[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Auto Costs Versus Bike Costs
The cost of operating the average automobile and the average bicycle, including indirect and hidden costs, the money saved per hour by cycling, and the net average speed of traveling by car.

Why is determining true automobile costs important? How can the actual operating costs for an automobile be determined? What are the government figures for direct auto costs? How much does the average passenger vehicle cost per year in direct costs, including income and sales tax? What does the US passenger fleet cost per year to operate in direct costs, how much gas does it burn, and how many miles does it travel? What are some of the hidden and indirect costs of motor vehicles? Why do these estimates vary so much? How much does it cost to operate a passenger vehicle in Boston? What subsidies support gasoline use? How much would gasoline cost if all associated costs were included? How much does riding a bike cost? How does the cost of operating a bike directly compare with the cost of operating an SOV? What are realistic average speeds for automobiles? How much does one "earn" by riding a bike? Is an automobile actually faster than a bicycle if we include costs? What is the net effective speed of a car? How do vacation costs, automobile vs. bicycle, compare? What are the other benefits of traveling by bike rather than by motor vehicle?


Bike Pages Home Page

The Cyclist Lifestyle

Bike Commuting and Transportation

Bicycle Camping and Touring

Cycling Health and Fitness

Bicycling Advocacy

Bicycle Traffic Safety

Basic Skills for Cyclists

Cycling Humor and Tales

Bicycling Surveys and Statistics

Links to Other Cycling Sites

Comments on This Page

Auto Costs Versus Bike Costs

The cost of operating an automobile has intrigued me since I started riding a bike as an adult.  From asking owners, I estimated in 1965 that a car cost about 25¢ a mile to operate, which caused a fellow student to scream at me.  In the late 70's, when I was an owner, I figured the operating cost at 14¢ a mile, which was unrealistically low.  We tend to believe what we want to believe.

Why True Automobile Costs Are Important

Discovering the true cost of using a car is more important than just satisfying idle curiosity. In the late 70's, I found myself unable to save money because I miscalculated how much my vehicle was costing. In 1986, I talked with a neighbor who was driving his pickup a hundred miles every day to work for $5.00 an hour, work being hard to find at that time. He had never thought about calculating how much it cost him to drive. But even the roughest figures make it doubtful that his $40.00 daily pay, after taxes and work-related expenses were deducted, would even cover his vehicle costs, let alone compensate him for his efforts. He would have been ahead to have stayed at home. Many people accept long driving times for higher pay, but do they actually sit down and calculate how much their true pay is after subtracting automobile costs and including their driving time into their hours of work? That long drive might result in a lower net hourly income.

Misleading information encourages people to believe automobiles are less expensive than what they actually are. Automobile ads love to claim only $199 per month, ignoring the down payment and other unavoidable costs, and motorists love to claim they can travel for just a few cents per mile, ignoring the cost of everything except gasoline. A Saturn ad went further, claiming that jogging cost 34¢ a mile and was more expensive than driving a Saturn which cost 33¢ a mile. False figures like these encourage automobile use and discourage walking, cycling, and public transportation.  They also encourage public spending to be applied to automobile transportation over other means. And finally, they encourage a sedentary lifestyle and environmental damage.

Some cyclists have told me that I shouldn't even argue the cost issue, as it will do nothing to encourage people to ride. I doubt if anyone is going to completely change his or her way of life from an analysis of the costs alone, but changing one's basic perception can be a major step. In any event, it is better to speak a word for the truth than to allow a lie to pass.

Direct Costs for Your Automobile

Determining the direct costs for operating your own automobile or bicycle is not difficult if you keep careful records. The costs are:  1) Purchase cost (including taxes) minus final value divided by years that the vehicle is owned. As an alternative, you can use the estimated depreciation for each year, which makes the first years of ownership more expensive.   2) Insurance on the vehicle or arising out of the vehicle.  3) License fees and tags, plus any other yearly vehicle taxes.  4) Financial charges.  If you want to, you can allow monthly payments to represent #1 and #4 combined, if you also include the initial down payment (or trade-in), subtract out the final trade-in value, and divide by the number of months. This method makes the payment years more expensive, but then many people never quit paying for one car before purchasing another.  5) Gas and oil.  6) Maintenance and repairs.  7) Tires.  8) Parking and toll fees, traffic and parking fines.  9) Extra items purchased to go with the vehicle.  Then you also need to keep a record of how much driving you do each year.

