Saving Money by Ditching the Car

If you’ve ever wanted a breakdown of the benefits of commuting by bike versus commuting by car, Carfree.us
has got it for you. The writer of this Streetsblog Network member blog,
a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina,  is not actually totally
car-free, but he has made a commitment to commuting by bike or bus for
the calendar year of 2010. From his introductory post:

3640460876_c15aaef0af.jpgThese bike commuters are saving some serious money. Photo: Richard Masoner via Flickr

It’s important to understand I am an average Joe, in my thirties,
working  a 9-5 desk job. I have a wife and a one-year-old son. I
live in an average-size city with an average public transportation
infrastructure, and I live seven miles from the city center. My wife is
not a zealous bicyclist, and truthfully, not very supportive of this
project! My wife does own a car and I will probably occasionally drive
it with my family in the car.  I am not an anti-car zealot, but what I
want to highlight are the challenges and choices I will face in my
everyday life and the impact they will have on me as I live this
(sadly) "alternative lifestyle."  These decisions may be banal but they
just might be something more.

I
am choosing not to transport myself individually in a vehicle designed
to fit five. It’s ludicrous, and we all have grown numb to the impact we
have on our communities, on our countrymen and women, and on the
world. If I can do it, there are millions of other people in this
country who can do the same thing, and that’s the story I plan to tell.

He’s now tallied the results of the first two months of car-free life, and they’re pretty impressive:

In January and February I commuted by bicycle or bus a total of 36 days
or 72 trips, not counting holidays and vacation days. Of those 72
trips I took the bus 32 times. February was a really cold, wet, and
snowy month in Charlotte so I took the bus a lot in February.…

In two months I have had the following impact:

  • I’ve saved $47 in gasoline expenses and the equivalent of $457 in
    fixed costs for a total savings of $471.49 when accounting for bus
    costs.
  • Burned 22,356 calories which if I had been eating a normal diet is the equivalent of 6.4 pounds of fat!
  • I have kept 543 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (19.546 lbs per gallon and my car gets an average of 21 MPG).

Simply multiplying these numbers for the year would equal 3,260
pounds of CO2 kept out of the atmosphere, $2,542 dollars saved, 134,000
calories burned, and 38.3 pounds of fat.  If I had a car loan payment
for a $20,000, the savings jumps to $7,900!

I
knew I was benefiting myself and the environment by commuting without a
car, but to see the real impact is very amazing. These numbers don’t
take into account the savings because of improved emotional and
physical well being I am getting because of the exercise. They also
don’t take into account the benefit to my community from interacting
with my neighbors and fellow commuters. These numbers don’t measure
the impact of  the 40,000 people every year who’s lives are cut short
because of car crashes.  These are dry,raw, facts, and figures, but if
you consider how these facts scale year over year for an individual, or
scale for the United State,  if just 5% of the people  who commute by
car switched to walking, bicycling, or public transit, the numbers
would be astounding.

You can download his spreadsheet from his site if you want to crunch your own numbers.

More from around the network: World Streets on promoting cycling in Iceland. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia on the legality of clipping bikes that are parked on or adjacent to private property. And The Naked City on the looming retail crisis caused by the overbuilding of megamalls.

  • This year alone to date I’ve pedaled more than 1,000 miles that I would’ve otherwise driven in my truck which gets about 21 mpg. From a savings perspective of gas only, at $3 a gallon, that’s more than $140 I have to spend on Crumbs cupcakes, video games, Boone’s Farm and pet toys, but not necessarily in that order.

  • If you buy a car new for $20,000 (cash, add more if you have a loan) and it lasts for 150,000 miles each mile you drive costs about 13 cents just in depreciation, or in other words, the loss in value of the asset. That’s real, because if you keep driving, you’re going to have to buy another car.

    The real savings is in getting rid of a car altogether (no more payments, insurance, registration, repairs), but it’s harder. We need more one-car households and zero-car adventurers.

  • David Galvan

    “but its harder” indeed.

    Much of the savings you get from never driving would be from not owning the car altogether (ie: depreciation and registration and insurance and maintenance costs). If you continue to own a car, and just don’t drive it very often, you are only saving gas, and the comparison between the amount of money you pay per mile in gas costs to the amount of money you’d pay for bus fare becomes much less one-sided.

    I have figured out that it costs roughly the same amount of money for me to drive to work as it does to take the bus (a difference of something like 10 cents per trip more for the car vs. the bus). Sure, it would be much cheaper to only take the bus than to own a car, but that is not an option most people can realistically consider in Los Angeles. Even if I commute entirely by bus/bike, I’m not going to get rid of my car because I’ll need it for other things. Hence, the huge potential financial savings are only relavent if you don’t own a car.

  • David Galvan

    @Will:

    In the past year, how much have you spent on bike maintenance? (New inner tubes, tune-ups, bike grease, etc.)

