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Bikenomics: Biking is as fast as driving

Many people have tried to calculate the “true” cost of driving, and the resulting numbers can vary dramatically. Before even attempting to add the costs up, one needs to figure what should even be included. How far do you go?

Portland Afoot has a great breakdown of how they reached their estimate of $8,390. That’s $16/day plus $0.17/mile driven. But this number does not factor in the healthcare costs associated with driving, which are substantial. Elly Blue wrote about the economic savings associated with bike infrastructure and health in a recent column for Grist:

A recent analysis of the health savings resulting from the bicycle infrastructure in Portland, Ore, came up with stunning results. If the city builds out only the infrastructure it currently plans, the researcher found, it will break even by 2015. By 2030, Portland will have saved $800 million — partly in fuel costs but primarily in health care and the value of reduced mortality. For every $1 we spend, $5 is saved.

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But even factoring in direct out-of-pocket costs and health care costs get us nowhere close to the true cost of driving. In Seattle, the vast majority of our road costs come out of property taxes, not the gas tax. In fact, gas taxes only accounted for 4 percent of SDOT’s 2009 budget. When you look at which funds went directly to paving, the results are even more extreme. What we learn is that even people who unable to or chose not to drive pay significantly for those who do. From Publicola:

The SDOT budget office sent me their 2009 arterial and non-arterial paving expenditures. They spent $29,377,725 for arterial and $261,000 for non-arterial for a total of $29,638,725. The arterial revenue sources breakdown as follows:

Bonds: $14,748,947 (50.20 percent)
Bridging the Gap Property Tax: $9,693,410 (33 percent)
Bridging the Gap Commercial Parking Tax: $4,801,062 (16.34 percent)
Gas Tax: $129,981 (.44 percent)
Grants: $4,325 (.01 percent)

But we are still nowhere close to the true cost of driving, and the task of adding it all up is becoming more and more overwhelming. And we have yet to even factor in the costs of driving-based land use policies. For example, when so much land is dedicated to parking, the space left for commercial and residential space becomes that much more sparse and, therefore, expensive. We pay for that in higher rent, property taxes and retail prices. Our workplaces also pay, making it harder to make ends meet, give better pay or expand the workforce. Or they may cut back on health benefits (see above).

As for environmental costs, I am not sure it will ever be possible to calculate the cost of releasing so many toxins into the air on such a large scale. What is the economic cost of global warming, for example? At a certain point, arguing economics becomes absurd.

Is biking as fast as driving?

So let’s take just the costs directly paid out of pocket by someone who owns and drives a car to work and think of it in terms of time. If the median American income is around $44,300 with 1.3 household earners, that’s about $34,077 per earner per year. Assuming 40-hour work weeks, that would be about $16.40/hr. Using Portland Afoot’s estimate that the average annual cost of driving is $8,390, the average American spends 512 hours per year earning enough money to pay for a car. Given that the average annual vehicle miles traveled is 16,550, and an ABC News poll showed Americans spend about 100 minutes per day driving, you get an average speed traveled of  27.2 miles per hour. Add the time spent earning the money to drive that car, and you get an average of 14.8 miles per hour. Bicyclists in the US average between 10-20 miles per hour.

So drivers travel around the same speed as bicyclists, yet end up over $8,000 in the hole every year.

I don’t claim that the math above is perfect. There are so many different estimates for average driving times and costs of driving that it is difficult to get exact math. Costs, wages and drive times are also likely different in Seattle compared to national averages. I also dropped calculus in high school and never looked back (luckily there were no derivatives involved in the calculations above). However, for the sake of thought experiment, it’s a good starting point.

The question is: Is it worth hundreds of hours of your life every year in order to own and operate a motor vehicle? Choosing to go by bike results in either more money or more time available to do with however you choose.

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36 responses to “Bikenomics: Biking is as fast as driving”

  1. Mike

    This analysis assumes that I don’t spend all my money on carbon fiber parts and spandex shorts.

    But in all seriousness, thanks, this is good stuff. Biking past gas stations advertising $4/gal makes it a lot easier to suit up on a rainy day.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Ha! For $8,000/year, you could have a pretty crazy bike (though you would then need to calculate in it’s propensity for theft…)

      1. Andres

        My gf and I were ogling a tandem last month at a bike shop; it was sooo light! Then we noticed that the price tag was $16k. :/

  2. chibiker

    The information on sources of funds for the SDOT is fascinating. Great ammunition for replying to motorists who believe bicyclists do not pay for, and therefore do not belong on, the roads…..

    1. Ted

      Good Call.