Average Direct US Automobile Costs

The average figure for a passenger automobile is published by the government each year. I found the following figures in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, 12th edition, 2000, which can be found in most libraries. When I sought these figures in the mid 80's, I found a high average of 50¢ and a low average of 25¢ per mile.  When I looked again in 1997, only one average figure was given, 45¢ a mile, but this was actually information from 1993. This time, there was a chart covering a number of years, but the latest data was for 1997. As these costs increase over time, one must assume that the current average is somewhat higher. Please note that these figures include items #1 through #7 but not #8 (parking costs, tolls, and fines) or #9 (extra items purchased for the vehicle), so the actual total direct cost would be higher.  In addition, these figures do not include indirect and hidden costs, which will be discussed below.

US Automobile Costs
1993 Figures
1997 Figures
Fixed Yearly Costs
Depreciation $2,883 Depreciation $3,268
Insurance 724 Insurance 809
License/Registration 183 License/Registration 220
Financial Charges 696 Financial Charges 793
Total Fixed Costs* $3,584 Total Fixed Costs* $4,228
Mileage-Based Yearly Costs
Gas and Oil 6.0¢ Gas and Oil 6.6¢
Maintenance 2.4¢ Maintenance 2.8¢
Tires .9¢ Tires 1.4¢
Total Variable Costs 9.3¢ Total Variable Costs 10.8¢
Total 1993 Costs 45.14¢ Total 1997 Costs 53.08¢
Source: American Automobile Manufactures Association, Inc.
* NOTE: The total is not the sum, reason unknown.

Yearly Direct Automobile Costs in 1997

To calculate the cost per year for the average automobile, we have to know what the average mileage is, and the Statistical Abstracts provides a figure of 11,600 miles for cars for 1997. This results in a total of $6,157. Please note that this cost, which does not include #8 and #9 above, is paid for with after-tax dollars, so to answer the question, how much income does it take to pay for this car for one year?, it would be necessary to determine the buyer's tax rate. If we assume a median income for the owner of the average car (and thus median taxes), then somewhat more than $8,400 per year in 1997, including both income and sales taxes.

What Would Current Direct Costs Be?

If the rate of increase has been the same between 1997 and 2002 as it was between 1993 and 1997, then the direct cost of operating the average automobile is now 63¢ per mile, the total yearly cost is $7,300 (provided the miles traveled have not increased), and the pre-tax income required is over $10,000. But this is speculation, as the rate of increase is not constant but varies greatly from year to year. Someone wrote and suggested that I should allow for current fuel costs, but they rise and fall too quickly for me to keep up, even if I had the other current costs to use with them. Besides, fuel and oil costs combined are only about 12 or 13% of the total.

Indirect and Hidden Automobile Costs

For a true appraisal of the total costs, there are indirect and hidden costs for motor vehicles that are not included in the above figures, which either the owner or someone else must pay. To illustrate, let's follow a car owner to work. She first goes out to her car. If it is in a garage, she either has to pay rent or she had to purchase the garage. If the garage is part of her house, the cost is even greater. If she parks in or uses a driveway, she had to pay that cost plus maintenance, or if she parks in the street, the city must bear the cost, which increases property or sales taxes. As she begins her drive to work, she travels on local streets and roads which are not paid out of her gasoline taxes but from sales or property taxes. The land set aside for public transportation many years ago has value and therefore a cost, but this cost has probably never been calculated. Nonetheless, it must show up somewhere, probably through higher property costs. (Have you ever noticed how real estate people like to call them high property values as if they are a benefit rather than a cost? They might benefit you when you sell, but not when you make mortgage payments or pay taxes.) On her way to work, she stops for gasoline. If her gas was produced in the US, the producer received federal subsides, oil depreciation allowances, and tax breaks. If it was produced overseas, the company probably still received some tax benefits and subsidies plus there were great costs involved in the use of military power and in the military hardware sent to foreign powers to ensure stability in the Middle East. All of these efforts lower the price at the pump, but they also increase income taxes. Because most oil is purchased abroad, her purchase is likely to affect the US trade balance, which has hard-to-figure long-term costs. Traveling on past the school, she notices that the police are monitoring for speeding. Motor vehicle collisions and human injuries and fatalities are expensive in themselves (and not all of the costs are compensated through insurance), plus they create a need for extra fire and emergency vehicles, which adds to local costs. To prevent these problems, the city pays for police to enforce the traffic laws, another expense. While waiting at a traffic light (a delay which also has costs), she begins coughing from the fumes from the car in front. Air pollution and its effects on people, animals, and plants is another hidden cost. Besides the pollution, carbon dioxide from vehicles is raising world temperatures and causing climate disruption, leading to other hard-to-figure costs which are borne world-wide. She next stops briefly at a supermarket for some food for lunch. She doesn't pay a parking fee for stopping there, but the cost is silently added to the price of her purchases. Large parking lots have other consequences, as they increase local solar heat, thus making cities hotter than they used to be and increasing air-conditioning costs, and they increase rain runoff, which can result in local flooding or expensive drainage projects and downstream flooding. She has a long drive to work because she wanted to avoid the noise and congestion of the city, caused mainly by motor vehicles. This problem has increased her distance from town and thus the cost and time of getting to work plus it has degraded the value of investments made downtown. Her extra distance from town also increases the costs of living, as all her services have to be provided over that distance. Her long drive means that she can't ride a bicycle or walk to work, and it also means that she leaves home early and gets home late, giving her little opportunity for exercise, thus contributing to her sedentary lifestyle, poorer health, and perhaps earlier death (or if she goes to a health club instead, that is an indirect cost as well). The time she loses in travel is also a cost. There are a lot of trucks on the road as rail traffic has declined due to reduced costs for operating on the roadway; however, the reason that the roadway is cheaper is because taxpayers (her) are picking up part of their tab. By moving our transport to roadways, fuel consumption has increased, which affects health and environment, and roadways have had to be upgraded, which increases their costs. She finally reaches work, parking in her usual spot, an expense which may be picked for by her employer but which is subtracted from her income nonetheless. If she should have trouble with her vehicle, her costs are included in the direct costs above, but the time she loses waiting for a tow and at the garage plus any worktime lost is an additional indirect cost. When one considers all of these indirect and hidden costs, it is easy to understand why they can be considerable, perhaps even greater than the direct costs.

