Transportation trends are changing as gas prices in New Jersey and across the US soar, inflation worsens, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue. The cost of living has risen significantly, disproportionately affecting poor, working class, and middle-class families. [1] People are reevaluating their daily activities and changing the way they move from point A to B. We must be prepared to adopt to those changes and make our roadway networks safer for them no matter how they travel.

A gas station in New Jersey, June 2022.

Historical Precedents

Rising gas prices and shifts in transportation modes have been witnessed before in US history. A prime example is the 1973 oil crisis, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) banned exports to the US and several other countries. That year gas prices in this country averaged 44¢ a gallon ($2.90 in 2022 dollars).[2] In response, President Nixon called for people to carpool and introduced legislation to lower speed limits on highways to 50 mph.[3] The oil embargo continued into 1974 and gas prices rose to 56¢ a gallon ($3.32 in 2022 dollars).[4] Prices rose again with the second oil crisis of the decade, which began in 1978 as a result of the Iranian Revolution, and pushed prices as high as 70¢ a gallon ($3.14 in 2022 dollars).[5]

At the same time, the US experienced an increased demand for bicycles (especially for adults). The bike boom proved to be a way for environmentalists and physical-fitness fans to push their causes forward.[6] The 1973 oil crisis added fuel to the boom as people turned to the bicycle as a solution to high gas prices.[7] In reaction to this movement, 252 bike-oriented bills were introduced, politicians urged urban planners and road engineers to build infrastructure for bikes, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act provided $120 million for bikeways.[8] Nevertheless, as quickly as the bike boom appeared, it disappeared.

What changes could we see?

Recommendations on how to avoid high gas prices today include biking or walking, using public transportation, buying fuel-efficient vehicles, maintaining existing vehicles to maximize fuel efficiency, and planning more efficient vehicle trips by carpooling or trip-chaining.

Reducing driving in order to conserve gas is the easiest way for people to avoid high gas prices. According to a survey conducted by AAA in March of this year, 59% of Americans would make changes to their driving habits or lifestyle if the cost of gas rose to $4, and 75% of people said they would need to change their lifestyle if the cost rose to $5.[9] Among those who said they would make changes, 80% said they would drive less by carpooling, combing trips and errands, and reducing shopping or dining out.[10]

Alternative modes of transportation are also a popular way for people to avoid high fuel prices. An example of this is the current boom in sales of e-bikes and e-cargo bikes, which run on pedal power and rechargeable batteries. The demand for e-bikes began at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as people looked for new ways to travel safely and it has continued as people seek more affordable modes of transportation.[11] E-bikes and e-cargo bikes are also an attractive solution because they bridge a gap between biking and driving in the US. They maintain a faster pace over a long distance, can overcome challenging terrain, and can accommodate small children and heavy loads.[12] They also contribute to healthier lifestyles, reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and support global efforts to pressure Russia to end the war against Ukraine.

Adjusting For Change

Considering high gas prices, high rates of inflation, and other financial burdens from the COVID-19 pandemic, adjustments must be made to our transportation infrastructure to ensure that alternative and more affordable modes of transportation are safe on our roadway networks. The possibility of fewer cars on the road could mean more dangerous driving. During the first year of the pandemic, for example, there was a historic 24% surge in traffic fatalities in the US.[13] At the same time, the possibility of more e-bikes and e-cargo bikes means more vulnerable road users on the road. Unfortunately, these vulnerable users don’t always feel respected on the road. In a poll conducted by PeopleforBikes in 2018, 70% of people from eight US cities said that roads were not safe enough for families to bike and 63% of those said they would ride if they felt safer.[14] It is important, therefore, to make roads as safe as possible.

Fortunately, all of us can contribute efforts to make New Jersey’s roads safer. As drivers, we can obey posted speed limits and be vigilant for people walking, biking, rising scooters, or using wheelchairs. We can also follow New Jersey’s new Safe Passing Law[15] and give vulnerable users space when passing them on the roadway. Following this law and educating others about it with the toolkit on the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition website[16] can reduce fatalities and serious injuries on the road. When cycling, we can be aware of the laws that govern bicycle travel in New Jerseys[17] such as 39:4-11, which requires bikes to have an audible device heard at least 100 feet away, and 39:4-10, which requires bikes to be equipped with lights at night.

Additionally, there are many resources, tools, and opportunities available to ensure safer roadway networks. Bicycling organizations such as The League of American Bicyclists[18] offer ways to learn and strengthen bicycling skills through classes and smart cycling videos. There are also plenty of funding and grant opportunities such as the Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) Grant Program FY22[19], NJDOT 2023 State Aid Program Solicitations[20], and other grants offered through the NJ Local Aid Resource Center[21]. New Jersey’s Safe Routes Resource Center[22] also provides resources to assist with applications for grants and funding to establish safe routes for children walking and biking to and from school.

By Sophia Pereira