According to the Brookings Institution, about 85% of American commuters drive to work alone or in carpools. That compares to 5.1% who use public transit, 2.7% who walk, and just 0.6% who bike. In larger cities, walking and transit get a much larger share of total commutes, but biking is still the laggard. And car commuting remains the overwhelming favorite, making up more than three-quarters of all trips even in major metro areas with long commute times.
As an enthusiastic cyclist and proponent of eco- (and wallet-) friendly transit alternatives, I find these numbers disappointing. However, I’m also a realist. Due to low population density and dispersed employment in the exurban belts around major U.S. cities, commuting by bike just isn’t a viable option for millions of American workers.
The U.S. Census reports the average American’s commute time is a manageable 25.4 minutes. However, the Washington Post claims that more than two million of us have daily commutes longer than 50 miles, and for 1.7 million, commutes take longer than 90 minutes.
Fortunately, millions of workers live in large, dense cities, or smaller communities and suburbs close to work. If you’re one of them, biking to work on a regular basis may be a viable alternative to driving. If you own a car primarily to drive to work, becoming a regular bike commuter may enable you to ditch your car altogether and use public transit, ridesharing or carsharing services, or your bike for all your transportation needs.
Commuting by Bike: Costs & Requirements
If you plan to regularly commute by bike, certain equipment and clothing can help make your experience easier and more tolerable. Depending on your current biking habits, you may already have some of this stuff. Location is everything: If you live somewhere with a wet, four-season climate, you need more equipment and clothing compared to riders in drier, milder places.
Here’s what you may need before your first commute. If you invest in most or all of these items, you can expect to pay between $315 to upward of $5,000, depending on your brand and quality choices. In many cases, the bike itself is the largest part of this investment.
1. Sturdy Bike
If your current bicycle is older or you just wouldn’t trust it on a long-distance, time-sensitive ride, it may be time to buy a new bike. Your chosen type depends on the nature of your route: If your commute never takes you off a paved road, a road bike may be fine. However, if you want to use your bike recreationally in rougher areas, a hybrid or mountain bike may be a better investment. Hybrid bikes have thicker, grippier tires and more supple frames than road bikes, making them useful on rougher tracks, but they’re not as versatile as mountain bikes.
To minimize your upfront investment without sacrificing quality, look for well-made used bikes at your local bike shop, search eBay for a highly rated local reseller, or try your luck shopping on Craigslist. If you do buy used, don’t finalize the deal without inspecting the bike in-person. Remember that any used bike needs to be in good enough shape to get you to and from your job on a regular basis.
New road bikes cost anywhere from $200 to more than $5,000, while used road bikes cost anywhere from $100 to more than $3,000. New hybrid and mountain bikes range in price from $250 to more than $5,000, while used versions run anywhere from $100 to more than $3,000.
Even if helmets aren’t required by law in your area, wearing one is important for your safety. The price runs anywhere from $20 to more than $100.
3. New Tires and Tubes
Start your commuting career off on the right foot with new tires and tubes, even if you don’t buy a new bike. By starting fresh, you won’t have to worry about the risk of prior wear and tear.
Tires vary based on size and the type and model of bike, but generally range in cost from $10 to more than $400. Tube cost ranges from $4 to more than $20.
With time, use, and temperature changes, bike tires lose air pressure. Carrying a bike pump at all times ensures you never have to ride on a half-flat tube, which could damage your wheel.
If traveling light is important, carry a pocket pump that compresses into a narrow cylinder. If you’d prefer just to keep a pump at home, a larger standing pump provides more power than a pocket pump. Just make sure your pump fits your tire nozzle. Cost for a pocket pump should run between $7 and $40, while a standing pump costs between $12 and $100.
5. Spare Tube
Flats happen. Rocks, nails, glass, and other types of debris can puncture your tire tube and temporarily end your bike ride. Fortunately, spare tubes are cheap and don’t take up much space. Even if you’ve never changed a tube before, the process is fast and straightforward. Ask someone at your local bike shop to demonstrate, or find an online tutorial, such as one offered by REI.
6. Headlights and Taillights
If you work full-time, you probably won’t be able to avoid low-light conditions. Headlights and taillights are mandatory in almost all jurisdictions. Even if they aren’t in your area, it’s not smart to ride down a darkened street without anything to warn drivers of your presence.
Your headlight should be strong enough to light the roadway a few seconds ahead of your bike. Your taillight can be dimmer, as its primary purpose is to alert approaching cars to your bike.
Buying a headlight-taillight combo is usually more cost-effective than buying separately. Cost ranges from $10 to more than $100.
