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America (Or 1,800 Miles of It) Through the Windshield

12:26 PM EDT on June 10, 2008

It's easy to tut-tut at the auto-dependent from the transit-rich confines of New York City. So, to get a taste of what it's like out there as the era of cheap gas seemingly draws to a close, Streetsblog sent me on a road trip. My destination was Athens, Georgia, where I checked on the state of bike-ped infrastructure in what could be a model small city for the future of American mobility. I'll be filing more Athens reports soon. In the meantime, here are some quick hits from the road.

    • Gas isn't all that cheap anymore. My rental was a Dodge Caliber (29 MPG/Highway). I drove roughly 1,800 miles round-trip, buying 67.97 gallons of gas at a total cost of $268.78. Lowest price: $3.85/gal in Shippensburg, PA. Highest: $4.29/gal in Washington Heights. By my calculations I paid an average of $3.95/gal. Being a renter, Chrysler wasn't there to make up the difference.
    • Lots of people are riding bikes. In spite of the oppressive heat, I saw cyclists everywhere -- in Athens, in Madison (only one, but still), on interstate overpasses. In Georgia there was a guy riding by himself along a rural divided four-lane highway (they're still building lots of those). An employee at a downtown Athens bike shop said the number of sales and repairs took off over a year ago and hasn't slowed since.
    • Others aren't sure what to do. In Madison, NC, where I grew up, higher gas prices are to a great extent simply being absorbed as an unavoidable expense. Far-flung commercial and residential development is the norm (and continues to this day), and with no transit, most feel they have no alternative to paying up at the pump. Even in relatively progressive Athens, when over drinks with friends I brought up investment in Amtrak as an answer to expensive airline travel, the first response was, "But isn't Amtrak already highly subsidized?"
    • Not everyone is affected. There still seems to be a lot of recreational driving going on. Plenty of RVs on the highways, with second vehicles in tow. Picking up the rental last week, I was about to ask the Avis attendant if gas prices have hampered business. But just then the phone rang. Someone was looking to rent an Escalade. Unfortunately all Avis had were Ford Expeditions and Dodge Aspens -- and, to the caller's presumed dismay, they couldn't even guarantee a particular color.

Photo: Brad Aaron

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