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.
I LOVE this article. I now work from home 100% of the time and have given up my vehicle. My wife has one for her work and my daughter has one to commute to her university. I plan my vehicle needs around their schedules. By giving up my vehicle I have saved $525/month (gas, payment, insurance) for the past seven months. It has been a huge plus to my monthly budget and allowed me to deposit extra money into emergency savings. My town has greatly upgraded walking and biking paths so I am able to get to nearby stores if I’m stuck in a pinch – – it’s no more than 1.5 – 2 miles.
As an aside… watching people complain about gas prices while they sit in their Yukon XL on line at Starbucks to by a $7 coffee is nauseating.
Financial Panther says
The drive-thru coffee line – truly amazing.
I really hate that I’ve moved to a town where I have to have a car, or it takes an unreasonable amount of time to get to work (car= 15-20 minutes. buses=1 hour 15 to 1 hour 30, IF they are running on time- they are notorious for not doing that. Bike is supposedly an hour, but that doesn’t count the interstate bridge of 1.5 miles length that you have to walk the bike on, nor accounts for the fact that sometimes I’m not finished work until the pedestrian lane on said bridge is closed for the evening. Also that bike route takes you through the former murder capital of the US). I got the best car I could afford- an old Mitsubishi with 40+ mpg- but I would never have chosen to live here if my husband didn’t already own the house and/or was open to moving.
Trying to make the most of it with the garden space, hoping one day can not have to go to work as much, and I can stay here more. I will say that getting the car has opened up some new work opportunities here and there, so there is that. If I have to have it trying to make the most of it.
Financial Panther says
The fact that the only way to get somewhere is via a bridge that only cars can use is exactly the problem I’m talking about. That’s an infrastructure failure.
How many miles do you need to commute? If it’s an hour bike commute, it’s probably like 12 miles right? An ebike can do 20 mph, means you can cover that distance in 36 minutes.
Calling it a ‘car cult’ is a strech. And I’d rather commute in a big gas guzzler suv for safety reasons vs a meager bike primarily for safety reasons.
Financial Panther says
I think you just sort of proved my point. Think about what you just said. You drive a big SUV for safety reasons. What does that say about the world that was created around you that you need to drive a giant to feel safe. And should we be happy with that?
If I had to wear body armor and carry a machine gun every time I went outside for safety reasons, would that be okay? Because I wouldn’t be happy with a world where I needed to do that to feel safe.
Also, driving an SUV for safety might be safe for you (arguably). It’s definitely not safe for anyone else though!
America is the absolute definition of a car cult. Stay at home moms driving around town in Range Rovers, co-workers commuting 150 miles a day in gas guzzling SUVs and the entire auto industry in America literally pushing and building larger gas engine vehicles vs. smaller hybrid, diesel or electric cars. Travel through any other part of the world and it is clear America is a car cult with a wanton disregard for encouraging and creating a more environmentally-friendly transportation environment.
Luna Potter says
There are definitely exceptions to those who need a car and those who can live without one. As you stated, there are some who need a car for a lack of infrastructure that supports biking.
There are also exceptions like farmers or homesteaders who have large plots of land and haul large loads in their vehicles where using a bike, bus, or walking would be impractical.
There are medium to large families that have more small children than could be transported readily in a bike trailer and have larger loads of groceries, etc. to carry than a bike trailer could adequately handle.
There are resellers who haul large loads of items to rehome back from their sources to run their business. They also haul more packages to mail out daily than biking could handle.
Most businesses require vehicles to transport supplies, etc. It would seem that certain areas of the country that have extreme weather events would also necessitate arriving at your destination quickly to reach safety.
It would seem that your solution is only practical for commuters in densely populated areas who have small families or are single and have good enough health to get around without a vehicle, excluding the elderly and those with mobility issues.
I think it’s wonderful that we have options available for those who live in certain circumstances that permit biking, walking, and public transport as a viable options. I think it’s also great that those whose circumstances deviate from those circumstances have other ways to travel. Hybrids and biodiesel vehicles are definitely a great way to assist mitigating costs of car ownership. They are just launching the first hybrid truck! Hopefully SUVs or minivans are next.
I would disagree about what can be hauled on a bike. I’ve seen people hauling a washing machine, have friends that will transport 3 kids at a time, and have a local brewery that delivers half barrel kegs of beer. I’ve also read blog posts regarding a group of volunteer movers in Portland that only use bikes. I personally hauled a pile of 10 bikes once about a mile from an apartment to my local bike co-op.
As for farmers, at least they normally don’t have a commute and probably could share large vehicles with other farmers to save costs and resources for everyone.
Regarding safety, I agree that my biggest concern while biking are the large vehicles that often drive to fast.
Financial Panther says
I think there’s often a misunderstanding about what I want the world to look like. I’m not about getting rid of cars. There are legitimate reasons why you need to use a car. What I’m against is when we create a world where you have to use a car and you get no choice to use a bike, walk, or anything else
People who live in subdivisions in the burbs are in a place where you can only get around with cars because roads are too big, there’s a lack of infrastructure, etc. That’s what I’m against.
Dragons on Fire says
Great post. We are finishing up a trip to Spain and have loved walking or taking public transportation everywhere. At the beginning of our trip I commented that I wish our cities had developed differently in the US. Our neighborhood at home is not the best for walking or biking, but we do try to run some errands at close by locations without a car. We have both been retired for over two years, so we are thinking about getting rid of one of our cars. The pandemic showed that we really don’t drive a lot and could easily get by with just one car.
And if people are complaining about gas prices in the US, in Spain it is almost $8 a gallon in some of the cities!
Financial Panther says
Keep those gas prices high! That’ll incentivize alternative modes of transportation.
How about bike thefts? I had two bikes (one pretty expansive another cheap). I used the best protection but it didn’t help 🙁
Financial Panther says
I use a Kryptonite New York chain lock (it’s the orange one). Seems to do the job. But you’re right, usually I don’t leave my bike out of my sight for extended periods. I usually work from coffee shops or other places with big windows where I can physically see my bike from inside.
If you can’t store your bike inside, I’d recommend seeing if there are bike lockers you can rent. Anything to keep it out of sight.
My daughter had a $750 bike on her college campus for four years – these are notorious places for stolen bikes as they sit out overnight, during classes, etc. without anyone watching. The locals know there are literally a few thousand bikes just hanging around – many without a decent lock. I couldn’t tell you the name of the lock, but we bought one for about $125 when the bike was purchased. No issues the entire four years. Most bike thieves don’t want to screw around trying to cut off a super strong lock. They are looking for the cheap lock that can be cut quickly.
Great Post Kevin, I’d like to find a way to commute via bike more often. I dont want to make excuses, because it truly could be done, even in the rural area I live in. Fortunately, I have a car thats paid off, and minimal extra expenses related to the car. I commend you for being so vigilant about bicycle commuting, and the fact that you are great example for your son!