Why Indirect and Hidden Costs Should be Calculated

This is not to say that if everyone rode bicycles or took buses to work that there would be no costs for those methods of transportation. Nor is it fair to assume that using an automobile has no benefits. However, it is rather unfair to assume that the 53¢ per mile that the average motorist paid in 1997 covers all the costs, because it most certainly does not. Because many of the costs are hidden, it is only by comparing the true total costs for different methods of transportation that one is able to determine the least expensive method. I think it's important that hard-to-calculate costs such as health, environmental quality, and sprawl are included, as these factors affect our living standards strongly.

Some Estimates of Indirect and Hidden Automoble Costs

On the Preserve Net web site, I found various estimates of how much gasoline would have to cost if it included all the indirect and hidden costs; these estimates ranged from $3.03 to $16.11 a gallon. There are good reasons why these figures vary so widely. First, indirect and hidden costs vary from one region, road, vehicle, and person to another. Second, many of these costs are either controversial and/or hard to compute, as has been pointed out. A greater reason for the disparity is that the various studies don't all count the same costs.  In particular, the highest figures include costs for personal medical expenses due to lack of exercise and due to injuries from collisions. If we accept this range of possible gasoline costs and use them to recalculate the 1997 figures, the average cost of operating a car per mile was between 63¢ and $1.33. If we compute the total cost of using the average car for one year in 1997, based on these figures, it would range from $7,283 to $15,445, meaning that between $1,125 and $9,288 in costs are indirect or hidden. While the owner of the vehicle would end up paying most of these costs through other means, many would be passed on to others.

Two studies have been published on the web with a more complete explanation of automobile costs.  The first, Road Kill: How Solo Driving Runs Down the Economy, was written by Stephen H. Burrington for the Conservation Law Foundation. In this study, primarily local costs were considered for operating various vehicles in Boston, Mass. and Portland, Maine. It also placed more emphasis on the costs for operating on different roads, pointing out that interstates and expressways are funded from gasoline taxes while local streets and roads are funded from property taxes. The cost of vehicle operation is greater for on local roads because they are not paid out of direct costs but must be added to the indirect and hidden category. Based on Boston local costs, an automobile with a single occupant could cost as much as 93.8¢ per mile on non-funded roads and as low as 60.3¢ per mile on expressways with low volumes of traffic. This source also provided figures for bicycle use, which I will supply later.

