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Operating costs of $640 for the bike? Are you pumping your tires with aerosol'd gold?

Even with an annual trip to the shop to get a $100 tuneup (including a $20 tip for the wrench), all told annual maintenance on either of my bikes is never more than $200...maybe $250.
What am I missing here?

should have read the NYTimes link first, I guess...I see where they get $390 from. ($200 for O&M; $60 for helmets, lights, etc.; $60 annual amortized capital cost; and some other contingency)

The picture's a bit different if you roll everything up together.

For 13 years I commuted to work every day on a bicycle. I also own a car, and I track all my household expenses diligently in Quicken, so I feel qualified to make two observations:

1. Using a bike as a substitute for a car is surprisingly expensive. By "as a substitute for a car," I mean as reliable transportation in all weather with a reasonable level of safety and comfort. It costs relatively little to ride your bike on sunny days, but if you're going to ride through the winter you need warm clothes, good raingear, good lights, and some specialized equipment. None of that is cheap, and none of it is particularly durable. Even high-end light sets won't last more than a year in every day use. For winter riding I bought Lake winter shoes ($300) and a snowboard helmet ($60), which I've probably used about 600 miles -- or $0.60/mile just for those two items. My $120 snow tires have been used even less, but are essential when I use them. Without those things I wouldn't be able to ride in the winter. Commuting 3000 miles per year, I budgeted $600 for accessories, about $0.20/mile.

Riding in all weather is also hard on the bike. If you ride every day you figure out that a cheap bike is more trouble than it's worth, $1500 is about the entry point for a reliable commuter bike. And every part on the bike wears out. Chains? About $20 every 2000 miles, a penny a mile. Pedals? About $50 every 5000, another penny a mile. Tires? $40 every 3000 miles, 1.3 cents/mile. I had a Cannondale I used for a while, and after about 5,000 miles I realized that every piece on it except for the frame and the rack had been replaced. (Yes, handlebars break). (I later sold the frame on Ebay -- and moved the rack to another bike.) Don't forget that if you're relying on your bike for transportation, you need to have more than one.

All those pennies per mile add up. Doing all my own work, and buying my parts as cheaply as possible I budget about $1100 per year for repairs, maintenance and replacement. That generally doesn't include a new bike, but a new bike gives you about six months of reduced operating costs so it kind of evens out. That comes to about $0.36/mile, for a total operating cost per year of $1700 or $0.56 per mile.

Now, arguably I could skip riding in the worst weather and save some money. But I still have to get to work those days, and biking is still the best way. I could also accept a lower comfort level. But I figure that since I am willing to spend the money those are legitimate costs. Certainly with my car I have no qualms about spending for heat, AC and windshield wipers.

Next Post: Observation #2.

Observation #2:

Owning a car is expensive. Driving it is not.

I also have a car that I share with my wife, together we put about 6,000 miles per year on it. Even though it's paid for, it costs about $5700 per year, or almost a dollar a mile. When we were still making payments it was more like $1.50/mile. Clearly more expensive than the bike on a per-mile basis.

But almost all of those expenses are fixed regardless of how much I drive. In fact, after some consideration I have come to the conclusion that the only real incremental cost of using the car is the cost of fuel. Wait, you say. What about extra maintenance, wear, depreciation? I maintain my car according to the manufacturer's maintenance schedule, and normally all of the maintenance I do is time-based. I.E., the oil has to be changed after 12,000 miles or 12 months, so whether I drive 6,000 miles or 9,000 miles a year makes no difference. Depreciation? If you go to an auto pricing site like kbb.com you'll find that there is no appreciable difference in value between a car driven 6,000 miles per year and 9,000 miles per year. Insurance? I get a low mileage discount, but it wouldn't cost me anything to drive another 3,000 miles per year.

The cost of fuel has varied tremendously in the past year, but it averaged out to about $0.20 per mile.

Compare that to the costs of operating a bike. Almost all of the cost of riding a bike is stuff wearing out, the average cost and the marginal cost are essentially the same. So if I want to make a 1-mile trip to the store to get some milk, the cost of doing that on the bike is 56 cents, and in the car is 20 cents. (Actually less now that gas has gone down so much.) Of course I normally bike anyway because it's more fun.

But the lesson is that biking only really saves you money if it allows you to get by without a car (or with one fewer). This has nothing to do with the nature of the costs of cycling, but everything to do with the high cost of owning a car -- and the low cost of driving a car.

Finally, what I left out is the cost of parking. It's hard to generalize, but you often have to pay to park a car and rarely if ever to park a bike. (Although my bikes go in the garage and my car goes on the street!)

I decided not to buy snow tires. It doesn't snow enough. When it snows, I stay at home or grab a taxi from the Metro. It's still cheaper the one or two days a year I need to do it.

Also, I would say that biking about 6000 miles a year - not all of it for transportation, cost me significantly less than the $1100 you spent for 3000 miles, but everyone's experience differs - maybe I push my equipment too far and I have a comeuppance heading my way.

I guess you COULD spend a bundle on a year-round bike if you were up for it, but the same is true of cars.. it depends how much of a status symbol you make out of it.

I have a dutch-outfitted 1940s Raleigh - dynamo lights and a brooks saddle, etc... I've been using it for 10 years now at least and the only work it's needed is a little oil and replacement puncture-proof tubes. Very reliable!

My car on the other hand, which I hardly ever use, is in and out of the shop all the time. Cars require so much maintinence, but in the United States sometimes you just need a car.... lets's just hope I rememeber how to drive it!

Sounds like Zipcar may be a more efficient option for you...LOL

I have a zipcar membership. The problem is it isn't cost effective to drive it to work, leave it there for 8 hours and then drive it home. If I time it right, I can also take the bus from Metro to work, but it only comes once an hour, doesn't run all day and there is no nextbus to tell me if I'm waiting 5 minutes or 50.

I guess you COULD spend a bundle on a year-round bike if you were up for it, but the same is true of cars.. it depends how much of a status symbol you make out of it.

If you saw my "fleet" of bikes you would know that status has nothing to do about it. I'm a very practical-minded guy, I used to have a job where it was essential that I get to work every day, and I tried to do what I could to ensure reliable transportation. Dynamo lights in rush hour traffic in winter? No thank you.

As an aside, I'll say that once you're equipped the only more reliable way of commuting is walking. With my snow tires a snowstorm adds about ten minutes to my commute on days when the whole surface transportation system of the city largely fails.

I was speaking about Lee.Watkins actually...

Oh yeah, that makes more sense.

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