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Actually you can save quite a bit on insurance by driving less. My insurance company has a sliding scale that unfortunately only goes down to 5000 miles/year. I would prefer if it went all the way down to my level of 2000 miles/year, but even at 5000 you save quite a bit off the average, which is a shocking 12,000 miles/year.

  • I would argue depreciation is mainly a function of how much you drive (it’s also a function of time but I’ll ignore that because an old car with 40,000 miles on it can still be very useful as a car).

    By driving less you can really put off into the future the day when you buy another car, and as Jeff Baker points out, you can save a bit on your insurance by declaring fewer miles driven.

    The variable cost of driving = gas + depreciation + maintenance + repairs + the extra amount you have to pay for insurance + parking (sometimes)

    The fixed cost of owning a car = payments + registration + some of your insurance

    And we all know what the costs to society are and how drivers aren’t forced to pay them . . .

  • Yuri

    You can add to variable driving costs the fines and tickets which keep going up. On Saturday I got a $50 parking ticket (ten years ago that same ticket would have been $20). Plus the risk of an accident and costs associated with that. The cost of traffic congestion induced stress on a driver’s health. And the health and environmental costs of emissions, which haven’t really been quantified and priced in but which I can easily see at least doubling the price of gasoline. Time will tell what was the true cost of using fossil fuels, it could be astronomical.

  • David Galvan

    Fair points. But, to be objective, one should also factor in the time-difference in commuting via bike/bus vs. via car. For many people, that is the main deterrant: time spent in transit.

    My one-way commute, for example, takes 35 minutes door-to-door without traffic via car, and up to 55 minutes with traffic via car. The same commute by bike/bus takes 1 hr 25 min door-to-door without traffic, up to 1 hr 45 min door-to-door with traffic (the bus sit sin the same traffic as the car; my only rail option would take 2+ due to a roundabout route). Biking the whole way would be 2+ hrs.

    This means, that, round trip, I can save myself 55 minutes EACH WAY, so about 1 hr 50 minutes per day, by driving instead of using the bike/bus. That’s an extra 2 hours I can spend either working or with my family.

    So with saving that much time every day and with the per-day fuel cost being equivalent to the bus fare cost, the decision seems to me to be a no-brainer: It makes more sense to drive if you’re just considering monetary and time cost.

    Yes, you can potentially work a bit on the bus, but I’ve found I don’t work very efficiently on the bus. I can do e-mail and such, but using a laptop on the bus is not usually that effective (get computer out, wake up or start up, do non-internet-dependent work, notice when approaching stop, close laptop, pack away, etc.), at least for me. So I’d say out of 30 minutes spent onboard the bus I probably get about 15 minutes of real work time in. And that’s if I can find a seat on the bus.

    Obviously this comparison will be different per person.

    I do take the bike/bus once in a while to get some exercise, but if scheduling is tight (which becomes even more important when you have kids/pets to take care of / let out), saving time takes precedence. If I could get my transit/car time ratio down from close to 3:1 to something closer to 2:1, I’d probably reconsider my primary main modal choice.

  • Will Campbell

    Excellent question David! Forgive me in my gas-savings revelry if I somehow implied that bicycling was a cost-free mode of transport. Far from it! But barring the occasional wheel rebuild I do my own repairs, so in-shop work isn’t an issue. For the maintenance work I perform, I do keep receipts for all the parts and accessories and tools I purchase.

    I don’t have immediate access to my records from last year, but I’d guesstimate that the 6,800 miles I biked in 2009 resulted in me spending somewhere in the ballpark of $850 — and that includes $202 in fines for a ticket I got in June, plus $119 for a replacement bike frame through the maker when my old one with more than 6,000 miles on it finally started wearing out and flexing enough to make me nervous.

    So far this year repairs have been minimal, involved several tube patches, two new innertubes tubes and a set of replacement pedals. The pedals were purchased for $34 through an online vendor, and the two innertubes were $10 bought at Orange 20. I also purchased a tube patch kit from O20 for $4. Subtotal, not including sales tax or shipping (for the pedals) $48.

    I have also replaced the batteries in the headlights and taillight twice so far this year with respective rechargeable Ni-MH AA and AAA batteries so the cost is probably not more than pennies per battery — let’s say $0.10 per battery (12): $1.20,

    Over the course of the 2-plus months of 2010 I also have used spritzes of chain-lube ($7, Nashbar; the last can lasted me more than three years). In addition since the first of the year I’ve employed roughly one roll of paper towels (about $1.50) and corresponding amounts of household cleansers (let’s call it $2) in keeping my bike dirt-free.

    Lastly I’m presently awaiting delivery of a new pair of bike shoes ($49) to replace my current pair which I’ve worn for the last two years and are heading toward their last miles.