The International Center for Technology Assessment, in The Real Price of Gasoline, includes hidden and indirect costs not included in the CLF study. The first group of costs in this study are the tax subsidies, including the oil depletion allowance, fuel production credit, exploration and development write-offs, enhanced oil recovery credit, foreign tax credits, foreign income deferrals, accelerated depreciation, the resulting state undertaxation and reduced sales taxes, and the taxpayer relief act of 1997, which reduce the yearly costs of gasoline by $9 to $18 billion. The second group are made up of direct subsidies, such as money spent on transportation not funded from gasoline, research and development investments, export financing subsides, work by the Army Corp of Engineers, money for oil resources management, and pollution cleanup, totaling some $38 to $114 billion each year. The third group covers costs involved in protecting our oil supplies which are absorbed by the military, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the Maritime Administration, and local governments (who provide police, fire, and emergency services), totaling another $27 to $38 billion a year. The fourth group comprises social, environmental, and health costs, including the costs of local air pollution, uncompensated health problems, decreased crop yields, reduced visibility, damage to buildings, global warming, water pollution, noise pollution (the value of property decreases when the noise level is too high), and improper disposal, for a total of $232 to $942 billion. The fifth group tabulates the cost of urban sprawl, estimated to amount to $164 to $246 billion. Finally there are some miscellaneous costs, including travel delays, uncompensated accidents, subsidized parking, climate change costs, and costs created by our dependency on foreign oil, totaling between $191 billion to $474 billion dollars. All of these indirect and hidden costs when added together total some $559 billion to $1.69 trillion. If these costs were added to the price, gasoline would cost between $5.60 and $15.14 dollars per gallon. Using these figures, the average 1997 automobile would cost between 76.6¢ and $1.28 per mile to operate, for a total cost for one year of between $8,886 and $14,848, meaning that $2,729 to $8,721 of the costs were indirect or hidden.

Bicycle Costs

Now we have the problem of figuring out the cost of riding a bicycle, for which I have fewer figures. However, the subject is probably much less controversial. Since a bike has only 1/100th the weight of a car, logic would indicate a similar reduction in costs. However, bike tires are more expensive per mile than automobile tires, and the same can be said for some other bicycle components. On the other hand, some parts of a bike, such as the frame, brakes, and cranks, just never wear out. The cost of a bike to the public is very low as well. Bicycles cannot cause any measurable road damage because of their low axle weight, nor do they take up much road space. Bikes only require 1/28th the parking space of car, and cyclists usually park in otherwise unused areas.

My own costs for operating my bicycles per mile from 1986 to 1997 were very low because I used moderately priced bikes, bought chains and cogsets and other goods from flea markets, purchased low-price tires, and put 50,000 miles on the bikes in the eleven year period.  If both my bikes were junked in 1997 (I am still using both of them), the cost for using them would have been $700 for two bicycles, about $500 for replacing wheels, cranks, shifters, and chainrings, about $400 for tires, tubes, chains, cogsets, and other parts, and $400 for bike shop repairs, totaling $2,000.  This would have worked out to a crudely estimated cost of 4¢ per mile. However, my bikes weren't typical due to my low-cost parts and high mileage. Between when I made these estimates in 1997 and the end of 2001, even though tires (my biggest single expense) have been more expensive, my costs per mile actually traveled decreased because they didn't include the initial cost of the bikes, the cost of changing components to get what I wanted, or extensive bikeshop repairs. I have increased my total mileage by 25,000 miles with only the following replacements: tires and tubes as needed, patch kits, brake pads, handlebar foam, two seats, a bottom bracket, two rear axles, a rear carrier, two chains, two freewheels, a speedometer, some used headlights for my generator lights, bulbs, and a temporary inexpensive headlight which quit working within a couple of weeks. Not counting the tires and tubes, the total expense was under $250, and the tires and tubes could not have been more than $410, assuming a rear tire every 1,000 miles, a front tire every 4,000, a new tube with every tire (of course, I actually got more miles out of tubes and tires than that). That's a cost of 2.64¢ per mile for the last four and a half years.

For a while, I had no other figures on which to base the cost of operating a bicycle. However, in discussions within the newsgroups rec.bicycles.misc and rec.bicycles.soc in 1998 and in April 1999, cyclists provided figures which showed that their newer and more expensive bicycles cost between 9¢ and 12¢ per mile to operate.  Even more recently, I discovered the professional estimates for the personal, governmental, and societal costs of traveling by bicycle provided in Road Kill: How Solo Driving Runs Down the Economy. These bring the total cost of cycling to the individual, to the government, and to the society to from 11.5¢ to 12.8¢ per mile, with more than 3/4ths of those cost paid by the owner. Note that the governmental and societal costs of cycling are primarily due to accidents (1.8¢ per mile) and parking (1.0¢ per mile). Note that the following figures are the highest Boston figures for SOV (single occupant passenger motor vehicle) and bicycle travel.

