Can “Rush Hour” Save You Money?

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Biking to Work in Japan (photo, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Biking to Work in Japan (photo, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

What if our path to saving money and becoming more healthy could be as simple as applying some math and logic to our daily commutes? Well, it might take a little bit of physical effort too, but we’ve cooked up a plan that just may be the cure to that pesky post holiday “fund-drain” and “weight-gain” duo. It should be of no surprise that it has to do with one of our favorite topics of late, the humble bicycle.

The illustration below uses times for a typical Silicon Valley commute (during rush hour) on bike and by car. Examining the two commutes, we find that:

1) Car Commute: The typical car commute includes around 1/2 hour in traffic each way, and enough calories burnt to eat a scant few bags of airline peanuts. Then, if you’re still up for it after work, you’ll have to spend more time and energy to sneak in that extra cardio workout. There’s also a whole heap of added money involved (we’ll get to the details of that later.)

2) Bike Commute: The typical day with a bicycle commute often means zero time sitting in traffic, and a whole Big Mac’s worth of calories burnt each way. Then there’s also less time at the gym, with the majority of commute time often going towards a solid cardio workout.

The Bicycle Commute vs the Car Commute | time, money, calories (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Bicycle Commute vs the Car Commute | time, money, calories (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Using cycling as a commute tool can quickly and easily reduce money spent on gas, vehicle wear and tear, gym memberships, stress management, diet plans. But there’s more to using the bicycle as a commute tool than even this…

Calculating the Savings: A Little Incentive for Everyone

One common belief when contemplating the bicycle vs. the motor vehicle is that the biggest savings is on fuel. While this may come to pass eventually given recent rises in the cost of fuel, it’s currently not the case. There are several areas in which you can save huge amounts of money by riding a bicycle, and not all of them are as apparent as one might think.

Another belief — or hardcore eco-cyclist mantra — is the “all or nothing” attitude: ride every day, and ride through wind, rain, sleet, and snow. This is fine for a select few riders, and kudos to those who get out there and do it, but it’s not necessary for all of us to think this way, especially in the beginnings of our bicycle adventures.

The reality is that you don’t have to completely replace your car with a bicycle in order to enjoy the monetary and health benefits of riding.

Even part time bicycle commuting once a week will add up at the end of the year, both in terms of health benefits and money savings. The following numbers take a balanced approach, counting out the cost of a car vs bicycle over an entire year when each method of transportation is used for commuting and short trips around town. These figures also take into account that the bicycle rider will need to use a car for a certain percentage of trips.

Cost to Purchase
Car: $6,811
Road Bike: $126

This price figures the average purchase price of a new car ($28,400) and a new road bike ($524) and depreciates that cost evenly over an average ownership time of 50 months. Figures are from the FTC, and the NBDA, respectively.

Insurance  / Registration
Car: $1525
Bike: $5

The average insurance and registration cost for a motor vehicle, according to AAA statistics (2011). Bicycle registration is not available or not required in most states or municipalities, although in areas where it is, the cost is usually between $1 and $10 a year, we split the difference.

Car: $810
Bike: $400

The average maintenance cost per year for a motor vehicle, according to AAA statistics (2011). Statistics on bicycle maintenance are scarce and vary, so I relied on the folks at New York’s Metro Bicycle store for an estimate based on their experience with customers. Because of the location in NYC, this estimate may be on the high side.

Finance Charge (interest)
Car: $796
Bike: $0

The average cost of financing your purchase, according to AAA statistics. As the cost to purchase an entire bicycle is about 1/3 the average down payment for a car, it is assumed that a bicycle purchase would not be financed.

Added Health Costs
Car: $2,120
Bike: $0

If you get your exercise some other way, it’s safe for car drivers to remove this from their total cost. The number for car commuters represents the average increase in health costs due to being overweight and/or obese, according to a study by researchers at Gorge Washington University. If you think you’re not in this boat, remember that 70% of Americans currently are! Multiple studies such as those found in the American Journal of Public Health have also found that bicycle commuters have far lower rates of obesity and/or health problems in general.

Added Fuel Costs
Car: $1,923
Bike: $0

Average cost of fuel for a midsize car driven 15,000 miles, according to AAA statistics. Although we assume that the bicycle commuter would also need to drive a car around 5,000 miles per year for trips where the bicycle was an inconvenient mode of transportation, these figures are included in the next section.

Zip Car / Car Rental
Car: $0
Bike: $1,020

Because the bicyclist can’t conceivably make all of his or her trips on bicycle, we’ve figured in an average yearly usage of the zipcar service, both for weekly trips around town and day trips throughout the year. Zipcar includes fuel and insurance as part of their flat-fee rental structure.


CAR ONLY: $13,985



For those of us who are stuck all day in traffic, in a cubicle, or in a gym full of sweaty people, cycling to work begins to look like an appetizing alternative to a workweek of driving.  And call us penny-pinchers, but we’re always open to the prospect of staying physically and mentally healthy, while saving gobs of money to boot.


Contact Your City Leaders –
Map You Bike Route – Google Maps for Bikes
Physical Activity and Public Health – Journal of the American Heart Association
The Cost of Being Obese – USA Today