Calculating the Leap to Driving Less

On various cycling Websites, including this one, you will find articles as well as calculators estimating the amount of money you can save by cycling instead of driving. Yet, I haven’t found one yet that tells the whole story.

Gas Savings Results
My meager results

When I run the Gas Savings calculator on this site (over there on the right rail), the numbers aren’t very impressive. Granted, I put in conservative (i.e. low-ball) estimates of how much I ride.

And when I recall back in 2004 when I had to decide what to do about my dead Toyota, I did hours of soul searching and number crunching to make up my mind. I was inclined to try life without a car, but I wanted the numbers to prove it was a sound decision.

There wasn’t then, nor is there now, a tool on the Web that makes this process easy.

Gas savings was really the tip of the iceberg. I tried to think of every cost possible–not just the cost of gas. I factored in vehicle insurance, registration, depreciation, maintenance, and auto-loan interest.

I also made guesses on how often I would have to rent a car or hire taxis, and estimated those costs. These ended up being extremely overestimated, which may indicate how secretly terrified I was to try living without a car.

I was surprised at how close the average monthly costs were between the three scenarios I was considering: live car-free, revive my dead Toyota, or buy a used car.

Cycle to Work CalculatorA new Website is dedicated solely to calculating some of these costs: Cycle to Work Calculator

Cycle to Work Calculator, like all others I’ve seen, falls short of telling the whole story.

Steve Morgan, the developer behind the Website acknowledges that this calculator is short on features, but says it’s a work in progress.

“I have lots of enhancements swirling around my head that I want to add in,” he told me, “maybe I was too excited to get it out there as quickly as possible!”

For starters, I’d like to be able to choose my unit of currency. Currently it only shows British Pounds. (Bear in mind that the currency unit doesn’t matter in the present form of this calculator. If you like, you can pretend that it’s a dollar sign, a Euro symbol, or a goat.)

What I like about Steve’s calculator, is that in the few questions that the calculator asks, it hints that it is making some assumptions about the depreciating value of a bike over time. But what about the car you either neglect or liquidate as you cycle more?

I like how it estimates how much you’ve saved already, but how it does that is a mystery. Wouldn’t it be good to be able to put in your postal code and have it base your savings on the average cost of gas per gallon in your area over time–real data?

And for data geeks, I’d like to see an advanced mode where you can put in whether you own a car, its purchase price, age, insurance cost, etc. so you could really see what a financial liability that beast is.

Previously, I’ve discussed how resonant the economic argument is for bike commuting–more than all of the do-goodery arguments that work on do-gooder weenies like me. My switch to living car-free was made with great trepidation–even though I was weakly motivated by conscience to make it.

In my case, the economic benefits were somewhat unexpected because of the inaccuracy of my estimates. It took me a few months to realize my projections as well as my anxieties were unfounded.

The calculator should work for people who want to bike more and drive less as well as for people who want to bike always and drive never. So I’m projecting onto this calculator my wish that it will help make easier both the small leaps and the large ones.

My ideal calculator would show the economic argument in the past (how much money you would have saved), the present, and project savings into the future.

I offered Steve access to the most brilliant minds in bike commuting: Our readers.

What do you think of the Cycle to Work Calculator? What features and calculations would you want Steve to add?

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23 thoughts on “Calculating the Leap to Driving Less”

  1. Tony Bullard says:

    I’d like to see one that supports multi-modal commutes. Something that takes into account that I spend money on the train, and that I don’t bike the same 26 miles that I drive.

  2. Dann Golden-Collum says:

    It’s not too hard to look back on one’s expenditures and come up with how much car payments, gas, insurance and repairs cost per year. A car is not really an investment, but a sunk cost (imho) – just a hole in the ground you throw money into so you can get around in a convenient fashion. Yeah, there’s what you’ll pay for the vehicle, and then an end value, but in reality, we all pay too much up front and throughout the life of the car to make the end value of any real value.

