The Hidden Costs of Cycling and Why I Don’t Care

Are you actually saving money by biking?

I’m not. Everyone is touting the bicycle as the next big money saver, but that’s assuming that you’re a typical American family that doesn’t exercise and drives a huge car that no one can afford.

Now, I’m all about cycling and how it’s green and healthy and amazing and wonderful. But I can’t really argue that it’s cheaper. Why? Lots of reasons after the jump.

Not really saving: I drive a piece of crap car. I’ve spent a total of 3 grand on this car, including purchase price, in the last 4.5 years. It also gets great gas mileage. 35-40 highway. Geo Prism, represent. So I wasn’t spending that much on car stuff anyway, even gas. It’s easy to think “wow, this is cheap!” but it really depends on what kind of car you have.

Of course, from 10-20 I used the same mountain bike that my parents had bought me for $25 at a garage sale, so the cost was effectively zero. But that thing wore out around the same time I got a car.

If you’ve looked into this whole transportation biking business, you may have run across this calculator that lets you put in your costs. My car costs are pretty low, honestly.

Or this paper talking about the cost-effectiveness of using a bike in conjunction with a car. Check them out, there’s some cool information.

There’s more costs than just the bike: When I started cycling a lot, I realized that jeans… suck. Maybe I’m a wimp, but I can’t wear jeans on rides longer than about 10 miles total. So I want better pants. And a helmet.* And a nice lock. And lights. And a rear rack for my main commuting vehicle. And fenders for snow. But plastic fenders break too much. And if we’re talking about snow, now I want really nice gloves. And thermal underwear. And better rain gear. And eye protection. And a balaclava. And if I live someplace hot, now I want to buy natural fabrics or performance fabrics so I don’t sweat through and smell. And eye protection. And more deodorant. And reusable water bottles. And shade hats.

Before anyone yells at me: you don’t need this stuff, especially when you’re starting out. I used want for a reason. But if you want to start riding instead of driving on a regular basis, the myth that you don’t need anything to get started does more harm than good, to my mind. You’ll just be miserable, and probably give up. I almost did when I started cycling daily and would arrive at class soaked in sweat, chafed and sweating, and in the winter freezing and numb and blue, before I realized that I probably should spend some money on the above-mentioned things.

It’s good to encourage new cyclists with the idea that you don’t need any special equipment to replace some car trips. And you don’t. But I’ve found that it’s just not practical to take the same approach to frequent or long trips.

Anyway, you’re looking at a good hundred or so (nothing compared to motorcycle gear!) in accessories if you go really cheap. And I mean really cheap. Like, tie a milk crate onto the rear rack instead of buying panniers and get a $10 children’s helmet at a surplus sale cheap.

*I know the helmet war is really divisive. And I don’t wear my helmet on short trips/cycling around campus/on easy trails. But I do wear it at night. And on long rides on busy streets. You do what you want, but owning one is probably a good idea. Options are good.

Vanity: You get weird tans and things. And you have to start wearing sunscreen; if your conscience is all about the local and the natural, be prepared to drop a fair amount on local natural sunscreen. And be prepared to have a white sheen all over; the natural stuff doesn’t really blend in. I crashed pretty badly several weeks ago, and my knee and elbow have huge nasty scars on them. The ones on my knee are raised and icky.

Also, I’m losing too much mass. I used to be a small and curvy girl, and now I’m just small. I realized that to some that will sound like a really stupid complaint, but I used to have boobs. Vanity, vanity.

Biking isn’t free: You can hop on a low grade mountain bike and pedal away, but if you spend years without maintaining it, you risk injury. Trust me, it’s not fun to have two brake pads finally give up and go flying off while you’re going down a steep hill! You have to maintain it, and get it fixed if you crash.

Bikes are addictive: There’s 11 bikes in my garage right now, and 5 people live there. Once bitten by the bike bug, people have a tendency to accumulate more. And more. I used to be satisfied with a mountain bike. Now I feel the need for a road bike and a mountain bike. And a transport bike would be nice. A really pretty one with an internal hub for winter. (Disc brakes cost too much.) Let’s just hop on Craigslist and… My house has been accumulating, selling and rotating bikes for years now.