  3. Lisa

    This also assumes that your employer was willing to give you unpaid time off so that you could actually use those hundreds of hours that you don’t need to work any more to pay for your car. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Maybe if you’re earning more money, you can retire earlier and get the time back that way.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Ha, that’s a good point. Actually, if you factor in interest gathered on that $8,000/year over the life of an average American worker, the value/time saved would be even higher. Unless the stock market crashes…

  4. Bucky Fuller

    You left out the driver’s share of American taxpayer-financed expenditures in the Middle East, alternately propping up and fighting the various regimes in oil-producing countries.

    And while it may be daunting to attempt even a wild guess at the environmental costs of producing, operating, and disposing of automobiles, it needs to be factored in somehow; the numbers would absolutely dwarf the easy to enumerate costs that you focused on.

    In round numbers, “average” use of an automobile costs more than the average driver earns per year, but that driver directly pays only a fraction of that cost. Driving is heavily subsidized not only by non-drivers, but by future generations as well.

  5. Really?

    Talk about a piece written to support the desired conclusion… the facts all come from different sources, many are dubious (look into AAA’s math, most of those costs are ridiculously overinflated), and many aren’t even based on any research (“Bicyclists in the US average between 10-20 miles per hour.”). Add flawed comparisons (how is it that an average of 10-20 is “around the same speed” as 27.2) and there is really no merit to the supposed comparisons of the article.

    I would welcome the article if it were based on actual, realistic facts on every level but these suppositions and ’rounding errors’ gut the meaning leaving an opinion piece.

    1. NOS4A2

      I agree with you. The data here seems severely skewed to present the idea that biking is comparable to driving. While I agree that biking uses less gas and is healthier for the environment and the rider, the time spent preparing each day (packing a change of clothes for work, showering (assuming there is a shower), changing clothes at least twice a day, etc.) is not factored in. And if a biker is showering twice a day (once at work and again at home) how much more energy is he using for twice the hot water as non-bikers?

      This is more an opinion piece to make biking look more enviro friendly. Personally, living in Oregon, you couldn’t pay me enough during the winter months to bike to work. Miserable and cold is not the way I want to start and end each workday.

      1. Bucky Fuller

        You are making some unwarranted assumptions. It’s not necessary to shower after a far longer, harder ride than most commutes; just a quick towel-off does the trick. Perspiration from exercise doesn’t make you smell bad, but stress (like dealing with traffic jams that bicyclists can avoid) does. Cycling clothes made of modern fibers (and even not-so-modern, like wool) can hang to dry and be ready to wear again later in the day.

        As far as recoiling in fear at the idea of “starting and ending the day…miserable and cold”, is that based on experience, or supposition? Do you also think that joggers are “hot, miserable, sweaty, and fatigued” at the end of a run? If so, why do they keep doing it? I did all of my travel yesterday (bank, library, grocery store, business meeting) in the rain on a bicycle. I got home, dried off, changed clothes, and hung the wet stuff up to dry. I felt energized and great- just like I do now, having just ridden 20 miles, most of it hills, half of it into 8-20 mph headwinds, on a single speed bike. And I’m almost 60 years old…

      2. Ted

        First, I’m glad that you’ll at least agree that bicycling uses “less” gas than driving. Second: An average 30-gallon household water heater is rated at about 3500 watts, and takes, maybe one hour to heat it’s contents to 120 degrees. When a quick shower uses ten gallons of water, 1,167 watts-hours were used for the shower (1.17 kWh). Let’s take an average car, a Camry. The 2010 base model has a four-cylinder gasoline engine which can produce 179 horsepower. Let’s say you drive only five miles to work each day. With an average engine speed of maybe 1600 RPM or something, you’ll only be producing 30 HP, which is 22 kilowatts (I found a power curve on Toyota’s site.) If the drive takes 15 minutes, you’ll use just over 5 kWh of power. Here’s the real kicker, though: electrical energy generated at a large power plant is far more efficient than power generated by what is, in effect, a tiny power plant in the Camry. Also, almost all of Seattle’s electrical energy originates from renewable sources. Gasoline is not really renewable, as you know.

        And this is not taking into account the amount of fuel used to produce the engine block, body panels, steel and aluminum framing, tires and wheels and upholstery within the Camry. It is true that my bicycle was TIG welded and painted in some factory too, and those processes are very energy-intensive, but we’re talking about a whole different scale in the production phase of these two vehicles. Exponentially different.

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      The reason for the 10-20 mph biking average is because biking speed varies heavily on the user. Where a car’s speed is restrained by traffic and laws (hopefully), biking speed is restrained by the user’s ability/desire to sweat (and traffic, too).

