If you follow the news – or more likely, if you drive a lot – you’ve probably noticed that gas prices have been soaring. I’ve got to be honest though – I haven’t noticed the changing gas prices at all. That’s because for almost a decade now, I’ve been a year-round bike commuter, first commuting using a regular bike, then primarily using ebikes and electric scooters. I even commute by bike with my kid every single day.
Transportation is typically considered one of the big three expenses for most families (with the others being housing and food). Since it makes up a big chunk of our income, doing anything to cut down our transportation costs can make a big difference when it comes to our finances.
But to do that, you have to be willing to do things differently. And most of us aren’t willing to do that – either because we think we can’t or because we’ve been put into a world that forces us to spend more than we should on transportation.
Here’s what I mean.
We Live In A Car Cult
Whenever I talk to people about getting around using something other than a car, the typical response I get back is that I can’t do that because of where I live.
Here’s what I’m thinking when I hear this response. One, you’re making up excuses. There’s not much I have to say here. If you want to use your car because that’s the way you prefer to get around, that’s fine. If you can afford it and you don’t care about the negative externalities or the inefficiencies of your car, I can’t stop you. I can only tell you that if you tried something else, you might enjoy it more and maybe do more good for others.
The second is that you really do live in a place where you can only get around with a car, which means that there’s an infrastructure failure in your city and you should be mad about it. You’ve been put in a situation where your city has looked at everyone and decided that this is the only way you can get around.
We live in a car cult. That’s a post that I read recently on Streets.mn, a local transportation blog in my city. There are some great points to notice in the car cult post, but the general takeaway to understand is that we don’t even notice the world we live in because it’s all around us and we’re just a part of it.
And the world didn’t become the way it is by accident. People and companies spent billions of dollars in marketing and lobbying and public relations to get us to believe this is the way the world has to look. These companies played us. And when we say we can’t use anything but a car to get around, we don’t even realize that we got played.
Read the Tweets below and take some time to think about it.
If you want to get out of the car cult, the first thing you have to do is admit is that you’re in one, that everything around you has been shaped by people with a lot more money than you, all designed to get you to do something they want you to do (buy more cars, subsidize cars, make things better for cars so that they can keep selling more cars).
I’ve been doing my best to get out of the car cult. I’m 35 years old and I’ve still never bought my own car. When my son was born, I learned how to get around with him without using a car (first by walking, then when he got older, by putting him on my bike).
It takes work to get out of the car cult. And most people won’t bother with it.
Your Car Is Expensive – But You Might Not Notice It
If you accept that you’re in the car cult – or you simply won’t wake up from it – then your car is essentially a tax. And as cheap as you think it might be to operate your car, the simple fact is it isn’t. We see high gas prices and we get mad because that’s the most obvious cost we see.
While gas is the most obvious cost associated with a car, most of the costs are hidden. If you don’t realize that and you’re living in a place that makes you use a car to get around, you’re essentially paying an extra transportation tax – one in which the money doesn’t go to the government. It goes to car companies and banks and other private corporations that have built themselves around your use of a car.
Let’s take a look at all of the costs associated with your car, some obvious, some less so:
- Capital Costs. This is an obvious cost. You have to buy a car. But then the value of your car goes down every year – and dramatically so early in the car’s lifespan. Most of us don’t realize it. And while just about every physical good loses value after you buy it, most things we buy aren’t $50,000 trucks.
- Insurance. This is another cost that many of us don’t notice. But it’s there, month after month. If you’re driving, you’re going to need insurance.
- Maintenance. Cars require maintenance. It’s usually pretty costly. My bike requires maintenance also. But even major repairs on my bike don’t reach the level of even fairly minor repairs on a car.
- Gas. Yes, everyone is going to complain about gas going up. It’s the most obvious cost with a car because you have to fill up your car when you drive.
- Parking. In some places, parking has a real cost. You might have to get a parking spot and pay a monthly rent for it. But even if you don’t pay for parking, you’re still paying for parking. Parking is never free. If you’re parking in your garage or driveway, you had to pay for that space. If you’re parking on the street, it’s costing someone money, either directly through taxes or indirectly through the lost opportunity cost of that space (i.e. it could be used for something more useful than storing a car).
