Sunday, January 12, 2020

Disposable Income

Watching a recorded video of the Wolfeboro, NH, selectmen's meeting from Wednesday, Jan. 8, several things struck me about the public comments regarding the shared use policy drawn up to accommodate fat bike riders in the winter.

Several skiers made excellent points about the negative impact that bike riders will have on the ski experience. I made the point before about the irreducible width of 31-inch handlebars. There's also the emotional impact of having to share trails with people working way too hard to go way too slowly, getting incomplete exercise while adding sizable flotsam in the form of their oversized bikes.

A couple of people in support of the bikes made the comparison -- almost entirely incorrectly -- between fat bikes on Nordic trails and snowboarders on downhill ski areas.

First off, alpine skiers and snowboarders are both gravity-dependent sliders on snow. Throw fat bikes onto a downhill ski area and then you have a comparison. By the way, alpine skiers were none too fond of Telemark skiers either. The rhythm of free-heel skiing, within the limits of the gear of the time, made our paths a bit more meandering than your locked-down, fully-mechanized alpine skier would follow. We didn't gouge things up the way the one-plankers did, but we still got in the way of modern progress. Telemarkers cured the problem by turning their gear into what was essentially alpine skis and boots. Snowboarders cured their problem by simply being too numerous to ignore. Needing the money, the downhill areas caved in and sold out. The snowboarders do have a negative effect on the snow surface, but downhill areas are such a mosh pit anyway that lift riders have learned not to care. It's just a theme park.

Proponents of the fat bike revolution tell the cross country skiers that they will be fine just as alpine skiers were fine. It's a nice way of saying that your time is up and you have to watch yourself being replaced by this new thing that is really different from your thing, that requires all the concessions from the skiers, until skiing finally dies out. This is the wave of the future. Resistance is useless.

It's a bit like deciding whether to go ahead and welcome the Panzer battalions or let the invaders machine gun and shell a bunch of you first.

At least two commenters referred to Wolfeboro as becoming a mountain bike and fat bike Mecca. They contend that this is the only thing that will attract "a younger demographic with more disposable income" to the area.

Actually, some jobs would be a really good start. People came here in the 1980s in droves and hordes because land rape was going full bore, and anyone even pretending to be a builder was basically printing money. But many of the people who moved here became super commuters, driving hours at each end of a work day to get to their jobs in Massachusetts and the southernmost parts of New Hampshire. You have to be young to pull off a schedule like that. Other jobs proliferated in the school system, to service the kids that accompanied the influx, which drove taxes up sharply. Peripheral trades, notably landscaping and property care, also saw a boom. Year-round residents use fewer of those services than the second home crowd does.

People quit mountain biking around here around the turn of the century. A few continued. Others have resumed it as various midlife experiences impel them that way. But disposable income had become much more of a requirement.

In the 1980s and '90s, you didn't need a huge amount of money to ride mountain bikes. A mountain bike used to be something you could use to go somewhere. Now it's something you go somewhere to use. You can drop a thousand bucks just on a car rack to carry your fleet of behemoths to your chosen venue. Or you can fake something up, if you're handy with tools. But you'll need more than a thousand dollars per bike per category to get a bike that's reasonably well made and sort of durable. Two thousand a bike is a safer estimate. When everyone was mountain biking in the late 20th Century, it wasn't about the money, it was about the fun: accessible fun that anyone could join. Mountain biking is definitely no longer that.

The people who are riding now, or have returned to riding, are earning comfortable salaries at various things that pay comfortable salaries. They can afford to sit and chat for hours in a place that charges $6 for a single glass of beer. In a way, it's always been true, that the well-off only have to wait a little while for poor upstarts to fall away. Being really good at riding your bike does not provide a pathway to secure long-term income. So the well-funded hobbyist reigns supreme at the recreational side of riding.

The unanswered economic question is whether there are enough well-funded hobbyists to offset the costs of trying to pander to them.

The bike addicts can't level the same charge at cross-country skiers. A crazy top-end ski set might run you more than a grand, but you can do quite well for less. Then it's just a matter of stick time. Go out every day you possibly can, for 30 minutes or an hour, and you can put a serious hurt on posers with expensive gear and no training. Or, if you're not afflicted with competitiveness, you can just enjoy the benefits of the world's most complete exercise and let the neurotics chase each other around.

I guarantee that the median income of our old mountain bike group was half of what it is for the current group, even adjusting for inflation. No one says "whoever dies with the most toys wins" anymore, but they certainly exemplify it.

Here's the thing about a young crowd with disposable income: they get older. You look at the cross-country ski trails, you see people of all ages. Yes, a lot of the them are pretty darn old. But whole families can take it up and keep doing it with fairly minimal investment for decades. How many people in their 60s and up will be spending what's left of their disposable income on mountain biking? And who will replace each wave of the young and affluent as they age out?

As consumer society and car culture flame out in their final frenzy, all forms of human powered transportation face deadly competition on the public right of way. Human powered transportation and recreation would have provided tremendous lifestyle benefits for those of us with lesser means, if we had acknowledged as a species how limited our means actually are. But we're still drunk with the excesses of more than a century of expanding resource exploitation, reinforced and amplified by our collective fantasy life played out on screens large and small. What is the true cost of that disposable income?


Steve A said...

Au contraire. Most people I know take their snowboards off and hike back to the top of the half pipe. No lifts involved.

cafiend said...

I haven't been to a lift-served area in at least 15 years. When I did go there, snowboarders were queueing up with everyone else for chair rides.