      If you want another point of reference, my average speed around town is between 12-13 mph, but I am likely on the mid-to-slower end of regular riders.

      As for the numbers coming from different sources … I don’t really know what to tell you. If I could have found a single source with all these numbers, trust me, I would have used it. If you find drastically different numbers, feel free to post them here with their sources.

  6. Kathryn

    Regardless of the math involved in these biking calculations, I believe that before bikers are totally taken seriously the following need to be in place:
    1) commuting bikers need driver’s license/state ID card endorsements that say they’ve passed at least a written test proving they know & can apply the rules of the road
    2) all bikes need to be registered & licensed just like cars & motorcycles
    3) all adult & adolescent bikers need to be held to the same standard of adherence to the rules of the road that drivers (& pedestrians should be) are

    I am SO tired of seeing jack@ss bikers who seem to be colorblind & think red lights are really green. Etc.

    1. Jeremy

      Where will the funding for these services come from? Property taxes, perhaps? What would the cost of the license need to be to run the service without increasing taxes? How would it be enforced? Where would the funding come for the additional Officers of the Peace?

      Can you give examples of other cities that have implemented a bicycle licensing fee, how they funded it, and how well it was enforced?

      Regarding pedestrians, would there also be a walking license, certifying the pedestrian knows the rules of the sidewalk, crossing, and so forth? How are you going to pay for that? How will this be enforced?

      I, for one, am “SO tired of seeing jack@ss” car drivers running red lights, failing to yield, speeding, driving the wrong way on one-way streets, and so forth. The resulting carnage is leading cause of death for the under 35 age group, among other grim statistics.

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      Okay, now that both of these statements have been made, let’s leave it there and concentrate on discussion relevant to the post. We can save the bike license argument for another thread.

    3. Keaton

      Statistically motorist violate traffic laws more the cyclists when considered in both total accounts as well as duration (ie if you speed how long were you driving over the posted limit). statistic can be complete bs so please don’t assume I think it proves anything.

      Also, a cyclist can be ticketed and needs to carry his or her ID. Insurance, maybe not a bad idea. Hell, even registering is okay but it doesn’t need to be required. Thats just excessive.

    4. Timothy Fish

      That’s just being silly. Inexperienced bicycle riders who run into a pedestrian don’t often kill the pedestrian. But if an inexperienced driver runs into a pedestrian, it is very likely that it will do major damage. There is no reason to license an activity that is mostly safe. The biggest danger to cyclists is licensed automobile drivers.

  7. Chris

    This study also neglets the fact that the VAST majority of bicyclists in Seattle ALSO own a car, which negates just bout every single thing in this article.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That’s a good point, Chris. This is why we need pay-as-you-drive insurance options and better car-sharing options. This bill is making it’s way through the Oregon legislature right now: http://bikeportland.org/2011/03/21/salem-watch-car-sharing-bill-passes-house-50004

      The fact that so many car costs are fixed, whether you drive or not, is a huge problem. Why should I pay the same amount for car insurance whether I drive 200 or 20,000 miles? That’s nonsense. But once I’ve paid, it provides an incentive to just go ahead and drive instead of taking another means. I mean, I already paid for it, right?

    2. Bucky Fuller

      There are fixed costs and variable (per mile) costs. We are basically screwed by a system that forces us, by law, to buy outrageously expensive insurance by the year (fixed cost), rather than by the mile. It’s just another example of the auto-centric institutions that act as disincentives to better individual transportation choices.

    3. Patty Lyman

      Well, Chris, we bike every day to work, summer and winter. We own a car, but only one between two of us, and we use it mostly for long distance. So I disagree.

    4. Keaton

      Give zip car a whirl!

  8. […] certainly, biking is a more popular choice for anyone on a budget. Sightline’s Eric de Place says, “the biggest share of bicyclists isn’t yuppies, […]

  9. mark

    the ‘bikes don’t observe the laws’ and ‘bikers should be licensed’ arguments should have their own names, like the Godwin effect, just so we can boil them down to one word references and move on. ANYwhooo…
    I do own a car only because Washington is a common property state. I might drive my wife’s car a couple trips on weekends. And it works:
    1. last night I was riding toward a meet up with a friend, when he called to say he’d forgotten to grab the toy he wanted to show me and he’d be late. I told him I’d just ride up to his house in Madrona (seattle, natch). two points on that: his reaction was that this was extreme sacrifice on my part (score!). Travel time from Alaska way to 30th and Union: 13 minutes. He turned around at Broadway and called again when he arrived home. I was already at 14th Ave.
    2. I’ve lost track of the number of times I stop my bike at an intersection and EVERY car that has the right of way stops and waits for me to proceed, even waving me on. Arrived sooner, to the right, it doesn’t matter. If I stop at a stop sign cars normally expect me to take the right of way. I attempt to discourage this, insisting they proceed normally. They often act offended. It’s no wonder bike riders act the way they do. It’s the car driver’s fault!

