Freedom Isn’t Free: The Economics of Transportational Bicycling by Tamia Nelson

Advocates of cycling sometimes posit that transportational bicycles are a great value when compared to automobiles, and therefore, it’s more cost-effective to replace your car with a bicycle. But in regions like the one where I live, the economics and practicalities of going car-free and using a bicycle for transportation aren’t straight forward. Here are the main characteristics of places like this:

  • Rural economy
  • Widely spaced population centers
  • Limited-to-no public transportation
  • Harsh, highly variable weather
  • Hilly or mountainous terrain
  • Few (if any) bike shops
  • Roads in poor repair

Going Car-Free in Rural Areas  If you live in a rural area where public transport is limited or non-existent, you’re going to face a few challenges when (make that if) you go car-free. Services are very widely distributed, for one thing. It’s not uncommon for doctors, hospitals, schools, stores, and places of employment to be over 20 miles away from home. The local bike shop? Er…What local bike shop? With the exception of tire tubes and patch kits in a few hardware stores and the local Walmart big-box, bike parts are strictly a mail-order proposition. Now add into the mix the burdens of rough roads, dangerous weather, and motorists who don’t expect (or welcome) bikes on the road, and you’ve got a constellation of factors which can dissuade all but diehard cyclists from turning to their bicycles for primary transportation, even if only part-time.

Start-Up Costs  Cost comparisons aren’t straightforward. To buy a bicycle you need cash or a credit card. If you wish to buy a car, loans are available to all but the worst credit risks. Not so for bikes. No cash and no credit card means no new bike. And buying a bike is only the beginning. It will have to be fitted out for commuting and shopping, and for anyone living in a rural area outside the sunbelt, this means, at bare minimum, a rear rack, grocery panniers, fenders, a rear-view mirror, a saddle that will remain comfortable on rides of several hours duration (and survive wet weather), an effective bike lock, a tire pump, spare tubes and a puncture kit, basic tools, lubes, and a helmet. Plus, if the bike is going to be used in poor weather or at night (as it almost certainly will be, at least some of the time), it will also have to be outfitted with good lights fore and aft. And let’s not forget the clothing you’ll need to remain warm or cool, dry and safe.

Operational Costs  This can add up to a considerable annual outlay, and the more miles the bike accumulates, the more maintenance it will need, particularly in snowy or wet regions. Tires, chains, brake pads, and cables take a lot of abuse anyplace where rain and snow figure prominently in the weather forecasts. At minimum, you’ll have to replace them every year. And if other drivetrain parts also have to be replaced as well—quite likely if you don’t check your chain for wear regularly—that’s an additional and costly expense. Hit a deep, steep pothole hard, or have an untimely encounter with man’s best friend, and you’ll probably need a new rim. And so it goes. Of course, if you can do your own repairs, you’ll save money. (Though the tools you’ll need won’t come cheap.) On the other hand, if you don’t have a local bike shop within walking distance, you will HAVE to do your own repairs. That requires a considerable outlay for tools and workshop space—ka-ching.

There’s more. The typical American car will be capable of carrying between four and six passengers, while a bike provides transportation for only one (unless it’s a tandem). Every adult in the household needs a bike if the family is to do without a motor vehicle. Double (or triple) ka-ching.

Terrain and Weather  Now let’s consider the practicalities of transportational cycling in rugged terrain and bad weather over long distances. Strong winds, rain, sleet, snow, and worst of all, freezing rain, are all common in the near north. This makes cycling unpleasant at best, suicidal at worst—you may be in control, but the same can’t necessarily be said of the motorists who share the road with you.

Travel times increase in bad weather, too, and this eats into the cyclist’s day. Once home after a sloppy commute, the bike will have to be wiped down, re-lubed, and made ready for the next day. If a mechanical problem presents itself because salty grit has gotten into the works, don’t plan on having free time to relax in the evening. Add anywhere from an additional 30 minutes to a couple hours for coping with the effects of bad weather—each and every day you ride.

Hills take their toll of energy and time when hauling heavy loads. So does stop-and-go traffic on busy village streets and long-distance circuits between all the stores which might need to be visited in one trip. By the time you’ve filled your panniers and trailer, you can find yourself hauling between 50 and 100 pounds. Even a fit cyclist using granny gears will be tired after sweating a load that large back home, particularly if there are more than a few easy hills on the way. Conclusion? Don’t count on doing much more on market-day than preparing to go shopping, riding to town, shopping, hauling everything back, putting everything away, and tending to bike and trailer afterwards.

Time Management  Suppose you work full time and live 15 miles from work. What day of the week do you do the shopping? Saturday? Sunday? Suppose there’s a three-day nor’easter this week, which happens to coincide with the weekend? No big deal, right? Just shop the next week? Well, maybe. Remember that your shopping list has now doubled. And suppose the following weekend’s weather is just as bad. What do you do then? I’m not exaggerating. This winter, the local roads were clear as few as a two days in a month, and then the deep cold set in. We’re talking temperatures below zero Fahrenheit. As daytime highs. What do you do when you get a flat on a ten-below-zero day when you’re hauling a hundred-pound load and home is still six miles away? You see the difficulties.

Accidents and Injuries  There are other impediments to full-time practical cycling in an area without public transportation. Accidents and injury can put a quick end to riding. Even a minor injury can take a cyclist off the bike. What then? How do you get to your doctor appointments? If you can grab a ride with someone, all well and good. But that’s not always possible. And of course, serious injury can mean prolonged incapacity. What then?

Feeding the Engine  Finally, let’s look at the cost of fueling a cyclist. You put gas or diesel into your car, but to fuel the engine of a bicycle you need calories in the form of food. Energetic cycling isn’t free, and believe me, transportational cycling in a rural area is energetic. But how much does this food-fuel cost?

I’ll attempt a very rough calculation. A few assumptions first: Assume your bike is your sole means of transport, that you can get everything done that needs doing (riding to and from work, shopping, etc.) with one hour a day in the saddle, and that you weigh 150 pounds and don’t want to lose weight. Further assume that you needed an average daily intake of 2400 calories to maintain your weight before your took up cycling. Now we get to the crux of the matter: An hour a day of reasonably vigorous riding will burn around 600 extra calories. This represents a 25-percent increase over your baseline. So if you spent USD100 a week on food before cycling, you’ll need to increase your monthly food budget by around USD100. With current gas prices, this would buy enough gas to drive 800 to 1000 miles in a reasonably fuel-efficient car. Surprise! “Economical” cycling carries a high price tag.

Of course, I’ve had to make some sweeping assumptions here, and as I’ve often been reminded, “assume” makes an ASS out of U and ME. But you’ve got to start somewhere. The details can surely be argued, but…

The Bottom Line  Cycling frees you from some of the burdens of car-ownership, but this freedom doesn’t come free. And that’s particularly true if you live in a rural area devoid of public transportation.

Don’t get me wrong. Transportational cycling is a viable option for some folks, even in rural areas. But it’s not without cost, and that cost—in the form of time, dollars, inconvenience, physical demands, and risks to life and limb—is high. Too high for many. So if the idea of giving up your car appeals to you, take time to weigh the costs and benefits carefully. You might decide that four wheels trump two after all, at least much of the time.

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For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.