Car vs. Bike Costs SOV Costs Bike Costs
Depreciation/financing 20.1¢ 4.5¢
Insurance 12.1¢ n/a
Registration/licensing/taxes 1.3¢ n/a
Gasoline/oil 6.8¢ n/a
Repairs/parts/tires 3.3¢ 3.1¢
Parking - user paid 4.7¢ n/a
Parking - home 15.7¢ .6¢
Total User Costs 66.5¢ 9.6¢
Total Government Costs 9.8¢ .7¢
Total Societal Costs 17.4¢ 2.3¢
Total of All Costs 93.8¢ 12.8¢

The Profit from Cycling

If someone choses to use a bicycle for all transportation rather than a car, then the person can be said to have saved whatever money the car would have cost minus the expense of the bike. We can even figure these savings as wages if we divide the total savings by the extra amount of time required to travel by bicycle. To calculate these savings, we can use the cost per mile of operating a car, first supplying the direct costs in 1997 and then the various projections of what the gasoline costs would be if indirect and hidden costs were included. This list also includes my suggested current direct cost of 63¢ per mile for operating an automobile, which is the same as the second lowest projection using indirect and hidden costs (NOTE: if the 63¢ figure were correct for 2002, we would have to increase the various estimates based on the price of gas as well). We next have to compare the speed of the car with the speed of the bike.  Many people claim that they average 60 mph everywhere they go in their cars, which is impossible or illegal, unless they are among the few that live, work, and shop right next to an interstate. Nonetheless, I will include this highly unlikely figure. Next, I think that 45 mph is a fairly reasonable average speed for country driving, so I use this for the next comparison.  In mixed urban and rural driving, on the other hand, 25 mph is probably a reasonable speed.  Urban driving would be even slower. Hugh Smith of San Jose, California, installed a timer on his vehicle that measured the hours the engine was running over an eleven year period (125,000 miles) and found he averaged just 17 mph during all that time (including both long trips and times when he was stopped). In downtown areas, the traffic crawls, and some people do most of their travel in this zone, where average speeds have been stated to be 13 mph.  In the chart below, I included these speeds for high-speed, country, mixed, and downtown driving.  To perform my calculations, I subtracted the time spend traveling by bike from the time spent traveling by car, so the "wages" are calculated on the difference in time. (NOTE: No attempt was made to compensate for the efficiency of the motor vehicle at the various speeds, which would somewhat alter these figures.)

The Wages of Cycling
(bike vs. car, bike use figured at 12¢ an hour)
  60 mph car
15 mph bike
45 mph car
15 mph bike
25 mph car
12.5 mph bike
13.3 mph car
10 mph bike
Gas $1.29
53¢ per mile
$ 8.20 an hour $ 9.20 an hour $ 10.30 an hour $16.40 an hour 1997 prices and costs
60¢ per mile $ 9.60 an hour $10.80 an hour $12.00 an hour $19.20 an hour Boston cost, freeway
Gas $3.03
63¢ per mile
$ 10.20 an hour $ 11.50 an hour $12.80 an hour $20.40 an hour 2002?
Lowest est.
Gas $5.60
76.6¢ per mile
$12.90 an hour $14.54 an hour $16.20 an hour $25.80 an hour Lowest CTA est. cost
Gas $6.81
83¢ per mile
$14.20 an hour $16.00 an hour $17.80 an hour $28.40 an hour OTA est. cost
94¢ per mile $16.40 an hour $18.50 an hour $20.50 an hour $32.80 an hour Highest Boston est. cost
Gas $15.14
$1.28 per mile
$23.20 an hour $26.10 an hour $29.00 an hour $46.40 an hour Highest CTA est. cost
Gas $16.11
$1.33 per mile
$24.20 an hour $27.20 an hour $30.30 an hour $48.40 an hour Highest OTA est. cost
  Mostly freeway Light traffic or few stops Probable US average City traffic  

Thus we see that cycling is worth between $8.20 and $48.40 an hour.  Ready to quit your current job?  Remember that these savings do not have to be taxed and so should be considered post-tax income. And I ignored the situations where traveling by bike is quicker than traveling by car (which makes the pay per "hour" infinite). Inasmuch as the average single person makes less than $10.00 an hour after taxes, travel time by bicycle is as profitable for the average person as work time.

Net Effective Automobile Speed

We could figure this another way, that is by effective vehicle speed, and I have to thank Wayne Pein for bringing it to my attention; his own article on the subject was reprinted in the Chainguard e-mail list on March 1, 1999 (no longer available), and it was partially based on an article by Brad Morgan who was following an idea suggested by Ivan Illich, the Austrian social critic. However, Henry Thoreau was the first to state this idea in 1854; in Walden, he compares walking to taking the train and points out that while one person is earning the day's wages necessary to pay for the ticket, another person could walk the distance in less than day's time.  So the walker would be arriving while the train traveler was still working for his pay.  Thoreau also points out that the walker would be having an memorable trip and gathering valuable experience while the other was not, although he fails to point out the health and environmental benefits.  Thoreau's argument still works today if we compare traveling by bicycle to traveling by car, provided we use Thoreau's rule "the cost of something is the amount of life that must be given in exchange for it."