    Now, in reality, a bike is not really an investment either, although sometimes you can get what you paid for the bike at the end of your use of it. But that purchase/sale price never includes the cost of ownership – insurance (there is a piece of household insurance that goes toward your bike), wear items (tires, tubes, wheels, hubs, spokes, handlebar tape, brakes, chains, cassettes, chain rings, peddles, etc.), vanity items (goo-gaws that we gotta have to make the bike our own!), clothing specific to riding (rain jackets, cold weather gear, warm weather gear, shoes, sandals, sun glasses, etc.), and what have you.
    When someone asks me about how much it costs to get into commuting on a bike, I quote this number: $2,760.00. I’m assuming they don’t have anything to start with. And, even if they do have something – like a bike hanging in their garage – that bike usually needs fortification to undergo the rigors of daily commuting. That number includes this:

    1. Bike $1,600.00 Salsa’s Vaya is a great commuter bike
    2. Rack $ 50.00 middle priced item
    3. Panniers $ 120.00 waterproof is important here
    4. Clothing $ 500.00 you want to be seen and stay dry/cool/warm
    5. Jacket $ 200.00 you want to stay dry and cut the wind
    6. Pants $ 200.00 another stay-dry item
    7. Shoes $ 90.00 if you opt for spd’s, you’ll need shoes

    But I don’t stop there. I also clue the questioner in on how much it costs to make that commute every day. If a person rides between 10 and 40 miles per day, then these costs are fairly accurate:

    • Clothing $???.?? wild card here – I spend about $600/year
    • Tune up $150.00 I recommend a yearly tune up
    • Brakes $ 50.00 replacement pads
    • Tires/tubes $120.00 depending on how many miles, usually once a year
    • Wear/tear $200.00 cables, wheels, relace spokes, pedals, etc.
    • Upgrades $200.00 cool stuff you gotta have

    Depending on where you ride and how hard, the cost of riding can be higher. I went through a few bottom brackets over the past three years because it was wet and the road kicked up a lot of pumice-based dust that wore the bearings out. Some locales will require more brake parts because of more hills or a certain kind of dirt that just wears stuff out sooner. If you live in the desert, you’re gonna get more punctures from thorns and you’ll go through more tires. And, how much you carry and how much you weigh brings in different tallies for the cost per ride.

    With all those costs, the savings may not be as great as some of those calculators may show. I’m saving about $800/year by riding the bike, after all the real costs are added up.

  3. Rob E. says:

    The issue of how much you save by not driving is really very complex and varies greatly by individual circumstances. Steve’s calculator does a good job of dodging a lot of that by asking the user to figure out their own daily driving costs, so Steve doesn’t need to make assumptions. On the other hand, the nebulous cost per day figure is pivotal and complex, so by skirting that issue, the most useful and difficult number crunching is left up to the user.

    Some things I’d love to see in a bike vs. car calculator:
    1) Separate sections for fixed vs. per mile expenses. I hate when registration, property tax, and insurance are added in to the “per mile” calculations. They don’t make sense there, and lumping them together makes the second request impossible.
    2) Costs/savings of driving less vs. not owning a car. Too often I see “savings” figures that carry with it the assumption that bike commuters have no cars (then, when we want to counter “road tax” arguments, we point out that most cyclists do own a car. oops). For a lot of people, giving up a car is too extreme to contemplate, so it’s good to see what they can gain by simply driving less. But when they’re ready to dump the car, it’s good to have those numbers, too.
    3) Adjustable values for more nebulous expenses. Maintenance per mile and deprecation are tricky and vary too widely to have set, one-size-fits-all values.

    One thing I’d like to see on Steve’s site is a more direct, unbiased comparison between bike and car costs. As is, it puts everything in terms of money/time saved by not driving. My assumed costs per day of driving are actually less then the stated costs per day of cycling, and yet somehow my bike gets “paid off” with continued use. I understand how that may work mathematically, but it’s still a little confusing on the face of it. And just to be obnoxiously politically-correct, putting everything in terms of driving assumes that car travel is the default mode of transportation. While that’s a valid assumption for many people, it’s one that (I think) we as bike commuters would like to change, maybe a more neutral way of stating the results of the calculations would be preferable.

