A few bicycling advocates (Jeff Yeager) have claimed that bicycling is the fastest means of transportation available, when you factor in the amount of time that you spend earning money to pay for a car, or they have claimed that when you work out the mileage difference and divide out the time difference you will find a post-tax savings that quite possibly may be greater than or comparable to your hourly wage (Ken Kifer).
This may be true if you’re an “average American,” but what if you’re me? I drive an 89 Corolla, and it is incredibly cheap compared to the average. Also, what happens if you don’t sell the car, but still pay the fixed costs for the car?
In my own case, if I commute 3 days out of the week and sell my 89 Corolla (e.g. my bike becomes my second car), I save about $350 in variable costs (gas and repairs), and $450 in fixed costs (insurance, depreciation, registration). Biking takes me about 1:20 hours per round-trip commute, whereas driving takes about :35 per commute. Divide the money by the time and I get around $3 per hour. However, this is savings, which is post-tax, to compare to my pre-tax earning rate I’ll divide by .7 (roughly my net-to-gross factor) to get a little over $4 per hour. This is pretty close to insignificant compared to my earning rate as an optical engineer.
On the other hand, the average American sees an annual depreciation in the thousands, not hundreds, and my gas mileage is double the average as well. All this depends on the car in question, the bike in question, and the type of commute. When I drive, most of my miles are on the freeway, which actually has little congestion, and bypasses most of the lights I hit when I bike. Average Americans may discover much more favorable economics than me.
These figures are quite a bit worse if I don’t sell my car. The Corolla gets around 35 mpg (it could do better if I could figure out why it’s misfiring), and on average sees around $200 in repairs every year. This works out to around $2.30 per commute in variable costs, assuming that the repairs occur per mile and not actually per year. This picture gets even worse when I remind myself that I’ve spent over $900 on bikes and biking accessories (helmet, panniers, reflectors, lights, etc.) and it will take over two years just to break even working against the Corolla’s variable costs (assuming I stop spending, but I could use another rack and some biking clothes…)
Dang that car is cheap. This will be a very slooowww ROI.
There is an important argument that my personal cost of ownership of a car doesn’t accurately reflect the “true costs” of driving, factoring other costs that the community pays, such as property taxes used for roads and environmental impacts of exhaust, but also oil drilling and car manufacture. Some of those costs would still occur even in a car-less society, but those indirect costs would be orders of magnitude smaller since the bicycle doesn’t wear down the roadway, and it has a tiny fraction of the amount of metal in it. But who cares about that? I want to know how much money will go in my pocket if I make the switch.
So far, my calculation of personal cost assumes the exercise itself has no value. I could just as easily argue that 100% of the time expended is justified for no other purpose than for exercise, which is a fairly sane argument if I commute 3 of 5 days (about 60 miles or 2400 Calories per week, but more like 2100 Calories after I lose weight and become efficient).
Using that argument, the money is not paying for my time, it’s just free money, and the time is invested in exercise and health. I could also argue that the bikes and gear that I bought are purely exercise equipment, since I paid money for a stationary bike and a weight set which don’t return any money at all (except maybe for a gym membership, but the bike keeps me out of the gym, too).
This could become quite the rosy picture if the exercise has value and I consider “down-time”. On one hand, I could drive my car and 100% of the 35 minutes of driving would be down-time, in which I get nothing out of my time except the transportation. On the other hand, I could ride my bike and 100% of the 1:20 would be exercise that I need to get anyways, with zero downtime, and get the same transportation. The net effect would be allocating needed exercise time, shaving 35 minutes of downtime out of my day, and making $3-6 (pre-tax) per bike-day while I’m at it, which is overall a pretty sweet deal. Unfortunately I think I see around 10-15 minutes of lights over my route, and waiting for a stop-light is also down-time.
Still, allocating needed exercise time, getting some great sunlight, shaving 20 minutes of down-time out of my day, and saving just $2.30 per day (post tax) is still a pretty good deal, as long as I really do have a handle on safety and I’m not going to get seriously hurt or killed in the process. In truth, health and life are quite a bit more valuable than anything else at stake here.