As someone who is constantly looking for ways to save money, I wanted to run a little experiment comparing cycling and driving to work. Since I typically have a very short commute – from my bed to my desk – I took my chance while working in the Tulsa office this week. I was honestly a bit surprise by just how much money I wouldn’t save by biking 31 miles round trip for work.
When working from Tulsa I stay at my parents house and work in downtown Tulsa, which is about 15.5 miles away via bicycle and 15.3 miles via car – according to Google map’s best routes. I should say that this bicycle route it is a very nice one with dedicated bike trail for 95% of the trip and very safe roads in downtown Tulsa for the rest. If the only bike route was regular roads in Tulsa, I probably wouldn’t even consider the trip.
Some cities are just better prepared for cyclists than others, and that should be considered before you bike to work. For example, in Minneapolis, where I live, almost every road has a bike lane and drivers are very ready for cyclists. Just look at this comparison of bike trails in Minneapolis vs Tulsa. After moving from Tulsa, it is shocking how easy it is to bike anywhere in Minneapolis! In Tulsa, I would only bike to work if the route could be taken mostly by bike trails, which was true in this case.
Google estimated a total round trip cycle time of about 2.5 hours via bicycle and 45 minutes via car. Both of these estimates held mostly true, but this obviously changes pretty dramatically depending on weather and traffic. The drive and bike routes are almost the exact same distance, which made it a perfect experiment, and the bike route which is 95% dedicated bike trail may be one of the best bike routes to get to work. Below are two screen shots of the routes.
For the cost saving analysis, I compared having the costs of using only a bike or only a car – not a combination. One of the biggest unknowns and most important metrics was how many calories I would burn, but I think I got some pretty reliable numbers by using three different sources. Some online estimates suggest about 50 calories per mile of biking. As a second estimate, I actually did the bike route wearing my Garmin VivoSmart HR, which measured my heart rate and calorie burn and came up with 68 calories per mile. As a third source, I went and plugged my information into the calorie burn calculator at mapmyride.com and got 67 calories per mile – essentially matching my measured results. If I weighed about 40 pounds less and was in my normal weight range the calculator suggests I would have burned 51 calories per mile – essentially matching the original internet estimate. So, from three different sources we have pretty good confirmation that if I was at the appropriate weight I would burn about 51 calories per mile doing this, and it probably wouldn’t take too long doing this to get down to the appropriate weight.
Now I went ahead and calculated the price I spend per calorie each month using a combination of myfitnesspal.com and mint.com. Basically, my average cost per calorie is about $0.007/calorie. I did this by getting my monthly calorie burn and my average monthly grocery bill and and trying to isolate the costs due to me. There could be a lot of variation in this number depending on if I eat out, shop at ALDI (my favorite), or Whole Paycheck (my nightmare), but this estimate should be in pretty close.
Things would obviously change if I had a more expensive car, different route to work, invested the money not tied up in the car etc. After putting it all together, I was very surprised to find that driving was cheaper and required far less time. See my numbers below.
These numbers are all just estimates, but I think they are close enough to show that the cost savings – if there are any – from biking really aren’t that great. You may help save your health or the environment, which could be great reasons to do it, but in this case it really wouldn’t save that much money. In reality, even the saving the environment angle may not be that valid because by eating more you would purchase more food, most of which has a large carbon footprint to produce. I guess the lesson here is that you can relax and just enjoy whichever way you choose to get to work. Also, if you know this real Minneapolis bicyclist I saw a few days ago, please tell her I admire her dedication. What do you think? Are there any serious flaws with my analysis or ways to make it better?
The most impressive bicyclist I have ever seen.
- Parking is another very important thing to consider when analyzing your own costs. Thanks to leggypeggy for reminding me of that below.
- You may miss out on some major coolness points by driving. Thanks Michelle!
- The $/Calorie you spend is crucial to calculating the costs of biking, and there can be so much variation in it. Mine was about $0.007/Calorie. Some national estimates are much lower, but according to Gallup my spending is not that far off and may actually be below average! “Young adults’ average weekly food spending is $173, more than what older Americans say they spend.” That equates to about $173/7/2500 = $0.0098 per calorie which is higher than my personal estimate. Just because I am below the average though doesn’t mean I couldn’t do better by cooking at home more or shopping cheaper. Here is the Excel sheet with some of my math, Bike vs. Drive Costs.