  4. Warren says:

    My guess from fooling around with some numbers is that owning a car and a bike is often more expensive than simply driving a car everywhere. Significant savings won’t really happen unless the bike replaces a car.

  5. Deb says:

    Whenever I look at these calculations, I can never figure out why people don’t talk about the FOOD.

    Whatever money I have saved in gas, I eat.

    Also, I have no car payment and a very small insurance payment and have zero parking fees, so the majority of the cost of using my vehicle is gas costs. Thus I’m not saving money, despite that every calculator and calculation I’ve seen tells me I am.

    I didn’t start bike commuting to save money, so this isn’t a big deal to me, but I have never understood why the increased food costs are ignored. I can’t be the only one who eats a lot!

  6. Wow – what an indepth and considered review, Ted. That has sparked many more ideas so thank you.

    And the feedback received in the comments is equally constructive and useful. I now can’t wait to start building on it, but I think it is so important to do because it’s so unsustainble driving everywhere and if this calculator encourages just a few more people onto their bikes then we’ve all done a good job!

    Thanks again everyone – I’m overwhelmed by the feedback.


  7. This is true, Deb. I am as skinny as a rake but eat like a horse… People just don’t undersstand where I put it but it is actually quite an extra cost in my case. thanks, steve

  8. These are definitely valid points Dann Golden-Collum and Rob. E. It comes down to being able to enter more details up-front in a clear way. I will definitely look into this. Thanks, Steve

  9. Rob E. says:

    Just more evidence that it’s a difficult calculation to make with too many person-specific variables:

    Deb eats all of her gas savings. I do not. Instead, calories that would have found their way to my midsection are used to move the bike. Many folks look at bike commuting as an alternative to gym time, so they are also probably not eating more.

    Warren thinks you don’t save until you ditch the car entirely, but that is very dependent on your personal buying decisions. I had a cheap car with no collision insurance. Just owning was probably under $200/year in registration and taxes. Regular driving easily surpassed that number in gas and maintenance, so, while not having the car is even cheaper, it was the driving, not the owning, that took most of the money. A more expensive car could change that up quickly, though.

    And Dann’s bike commuting costs also seem way out of step with mine. Until a few years ago, I commuted primarily on thrift store finds. Even now my secondary commuter is a $50 Craigslist purchase. It’s been “upgraded” since then, but not to the tune of $1000. More like $100. And what Dann spends on a tune up is close to what I spend in replacement parts in a year, essentials, that is (tubes, tires, brake pads, etc.). Like Dann I find ways to spend more on upgrades, but they’re far from essential. And while Dann’s clothing budget may be appropriate for his climate, I mostly wear generic shorts and athletic shirts to deal with sweat in the summer time. The rest of the time I wear my work clothes, so my clothing budget is comparatively low.

    All to show that their seems to be as many variables as there are commuters, making a realistic calculator tricky.

  10. BluesCat says:

    My bike riding is my Mental Health time. With my insurance, mental health counselor costs are $45/session. So I’m avoiding having one shrink session a week, which means I’m saving $2,340.00 a year.

    In January I visited the Doc. He said I was most certainly helping control my blood pressure, and avoiding a heart attack, as a result of all of my bike riding. The National Business Group on Health puts the cost of a mild heart attack at somewhere around $700,000. So, lets be real optimistic and say I’m gonna live to be a 100. Since I’m 61 now, if we amortize that over my remaining 39 years, a MILD heart attack would cost me around $18,000 a year.

    Add the mental AND physical health savings together and I’m saving around $20,000 a year by riding my bike.

    Not bad.

  11. norm says:

    Hi! Traffic Solutions in Santa Barbara did a similar calculator, but I think some of the variables are fixed and it’s not so flexible. However, see it here:

  12. Chrehn says:

    Right On Blues Cat!

  13. Tim says:

    Thanks for this one.

    That’s something that irritates me about most “cost of owning a car” analyses: they start with the assumption that a car is always a brand new one, bought on finance, paying insurance at new-car rates, depreciating at new-car rates. By these calculations, owning “a car” costs hundreds of dollars per week.