    So to sum-up: patch kit, tubes, pedals, electricity, lube, paper towels, cleanser, shoes $108.70

    In comparison, my 2009 truck costs (1,500 miles driven) were registration ($100), a tank of gas about every 2 months ($230), an oil/filter change ($35), one wash ($14), the repair of broken fan belt and frozen pulley ($350), insurance ($410) and AAA dues ($42). Total: $1181.

  • @DGalvan: “one should also factor in the time-difference in commuting via bike/bus vs. via car.” Though, in some cases like yours, it does take a little longer to drive, the time difference for many urban commutes isn’t all that great. In fact, after the time spent filling up with gas and parking, the time difference between biking and driving isn’t that much. For many commutes, I expect it’s faster to bike.

    But that’s a quantitative look at time… and the point I want to make is qualitative. If my choice is to spend X minutes in a car or 2X or 3X minutes on a bike… well, then, based on benefits to me, to my health, my well-being, my waters, my air, my climate… I’d much rather spend that time on my bike. I don’t see that commute time as time wasted, rather I see it as time well spent.

  • Will Campbell

    My time spent biking v. driving to work is minimally different. I have a 15-mile commute from Silver Lake to Westchester. I can get to Westchester in about an 60 minutes by bike; 45 minutes by car on the same surface streets. Coming home by bike it has actually taken less time or roughly the same amount as by car to get there.

    Regardless of that 20-30 minute difference per commute, spending a couple hours a day on a bike getting to/from the office allowed me to cancel the $60 a month I was paying the downtown YMCA for the privilege of spending those hours there riding a stationery bike or treadmill.

  • bb

    I think you would have some bicycle costs. I put on 5,000 miles on my bike. And I would go through tires, chain, and brake pads. Of course I saved lots of money in the process.

  • David Galvan

    Good discussion all, and thanks for the details Will! It’s nice to hear some real-world numbers from people on this issue. Too often the discussion is too qualitative.

    @Joe: I get your qualitative argument, and I agree with it. But the fact is that the quantitative difference in monetary/temporal cost really should influence a person’s decision more than the qualitative argument of how good it feels to be riding the bike.

    If I I lived closer to where I work, I would likely bike there much more often. But I currently can’t afford to live closer to where I work and maintain my standard of living. (Currently live in a 2Bed2Bath condo with my wife, dog, and a baby on the way). Some day, I hope to move closer so that I can use the car less. But then again, that will probably mean that we will be living farther away from where my wife works, and hence her car usage will go up.

    Obviously, everyone’s situation is different. But that’s my point: It won’t ALWAY make more sense to bike/bus rather than to drive. It does for some, it doesn’t for others.

  • The best way to reduce your expenses in driving is to purchase quality used vehicles that have high resale value, or that you can drive into the ground. Texas has Mile Meter insurance that charges you buy the mile, and California recently approved this concept (http://milemeter.com/). By doing so, you should be able to bring the cost of having the vehicle (insurance and ownership) down to 15-20 cents a mile.

    I think bicycling is an acceptable substitute for driving for short to medium distance trips. In the morning, it’s cool enough to pedal relatively hard and still not sweat too much, while in the afternoon you can either pedal real hard and get your workout that way, or if it is too hot take it easy. You can control your speed in a way that even car drivers dream of, when they are stuck in traffic waiting multiple cycles because the intersection just can’t handle that much traffic. In addition, electric bicycles, which the bicyclerati frown upon, are a good compromise for many people who are less in shape.

    But transit can be very frustrating, and often more stress inducing than driving. Transit on its own right of way is OK, because the travel time consistent every day, every hour. But with MTA’s bus system at below 70% on time performance, and lack of real time information on bus whereabouts (even the rapidbus.net system is often prone to error), anyone who had to be at a particular destination at a certain time, and wanted to minimize time waiting around for their shift to start, will experience significant stress. In addition, unlike drivers, bus drivers can’t speed up once they pass the obstruction causing a delay (if there is an accident or stall), and have to account for multiple stops along the way. I’ve been in the situations where I’m frantically checking my cell phone, hoping that the bus driver knows that she has to make her connection, because else I’ll be stuck for half an hour at the windswept Artesia Transit Center. Or running to catch the last bus of the night, or hoping that the last connection can be made to avoid a 5 or 10 mile walk. That is very stressful, and one thing that you do not have when you have your own form of personal transportation (bike, skateboard, or car) available.

  • Screw it, telecommuting is the best mode of transportation if your job allows it. It’s the one alternative mode that driving absolutely can’t compete with on speed, and it’s great for the environment by comparison.

  • Yuri

    @DavidGalvan: 1 hr 45 minutes for a bus commute is way too long. I would rather take the 2 hr rail commute, at least you could get more work done. It sounds like you live/work in areas underserved by Metrolink or light rail. If our transit system were designed correctly, there would be bus only lanes on all the arterials. Automobile commute times would worsen, but the buses would then be able to compete with them on trip time. Considering the population and emission trends, it’s the only sustainable way forward. We might as well start implementing it now so that people can adjust to the “new normal”.