In order to make our comparison, we will have to determine first what our lives are worth. Using a very conservative figure, I will assume here that our lives are worth no more than the pay we are willing to accept. If a person is making $27,000 or so, that person will earn about $10 an hour after taxes (median tax rate 27%). Since the median salary is $21,000 for single women and $26,000 for single men, I assume this is a somewhat higher than average wage to go with our average vehicle.

In the following table, some of the estimated costs for operating an automobile have been plotted against various average speeds, the highest corresponding to a trip traveled mainly over expressways, the second to country driving, the third to the average US speed, and the fourth to driving in congested (downtown) areas. In each case the speed has been reduced by the cost necessary to pay for the trip, assuming an after-tax wage of $10 per hour. (Again, I did not try to compensate for the efficiency of the motor vehicle at the different speeds.) Note that in all of these cases, the speed of the automobile is no greater than that of a bicycle. The slowest speed is not much above my 4.5 mph walking speed (only expense: shoes, $10 per year).

Net Speed by Automobile When Costs Are Calculated as Time
  60 mph 45 mph 25 mph 13.3 mph  
53¢ per mile 14.4 mph 13.3 mph 10.8 mph 7.8 mph 1997
60¢ per mile 13.0 mph 12.2 mph 10.0 mph 7.4 mph Boston costs, freeway
63¢ per mile 12.6 mph 11.7 mph 9.7 mph 7.2 mph 2002?;
lowest est.
76.6¢ per mile 10.7 mph 10.1 mph 8.6 mph 6.6 mph Lowest CTA est.
83¢ per mile 10.0 mph 9.5 mph 8.1 mph 6.3 mph OTA est.
94¢ per mile 9.0 mph 8.6 mph 7.5 mph 5.9 mph Highest Boston
$1.33 per mile 6.7 mph 6.4 mph 5.8 mph 4.8 mph Highest OTA
  Mostly freeway Light traffic or few stops Probable US average City traffic  

To make this an entirely fair comparison, we must perform the same calculations on bicycle speed. Since the cost of maintaining a bike is so much lower and since bike speeds are lower, the reduction in effective speed is much less. These figures assume a cost of 12¢ per mile, which is an average of the high and low Boston figures.

Net Speed by Bicycle When Costs Are Calculated as Time
  18 mph 15 mph 12.5 mph 10 mph  
12¢ per mile 14.8 mph 12.7 mph 10.9 mph 8.9 mph Ave. Boston est.

A Vacation Travel Comparison

Some who would admit that a bicycle has utility around town would deny that it has any value on longer trips. A five-hundred mile trip can be completed in a day in a car but would take a week on a bicycle. Surely a long-distance automobile trip is more economical! However, the advantages of traveling on a bicycle are even greater on long trips. Many bicyclists travel around the world; how many motorists could afford to do so? A cyclist avoids many expenses that a motorist can not: the bike can travel on a boat, train, bus, or plane for little or no additional cost, while such fees for motor vehicles are often prohibitive; the cyclist finds free camping and receives offers to stay at people's homes along the way, while the motorist must stay in an expensive motel or not so cheap campground; and finally, the cyclist can cook inexpensive meals while the motorist is more likely to eat at the more costly restaurant. By using such economies, teachers, students, the unemployed, and the retired can afford to take long, inexpensive bicycle vacations. As an example of how cheap bicycle vacations can be, I can report the following figures from four of my long trips: in 1966, $2.14 per day or 3¢ per mile; in 1988, $6.40 per day or 9¢ per mile; in 1990, $11.30 per day or 19¢ per mile; and in 1998, $8.85 per day or 13¢ per mile. My 1990 trip was more expensive because I took so many photos on that trip; without the cost of the photos, the trip cost $7.88 per day or 13.2¢ per mile. On my most expensive trip per day and per mile, I spent 1/3 of my nights in motels and cooked very little; as a result, this 1995 trip cost over 50¢ per mile and over $35 per day, which is still cheaper than any automobile trip. These costs are computed on a different basis than used earlier: they include all expenses during the trip, but no attempt was made at proration. The prorated costs would not be much higher as my most expensive item (my tent) has cost just 33¢ per use and as my costs on the trip included tires, freewheels, and parts replacement plus many items used later, including tools, clothing, and gear. Of course, some cyclists prefer restaurants and motels; their expenses are higher per mile than if they had taken a car. It is also possible to find free places to sleep when traveling by motor vehicle, but it is much, much more difficult, as I know from first-hand experience.