Higher food costs: Granted, I drive/drove a pretty fuel-efficient car, but I don’t actually save that much on gas. I eat way more. Like… way more. And I don’t even eat as much as I should, I often forget to eat when I’m working. But instead of making pasta and meat sauce and having 6 meals, I have 2-3. Instead of 1 egg and a piece of toast, I have 2-3 eggs and 2 pieces of toast. I can tear through salad like nobody’s business. It adds up quick.

Plus, I want to eat high quality food. That’s one thing that I’ll splurge on. Not clothes or shoes or makeup or nice cars or fancy computers or toys. But the stuff that I put into my body, I want to be fresh, tasty and nutritious. And morally, I want to eat meat products that come from ethical sources. That’s an essay for another time, though. Suffice it to say that I spend a great deal on nice food. But even cheap food gets expensive when you have to eat two or three times as much as you used to need.

So. Ready to give up on your bike? Please don’t. The stuff I’m talking about is mostly just a reality check. People who are really into driving get so defensive of cars, and people who are really into cycling tend to ignore everything except how great biking is.

But it is great. Seriously. I don’t care how much I spend on a bike, or how close my bike operating costs are to my car operating costs.

Better health: I complained about losing mass, but really, it’s worth it. Maybe my girly vanity takes a slight hit, but I feel better overall, and I get sick less often. I’m more muscular and life is just better.

Bike Maintenance is less of a hassle: Yes, it costs money to maintain a bike. But you can do some of it yourself. And if you can’t, you can walk yourself into your local bike shop and say hi. I have found the experience of getting my bike tuned up to be vastly preferable to getting my car worked on. Maybe that’s just me, but I doubt it.

Exercising outside > exercising inside: The whole “making time to exercise” thing isn’t as much of a hassle anymore. I could talk forever about how wonderful the very experience of biking is, but I’ve talked so much in this post that I’ll cut that short. Suffice it to say that outside is good for humans.

-More community involvement: I recognize people more. They recognize me more. I can interact with people much more on the street, I am more likely to stop off and say hi to someone… it’s just warmer and fuzzier. That’s hard to quantify, but it’s definitely valuable to me.

No parking hassles: Waiting in lines is something I HATE doing. It is a huge pet peeve of mine. Waiting and driving around to find a parking space is equally frustrating. It just makes me want to scream. I’m supposed to be doing something, not just sitting! Augh. Maybe it’s not as big of a deal to some people, but I would much rather spend the time traveling and moving and feeling like I’m getting somewhere than idling in a parking lot. Ick.

Environmentally friendly: Well duh.

I can vote with my dollar: And this is really important to me. Gas companies are evil. This is a fact recognized by most people, even people who don’t have hippie leanings. They profit from misery, inefficiency, and generally are very anti-planet, anti-people and anti-freedom. They buy their way out of crimes and don’t answer for death and misery due to their negligence. And it’s not like there’s really another option. They’re all evil, they all exploit and profiteer and drill and destroy. Which evil do you want to support?

It sucks, doesn’t it? We know that factory farming is horrible. We know that Monsanto is predatory and horrible. We know that profiteering from oil causes strife and unrest and blighted land everywhere. But what choice do we have? Most people can’t afford not to support these things, right?

Yes, I take basically all of the money I would spend on gas and spend it on fueling my body and upkeep for my bike. But I love that. A good meal is vastly more enjoyable than standing at a gas pump. I don’t have to support evil gas companies. And I have more money to spend on the products and communities that I value. I have the ability to take my dollars away from factory farms and Monsanto and put them toward the things that I care about. Yes, I’m spending pretty close to the same amount. But I get to choose where my money goes. I have the freedom to purchase things without being forced into dependency on something that I hate.

And what could be better than that?



  1. Bill Chance

    Nice entry… lot of pros and cons. Some cons are pros – I take great pride in the oval tan spots on the back of my hands from my bike gloves. In the end – if you’ve got it, ride it.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Jessie

      Thanks for the feedback! I’ll admit, I’m a little proud of details like that too, ones that mark me as a cyclist. I don’t mind carrying around my helmet, for example, or having a grease imprint on my calf. When it comes right down to it, I don’t think money can the reason for cycling – there’s enough good things about cycling anyway. And I’ve heard people express disillusionment over not saving any money. The big picture is so much more than that, though.

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