  • David Galvan

    @Yuri: I live in Sherman Oaks and work in Pasadena. The Commuter Express 549 is the fastest bus between these two destinations, at about 40-50 minutes or so (depending on what time you get on). But it lets me off 5 miles from my place of employment, so I either take my folding bike and cycle uphill to work (29-30 minutes), or wait for a second bus which never seems to come on time (actual transit time ~15 minutes, but with the unreliable timing it ends up usually taking just as long as the bicycle, so I bike unless the 2nd bus is waiting for me at the CE stop). Add in the short bike ride (1 mile) from my house to the bus stop, and any lateness on the part of the bus (actually the CE is pretty darn good about being on time), and for the 10 or so times I’ve done this type of commute, it’s averaged at about 1 hr 30 min door to door.

    The rail equivalent would be to bike to the Orange line, then take the Red line to Gold Line and then that same 30 minute bike ride. So that’s 2 transfers (orange to red, then red to gold) guaranteed. With the Commuter Express, I only ride one bus, and it takes less time. The legs on each of the rail lines are not long enough to encourage me to get my laptop out and work the whole time. I mainly just handle e-mail on my phone when on transit.

    Probably the MOST economical AND environmentally friendly option for me would be a carpool, but unfortunately with the dog and baby (latter on the way), I need my schedule to be more flexible than a carpool would allow. So it’s the car for me.

  • I love living carfree in LA. I’ve never bothered to calculate my savings from not owning a car because, frankly, economics are not the bottom line for me. (And this is coming from a grad student who makes a pittance for part time work!) Everytime I convince myself that I should get a ride home from friends instead of doing my usual bike-Metrolink-Red Line-bike commute (2 hours each way) between Koreatown and Irvine, I regret it. Their anger boils over as we sit in the inevitable traffic, and I always end up thinking fondly of my train, where I can gaze out the window and meditate after another long day.

  • Yuri

    @DavidGalvan: This type of suburb-to-suburb commute is harder for a transit system to accommodate. Although it sounds like your problem is not getting to Pasadena, it’s the last 5 miles. That’s where each regional job center should make a much better effort to colocate jobs and provide frequent bus service in a 5 mile radius. If your job were closer to downtown Pasadena you wouldn’t have to drive. This lack of integrated urban planning, tax incentives and regulations for job colocation forces people to drive.

  • Park and ride (or park and bike) can be a good option in some situations. When the time disadvantage of transit or biking the whole way is extreme, you can use a car to go part of the way and put yourself withing striking distance. That way you save some time, but you also save some of the expense and negative externalities of driving.

  • David Galvan

    Just did the bike/bus thing today and last week. I guess I can try to commit to once a week. It gets me some exercise, anyway, which I don’t get much of otherwise.

  • Now that @Galvan is up on a bike more, I am looking forward fewer negative comments from him! I know that’s a cheap shot, but I couldn’t resist. @Galvan – I am glad you’re doing the multi-modal commute and I hope it works really well for you.

  • David Galvan

    @Joe: :) Heh, just trying to add a realistic perspective into this mix. I’m with all you cycling activists in spirit, but, IMHO, talking about the qualitative benefits of bike-riding as a reason to go completely car-free is never going to appeal to a high enough percentage of Angelenos to make a significant difference in getting more people to cycle. People need to be convinced that they can either: a. save time, b. save money, or c. significantly improve their health, and also do these things safely. I prefer to talk about the realistic experience (actual time difference, actual money costs, etc.), as I expect that is how most working adults are going to make their decision.

    When I was in grad school (the past 6 years of my life up until last summer), I would take bus/bike to/from UCLA almost exclusively (the 761 worked great for me). Things changed when my daily destination moved from UCLA to the outskirts of Pasadena / La Canada flintridge.

  • So instead of it being just about economics, Galvan, it sounds like you justify your travel decisions based on what a majority of people would consider feasible. Economists put an awful lot of stock in people’s tendency to make decisions based on economics, when in fact there are a lot of other motivators (family, religion, status, hot chicks in ads, what most people around you are doing). I can guarantee you that my mom does not drive because she has taken every expense involved in cycling versus driving into account, and has chosen driving as the most economical decision. She drives because she always has driven. And her carfree commute would be a lot easier than yours.

  • Spokker

    “Economists put an awful lot of stock in people’s tendency to make decisions based on economics, when in fact there are a lot of other motivators (family, religion, status, hot chicks in ads, what most people around you are doing).”

    Economists do take into account things like family and religion in their econometric models. They might try to find a correlation between transit ridership and number of children in household, for example.

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