    I have never looked at my life and questioned “should I buy a brand new car or should I ride my bike more?”.

    I have a second car – a1989 Volvo that shades a section of the driveway and grows moss in winter. I drive it every month or so, if it’s been good (I have no need for it during the week, and on weekends if we drive we take the family car). Does about 1000km a year.

    By my calculations, it costs me $750/year to have it sitting there, in registration, third party insurance, a splash of fuel, and an annual oil change whether it needs it or not. I should get rid of it ($750 would pay for quite a few taxi trips or car rentals), but it’s the convenience thing… a taxi or rental car isn’t waiting for me in the driveway when I decide to use it.

    But if I was driving regularly… fuel and maintenance would obviously be higher. I’d probably decide to upgrade to a newer vehicle with a few less intermittent electrical faults, so standing costs would be higher. If the car was worth more I’d probably want to insure it. Cha ching, cha ching, the costs keep adding up.

    The economic argument works even if we don’t lose a car altogether… although, for mine, the convenience and enjoyment arguments that win out. And the fact that I can eat more 😛

  14. Icebiker3 says:

    Just found this site. Groovy.
    I have been keeping track of my expenses and records for awhile now, and I have evolved a pretty stand kit for 4-season commuting, although most of my stuff is ready to be replaced this year. (Jacket and panniers are both rotten and ripping, etc)Since I make most of my own stuff like parts and clothing, my costs are different, of course.
    I have not driven a car to work since April 1, 2001. Not once. I have walked home with a broken bike, and pushed through a blizzard to the bus stop, but it was always on my bike. My wife drives a 1997 Taurus that is .16 per mile, and my bikes cost me .175 per mile last year.

    The big savings in riding a bike to work is not just in gasoline or carbon, but rather in medical costs, pain, and suffering.

    My Seven on the road is $3500.
    My Die Eis Hexen winter bike is about $4500.
    A Heart Attack is $75,000 for the first one, if you survive. Then there are the monthly meds to consider. A whole other world.

    Then there is the fun.

  15. The non stop bicyclist says:

    I think the savings of getting rid of a car and riding a bicycle to work are huge! It’s not just money you’ll save. You’ll save you!

    I liked biking, but when I got married, didn’t have much time to bike. I started riding to work for pleasure, and would do it even if it weren’t to save money.

    I may be fooling myself, but I think I save a buck a mile. If that is so, I save $5000 a year.

  16. Rob ("The Rob") says:

    I started commuting in March of this year and so far have logged 2100 commuting miles (20 each way). My car is a 1988 honda civic that gets 45mpg, so my “savings” are not my motivation. Even with a hypothetical new SUV that got 15mpg, it would take me all year just to pay for my bike. I really don’t think you will get new people to start doing this just my telling them they will save gas money – you need a much stronger motivation. For me, I lost 100 lbs. 5 years ago and this is helping me from “finding” it. It’s probably different for all of us. I think it’s great that there are so many reasons to do this regardless of where you live.

  17. Dann Golden-Collum says:

    Everyone’s bike commuting costs will be different. I put those numbers out there as a baseline, not a rule. Where you ride, how you ride, and what you want out of your ride will all be determining factors in a yearly cost.

    I’ve been riding the same Bianchi Axis since 1987, and hope to ride it for another 10 years at least. I bought it because of the frame and components – I knew it would last a long time. Retail cost in 1987 was $1,200, but I paid $900 on sale. This bike has now cost me $37.50 per year, plus a $1.75 per year rider on my household insurance. So the $1,500 initial cost of a new bike should spread out over the time a person rides/owns that bike. I am a huge fan of buying used or on sale, so costs go down according to the savings one can find.

    Even if everything a person buys to use to ride is on sale or from craigslist or thrift stores, a realistic cost per year is important to impart to would-be commuters.

  18. Tim says:

    It doesn’t hurt to tell people that they’ll save money if they switch to bike commuting, if that’s sufficient motivation for them to give it a try.
    Once they’ve tried it (and given it a reasonable go), they’ll probably find all the other benefits that we all know about. In all likelyhood they’ll end up like most of us posting here – “I assume it saves me money, but I really don’t care because it’s fun and gets me healthy and saves time and…”.
    If telling people it will save them money is untrue, it’s a white lie.