Inasmuch as several people have complained about my costs for traveling by bicycle, I have found a means of discovering other cyclists' costs. The range is very great: 11% spent less than ten dollars a day, spending nothing except for their food and cooking their own meals; 20% spent between ten and twenty dollars per day, which would allow for some restaurant or fast food eating and some campgrounds or motels; the largest group, or 27% spent between twenty and forty dollars a day, which meant that they were probably cooking their meals and camping in campgrounds most of the time. Looking at cost per mile, 5% spent 10¢ per mile or less, 10% spent 10 to 20¢ per mile, 24% spent 20 to 40¢ per mile, and 28% spent 40 to 80¢ per mile. Since these cyclists, like me, did not bother to compute average bike costs (even though they paid many bike costs on the trip), we could add as much as 12¢ a mile to these figures, and then we would have to prorate camping equipment, but it's still very difficult to believe that a motorist could travel as cheaply as this, even if we consider direct automobile costs alone. Of course, many cyclists, who stayed in motels and ate in restaurants, spent as much as a motorist or more, with 39% spending over $40 a day and 33% spending over 80¢ per mile, some spending several times these amounts, but their greater expense was not caused by riding a bicycle.

Final Quibbles

I feel I must deal with some objections that I don't take seriously but that keep being sent to me. First, some argue that whatever savings are gained through riding a bicycle are lost through a greater consumption of expensive food. Over the years, my bicycle mileage has varied greatly from year to year, but my diet and food costs have remained the same, except on bike trips, and even there the costs are far below car costs. For instance, I currently travel 28 miles round trip to town to purchase ten dollars worth of groceries for a few days, but ten dollars would not cover the cost of such a trip in the average car. I have explained how to have an excellent, healthy diet at low cost elsewhere, but such an explanation has no place here. Second, others argue that the food that cyclists eat creates a greater pollution problem than the gasoline that motor vehicles use. I have answered this at length elsewhere, but to answer in brief, the argument has no merit: a bicycle requires just 1/50th the energy of an automobile, and the agricultural industry uses a fraction of the fuel consumed in the US. Third, some argue that expensive bicycle clothing must be added to the costs. However, my own bicycle clothing is no more expensive than my other clothing and lasts just as long. Finally, most people feel that their auto costs are lower than average. To some extent, this may be like everyone seeing themselves as more good-looking than average, and to some extent, it is probably true, as those who think about costs are more inclined to be careful with them. It is most certainly true that by purchasing used automobiles, one can considerably reduce the cost per mile and/or by driving fewer miles per year, one can greatly reduce the yearly costs. Still, these figures are true for the US fleet average, and the direct costs come straight from the American Automobile Manufacturer's Association, not from some anti-car group.

One common criticism has somewhat more merit: several have argued that I should calculate the costs of someone who owns an automobile but who bicycles to work instead. If Jesus were alive today and spoke today's language, he would probably say, "Unless you undergo a paradigm shift, you won't be saved at all." The mere purchase of a bicycle and clothing will not result in any savings: you must change your lifestyle to realize any benefit. Most of the costs of an automobile are fixed, indirect, societal, or hidden; the immediately apparent expense (mainly the cost of gasoline) is less than the cost of riding a bike, which is exactly why so many see the bike as being more expensive and which is exactly why I wrote this article. The primary individual benefit for the person who prefers to pay for the car but take the bike anyway lies in the health benefit. However, there would be eventual hard-to-estimate financial benefits from the car lasting longer. My old van survived for 24 years because I used it rarely. Many cyclists have saved major costs by letting the bike be the second vehicle in their family. Another way to save is by living car-free and using mass transit, car-sharing, taking a cab, walking or even renting a car on those occasions when a bike is not adequate.

The Primary Benefits of Not Driving a Motor Vehicle

The average person in the world spends 66 minutes per day in travel (source: Scientific American), independent of the method of travel. Those who chose to travel by automobile simply find jobs farther from their homes or buy new homes farther from their jobs to escape from the noise and air pollution of other people's automobile travel. Sixty-six minutes a day of healthy exercise through walking or cycling is sufficient to provide all the blessing of exercise. The $6,150 in direct costs saved each year through not paying for the average car would also make a great addition to retirement. On the other hand, 66 minutes a day of pumping carbon dioxide into the air by everyone who can afford to own a car will ensure that global warming will bring misery to us all. Which do you prefer, a healthy lifestyle or a sick planet? It's really your decision. At least we can now quit fooling ourselves with the delusion that traveling by automobile is saving us time.