A lot of these car costs are hard to see because they’re hidden. You don’t see a car depreciate. Maintenance isn’t noticeable until you need it. Parking costs are often invisible.
What’s worse, cars aren’t just expensive for owners. They’re expensive for everyone else too because they come with so many negative externalities. You get road damage. Pollution. They’re dangerous too, killing tens of thousands of people per year (indeed, car deaths are one of the leading causes of death among children).
These negative externalities are hidden costs that few of us notice, but they should be considered when you think about what a car costs. We don’t live alone in the world – our decisions affect other people too. When you think about what cars cost, it’s not just about gas.
Most Car Trips Are 3 Miles Or Less
One of the more interesting facts about the trips we make is that most of them aren’t that far. We tend to think that we’re all driving long distances in our cars, but the truth is, most of our car trips are relatively short distances – only a few miles.
When you realize this fact, using vehicles like bikes and scooters as transportation options makes more sense. Bikes are the ultimate range extender. They make what would be a 20-minute walk turn into 5 minutes. Something that would take an hour to walk only takes 15.
Most people also overestimate the speed advantage that a car has. Cars have a big speed advantage when you’re driving long distances but for short distances, especially through a city, the speed advantage is often only a few minutes or even non-existent when you factor in parking.
Take me and my son’s commute to daycare each morning. It’s a 5-mile bike ride, which is right in that zone where you’re not quite sure whether to bike it or drive it. I use an ebike to get around (more on that in the next section), which means this 5-mile ride takes me about 20 minutes. I could make this same trip in a car in about 12 minutes. But after you factor in the few minutes it takes for me to park, it’s more like 15 minutes. That’s a 5 minute time savings if I used my car – hardly a significant amount.
Are the 5 minutes I’d save worth all those car costs? I don’t think so.
An Ebike Can Be A Car
I was a regular, analog bike rider for a long time, but a few years ago, I bought an ebike – and it completely changed my life. I always liked getting around with a bike. But I knew that a bike was never going to replace a car for most people.
I’m convinced that an ebike is something everyone should have (or at least try out for a week). All of the excuses that come with a regular bike are erased with an ebike. It’s too hot. I’ll get too tired. I don’t want to get sweaty. None of these excuses apply with ebikes (or electric scooters, for that matter).
Ebikes are also uniquely made for hauling people and things. Whenever you add a trailer or a person to the back of a bike, you’re adding weight to it, which means you have to expend more energy to get yourself moving. But with an ebike, you don’t have to worry about that. No matter what I’m hauling, I’m able to get around just fine – just like I would with a car.
Here’s my setup moving me and my son around. During the warmer months, we use a bike seat that attaches to the rear rack of my ebike.
In the winter, I’ll put him in a Burley Trailer. I can then close the cover on it, shielding him from the elements. I’ve even added fat tires to the Burley so it can more easily roll through snow and ice in the winter.
And if I need to haul groceries, it’s a simple matter of loading them up into the Burley, which can essentially double as a cargo trailer. If I wanted a dedicated cargo trailer, I could get one too.
Buying Gas Sucks – So Don’t Buy It (If You Can)
Buying gas sucks. That’s why I try to make it so I don’t have to buy gas very often.
I know that not everyone can get by without their car. In many places, our cities have been designed in a way that doesn’t allow this. It’s a failure of our cities. Companies and lobbyists and marketing firms have tricked us for decades into thinking that only being able to get around with a car is the way we should live.
The point of biking and creating bike-friendly cities isn’t about getting rid of cars either. I’m not about getting rid of cars. I’m about giving people choices. Because if someone wants to bike (or scooter or skateboard or whatever) and they can’t do it, that means they weren’t given a choice.
For a lot of people, transportation makes up 10-25% of their monthly expenditures. And when we don’t have choices about how we get around, our transportation expenses become a monthly tax – a cost we have to pay just to live in society.
We can change this. Get a bike. Buy an ebike and see if it changes your life the way it changed mine. Try other modes of transportation if you want (electric scooters, electric skateboards, One Wheels). If you want to change anything, you can only do it by going out there and trying to change things.