  19. peddlin' nige says:

    Here’s my maths, correct me if I’m wrong….

    If I drive the 11kms to work in my clunky car, rather than ride my clunky bike, it costs me $2.50 in gas. I know this because it costs me $50 to fill the tank and I can go there and back 20 times before I have to fill up again. (I do have a life outside work but it’s all bike and foot based…).

    Wear and tear, oil changes, tyres etc for the Delorean mean it costs about 15 cents a km to drive, so my round trip to work, at 11 kms each way costs $3.30 wear and tear, plus $2.50 gas, which of course equals (um…) $5.80.

    My bike cost $250 and I’ve never spent a thing on it, though I probably should have by now, so clearly it doesn’t take long, at least in my case, for biking to be cost effective. Plus I get to see bear, eagle, deer and even a cougar once and that’s worth way more than a few measley gallons of fuel, and best of all I can stop by the swimming hole for a dip in summer and it’s downhill all the way from there to home so I dry off nicely. Sod the money; ride anyway!

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Can’t you just take the Delorean back to 1940 every time you need to fill it up?

  20. peddlin' nige says:

    Haha- brilliant! I can’t belive I didn’t think of it myself. But didn’t that particular delorean run on plutonium?

  21. Friedel says:

    For me, the bonus of cycling to work is not something that can be calculated financially. The bonus is the happy, relaxed feeling I get from being active and in control of my commute, not to mention the extra exercise and interesting things I see along the way.

  22. varontron says:

    I was motivated to cycle by my intense hatred for traffic. Stationary, burning fuel, and eventually arriving angry, frustrated, and physically sore from _sitting down_ for an hour (if I could get on the road in time) was just unacceptable after 15 years. I was a courier in NYC in the 80s for crying out loud.

    Now, I’m 43. I have a 33mi. round trip. I started cycling in July ’11. I’m up to 2 days/week. I’m averaging 14.7 mph over hilly terrain, sometimes with 20# in tow. On avg, per round trip, it takes only 20 min longer to cycle commute than to drive. Goodbye gym membership, gym commuting, and gym showering (ick.)

    I’m a data junkie and I have an elaborate spreadsheet to track my cycling costs and performance, including comparative driving cost and time analysis.

    My initial investment was around $1500. I’ve since bought clothing and gear which has brought my total to $2600. I live in New England. My warmest commute was 103F, my coldest, 16F. So I need a variety of clothing, lights, etc., and I want them to last.

    Obviously, I agree with those who grimace at over-generalized cost-per-mile driving estimates, and over-simplified replacement scenarios. I’m not giving up my car (a ’95 accord on which I do nearly all maintenance/repair.) Even if I can cycle 5 days/week, I still need it for weekend travel, dinners out, etc. So generic costs like tire wear, insurance, etc. don’t qualify for my analysis. They’re either reduced or excluded. I’ve included items like gym membership and some auto maintenance in my calculations, along with gas, pkg, pkg subsidies, etc. I used 10 driving and 2 public transportation scenarios with variables including wkg from home occasionally, pkg for free occasionally (when the secret spots are open,) putting in for the subsidy, _forgetting_ to put in for the subsidy, rising gas prices, etc. My range of costs was $8.49 to $21.82 per day on an annual basis, or an avg. of $13.07.

    Currently this means it will take 198 cycling days to break even. I’m in for 28 days so far, or 14%.

    I got to this site searching for a way to accurately estimate medical cost savings attributable to cycle commuting. It’s been helpful in that regard but I still have some research to do. If I can add $1/day to my cost-savings, it will reduce my breakeven by 13 days.

    In sum, I love being on the bike. 25 years ago it was the only way I got around. I couldn’t afford a car, and didn’t care. Chasing the breakeven and eventually saving on both time and money are great long term challenges at which I will eventually succeed. Setting a good example for my kids and coworkers is tremendously rewarding. It feels great. Staying fit, and avoiding showering at the gym are invaluable.

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