I have been fairly amazed by several environmental or cycling advocates who have written me to argue that motor vehicle travel is not really all that expensive. One argument is "I live so far from where I work that I would never get there if I rode a bike." These statements show to me that these advocates don't practice what they preach. They are advocating for a clean environment or for bicycling with their mouths and advocating motor vehicle use with their money. I suggest that they put their money where their mouth is. Rather than burning a large portion of their income out of their tail pipes, they should learn how to live more simply and frugally. By doing so, they would benefit the environment, their health, and their savings accounts. They might find their advocacy improving as well.

The fact that these advocates were in denial suggests to me that others might not recognize the implications of what I have been saying, especially since I have provided a full range of costs for driving an automobile. Let's use as an example the same woman we looked at earlier. We will say she was earning $27,000 a year in 1997, with a car of average cost and an average number of miles per year, 11,600, or about 220 miles per week. Her direct costs are about 53¢ per mile, with a total post-tax cost of $6,150, and her taxes are 27% of her income, or $7,290. Thus half of her income has gone to taxes and direct car expenses. But a good bit of her federal, state, and local taxes are also going to support her car. Her rent or mortage payment is also helping support her car. Her income from work is reduced by the cost of her parking space (a parking deck space can cost as much as $35,000) and by the extra health insurance required for a sedentary society (health costs amount to a trillion dollars every year). She also faces a risk of an automobile accident (cost $150 billion per year, a good bit of which is not covered by insurance). Her purchases are more expensive due to businesses subsidizing parking costs. Her quality of life and/or travel time are increased due to noise pollution, congestion, and pollution caused by motor vehicles. All these things add up. Without a motor vehicle or any of these additional charges, she would have up to $14,848 in additional income or the equivalent (some of these things, such as the health benefit, can not be bought or sold, but I think they are actually the most valuable), which would effectively double her income. Of course, she would still have the expense of getting to work, but with that much more income, perhaps she wouldn't need to work 40 hours a week anyway. I think there are healthier alternatives for everyone, which I discuss everywhere on this website.

While it make take many, many years to convince the various governments and businesses to recognize that subsidizing automobile use is not in their long-term best interest, those who are wise can begin to reduce or eliminate their own automobile expense and to improve their own health and income through regular bicycle use. Inasmuch as riding a bicycle is as financially rewarding as time spent at work (using the average bike speed, the average car speed, the average direct automobile expense, and the median income), it seems to be that riding the bike ought to be as important as going to work. After all, your health is not going to improve while sitting in front of a computer. And you will have more free time ultimately, not less, through bike commuting. In my own case, I have been able to retire on an income of less than $5,000 a year, which is more than sufficient because I no longer own a motor vehicle, even though I travel over 500 miles per month.


Should Cyclists be Paid to Use the Road?  A discussion of some of these costs, looking not at the amount but how cyclists could be compensated for not driving automobiles.


An Expensive Love Affair  Explains why a bike is a better bargain than a car.

America's Autos On Welfare: A Summary of Subsidiesby John Holtzclaw.   Various estimates of how much gasoline would cost if automobile travel wasn't subsidized.

Road Kill -- How Solo Driving Runs Down the Economy by Stephen H. Burrington. A thorough discussion of most the costs involved in operating an automobile in Boston, Mass. or Portland, Maine, including indirect and hidden costs that are passed on to the government and public at large.

The Real Price of Gasoline A careful study of the hidden subsides and other costs of gasoline use, which if added to the price at the pump, would raise the cost of gasoline to between $5.60 (conservative accounting) and $15.14 (full accounting).

Your Bicycle Is Faster by Brad Morgan, who was following an idea suggested by Ivan Illich, the Austrian social critic.

Land-Use, Climatic, Demographic, and Cultural Issues Affecting Utilitarian Bicycle Travel in the Triangle  by Steven G. Goodridge. Section four provides a chart comparing bike/auto costs for cyclists earning five, ten, and twenty dollars per hour.

John Synder has created an excellent spreadsheet for computing your own automobile and bicycling costs (it's in Excel format, but it will work with the spreadsheet furnished with works; just rename the extention or chose the .xls extension to open it). To download click here.

Comments | SECTIONS: | The New World | Writing | Thoreau | Home | Bike Pages |
DIRECTORIES: | Lifestyle | Commuting | Touring | Health | Advocacy | Traffic | Skills | Humor |Survey | Links |
ADVOCACY ARTICLES: | Newslist | Website | Auto Costs | Right | Far Right? | Pay? | Be Paid? | Carbon | Auto Depend | Warming | Helmets | Issues |Bikeways |
http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/advocacy/autocost.htm | Copyright © 2000 Ken Kifer | Extensive revision: January 24, 2002