    1. Bucky Fuller

      Cars almost universally break the speed limit, everywhere, every day. But the anti-bike crowd likes to point out the minority of bicyclists who don’t follow traffic laws to the letter..

  10. Biker AND thinker

    As pointed out there are several problems with this analysis. Biking (like mass transit) can make great sense for many people’s commutes, however it is not for everyone.

    One thing that I’ve never seen mentioned is the increased food needed. All the bike commuters I’ve talked with are noticeably eating more food when commuting or biking regularly. This is not a free cost, in fact I’ve personally noticed it to be one of my biggest costs of regular bike commuting.

    Another frustratingly common mistake is assuming a bike is maintainence free. That’s like tallying up car commuting costs and not counting for gas.

    Commuting speed during rush hour is slow on both bikes and cars, but assuming a bike is going to average 15-20mph during rush hour requires a very clear route. It’s like having the express lanes all to yourselves, which does anecdotally happen for many car commuters…

    1. Stan Dard

      Food expense for bicycling?! We are talking about the most efficient individual transportation system on the planet, by a wide margin. An extra nickel’s worth of potato, bread, or banana will take you dozens of miles-but if you are like most of us, you’ll be burning unwanted fat during, and for several hours following, your bike commute.

    2. Keaton

      I’ve heard the food thing a few times. If America is obese this argument holds no ground. If you personally aren’t overweight then just use the bike time to cut out of your time in the gym then swap the calories… done.

  11. mark

    biker and thinker: you forgot beer. beer is a substantial portion of the serious bike commuter’s budget.
    seriously: is it possible for a discussion of economics of bicycling to NOT go off the tracks? commuters eat food, too. sheesh. is a study of the relative caloric intake of various classes of commuters in any way relevant to the annual and social costs of bike commuting? Sure, bike commuting is not for everyone – perhaps in particular the sedentary and obese.
    my wife spends several hundred dollars a year maintaining her car, probably sixty dollars a month on gas, several hundred a year on insurance. Last year I spent about eighty dollars on parts and maintenance. There’s simply no realistic basis by which the costs could be presented as comparable.
    Her high mileage economy car puts several hundred pounds of carbon and exotic chemicals into the atmosphere annually. Biking? maybe hot air.

  12. Dave

    I used to live in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle and would alternate between taking the bus, riding my bike, and driving across town to attend classes at Seattle Central Community College. Bus took over an hour for me to travel door-to-door. Biking took me 25 minutes. Driving took 20 minutes. Notice that? Only five minutes difference between biking and driving–and that’s with a backpack full of books. Given the hassles of finding and paying for parking in various parts of the city, riding a bike often makes all the sense in the world. Oh, and there’s the price of gas.

  13. SeaMom

    I’m 51 and started commuting by bike about 2 years ago. This winter I started to notice I was biking as fast as traffic! I bike up (then down) Denny, turn left on Dexter. The first time I noticed this was a crazy painted car that took Broad to Mercer. As I crossed Mercer on Dexter that crazy car was 4 cars back stopped at the light on Mercer/Dexter.

    I’ve lost a lot of weight but still have a few pounds to go so am not in any way athletic yet I can beat the bus 30 home and, on a bet, can bike to the library, lock my bike and be checking out books before my friend drove and found (and paid for) parking.

    So yes traveling in the city by bike is faster, cheaper, and healthier than a car! Even us older folks can do it!

    1. Ted

      Way to go, SeaMom. That is awesome.

  14. Great piece, Tom. Thanks for the link — I’m about to add this to our list of investigations of the topic.

  15. Nick

    You know, I’d be interested in the health benefits study. Agreed that one can lose weight. However, I often muse on the potential damage I’m doing to my lungs, central nervous system with all the exhaust fumes and fine particulate matter I’m huffing while commuting. It would be interesting to compare two groups of similarly active individual or a person before starting bike commuting and then some time after. Is this concern enough to stop me from riding? Nope. But it might be interesting and cause some interesting conversation or road design changes

  16. […] won’t come as a surprise, of course, to those of us who’ve known for years that bikes always move faster than cars — if you count all the time you spent earning the money to drive the […]

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