Laurel Hoyt, program coordinator with Post Carbon Cities, said energy scarcity will force communities to grow stronger. She predicts a renaissance of local farms and businesses.

"Locally produced food may well become more economical than food that's shipped in from far away, encouraging a whole new generation of farmers to feed their communities," Hoyt wrote.

Post Carbon Cities is a program of the Post Carbon Institute, an energy "think, action and education tank" based in Portland, Ore.

In Missoula, goods at the farmers markets can still be more expensive than the same products at a grocery store. Under the bridge at the Clark Fork River Market, though, business is brisk.

"Some of our vendors have doubled in business," said manager Mary Ellen Carter.

More people want to buy local, and uncertainties about fuel play into that desire, she said. At the same time, Carter said she suspects fuel is a culprit at Seeley Lake's new farmers market, which has had a hard time attracting vegetable vendors.

A business renaissance doesn't look under way in Missoula, but some small shops aren't hurting. Eric Cline, an owner of the Bike Doctor, didn't characterize business as booming, but said the shop normally slows down some when the students leave town. This year, the work didn't taper off, even with the slowed economy.

"It's kind of weird to be on the opposite end," Cline said.

There's another surprise there, too. When folks who normally drive decide to commute by bike instead, they sometimes allow themselves to buy a pricier bike, Cline said. After all, a snazzy bike still costs a lot less money than a decent car.

Nonetheless, Cline said folks at the shop have to buy groceries like everyone else.

Asher Miller, with the Relocalization Network of the Post Carbon Institute, said in an e-mail that less fossil fuel consumption could mean social capital is strengthened, too. That means more people making - or remaking - connections in their communities.

Giordano sees those bonds form at Free Cycles, where strangers share bike stands and become acquaintances.

"In a way, it's kind of connecting people who may not realize they share something," Giordano said.

Others predict people will take "staycations" this year instead of vacations. "With the price of gas soaring, a staycation is what most Americans will experience during the summer of 2008," reads one definition at www.urbandictionary.com.

So they'll get to know their hometowns better, said Jim Sayer, executive director of the Adventure Cycling Association, geared to inspiring people to travel by bike. And in that respect, Missoula beats a lot of other places.

"The great thing for Missoula is it's a wonderful place to be," Sayer said.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262 or at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com.

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