7. Racks and Panniers
A rack and pannier setup allows you to carry spare bike equipment, clothing, and work items on the bike frame itself. The rack, a thick wire platform with supports, usually goes over the bike’s back wheel. Panniers are basically saddlebags that attach to one or both sides. Racks cost $20 to more than $80; panniers cost $30 to more than $110. If you’re looking for a more integrated solution, consider a spacious cargo bike like the Spicy Curry from Yuba Bikes. Yuba Bikes’ pedal-assist electric bike options are helpful for folks with long or hilly commutes, too, while still providing a great workout.
8. Bike Basket
Bike baskets are another option for carrying equipment and work gear. They typically attach to the bike’s front handlebars and frame. Though baskets can’t hold the same volume or weight as a rack and pannier setup, they’re a good alternative if you’re traveling light and prefer to distribute weight at the front of your bike. Cost ranges from $15 to more than $60.
If you’d prefer not to weigh down the back or front of your bike, a canvas backpack may be a viable alternative to racks and panniers. An overloaded backpack can move your center of gravity backward, potentially causing dangerous weight shifts. To avoid this, choose an adjustable backpack that fits snugly to your back without constricting motion. Cost ranges from $15 to more than $75.
Bike fenders are basically mud flaps for your bike. They attach to your front and back wheels and capture splash-up, reducing the amount of road grit, mud, dirt, and water that reaches your clothing. They’re especially useful if you plan to ride in wet conditions or won’t be changing your outfit when you arrive at work. Fenders cost $25 to $100, depending on type and brand.
Unless you can bring your bike all the way into your office, you need a lock to keep it safe during the work day. Invest in a solid metal U-lock, which is harder to pick or cut than a flexible cord lock. Cost ranges from $15 to more than $80.
12. Sturdy Shoes
You probably don’t need special bike shoes for an urban commute, though the calculation may be different if you’re riding off-road trails to and from work each day. That said, you shouldn’t be biking to work in dress shoes.
Invest in sturdy, athletic footwear that you don’t mind getting dirty. Affordable running or cross-training shoes are ideal. Shoes cost $20 to more than $100, depending on brand.
13. Breathable Clothing
If you’re biking in warm or hot weather, breathable clothing is important, but you don’t need a fancy bike jersey. Polyester athletic shorts, cotton socks, and a cotton t-shirt should be fine.
If you work up a sweat on your commute, you may need several changes of clothing in a typical week. Cost for a basic athletic outfit runs around $30.
14. Waterproof Clothing
In wet or cold weather, waterproof under- and overlayers are critical. Though they’re a bit pricey, water-wicking socks can dramatically reduce discomfort, especially if your shoes or boots aren’t waterproof. For your outerlayer, use waterproof athletic pants or ski pants and a windbreaker or raincoat, depending on the temperature.
Waterproof athletic underlayers, such as UnderArmour, can protect your legs, torso, and arms from sweat and seeping water. Costs vary by brand, but expect to spend from $5 to $20 per waterproof sock pair, $15 to more than $75 for pants, $15 to more than $60 per waterproof underlayer, and $20 to more than $100 per jacket.
15. Face and Neck Protection
Face and neck protection is important if you’re riding in cold or wet conditions. On dry, chilly days, a regular scarf or turtleneck should be fine. For very cold or rainy days, a waterproof face mask or cowl may be required. Scarves cost anywhere from $5 to more than $30, turtlenecks can be purchased for $10, and face masks range in price from $15 to more than $50.
16. Eye Protection
Eye protection isn’t mandatory for every commute, but may dramatically increase comfort and safety when the weather isn’t optimal. Functional sunglasses are fine for bright days. When it’s cold, rainy, or snowy, ski goggles may be a better choice.
Costs run the gamut depending on your style and brand choice. Nonprescription sunglasses can be picked up for as little as $5, while ski goggles can easily cost more than $200.
17. Water Bottle
Even on a short bike commute, hydration is your friend. For frequent bike commuters, a durable plastic or metal water bottle quickly pays for itself relative to disposable bottled water. Also, invest in a water bottle holder so you don’t have to worry about putting it in your backpack. A basic plastic or metal bottle costs $5 to $10.
Clothing and equipment wear out. And like cars, bikes require ongoing maintenance and care. Depending on your investments, you can expect to pay $30 to more than $100 per year for ongoing maintenance. Though not insignificant, this is probably much less than you’d pay for car insurance and new parts.
1. Brake Pads
The rate of wear on your brake pads depends on how much you ride, how many hills you encounter, and how aggressively you accelerate and stop. Pads can wear out in as little as two months or last for several years. The little notches in each pad indicate its condition – when they become difficult to discern, it’s time to replace the pad. Cost ranges from $10 to $50 per pad.
2. Chain and Lubricant
Your bike’s chain assembly is vulnerable to wear as well, especially if it’s not properly lubricated or frequently used in cold weather. Be sure to lubricate your chain every week. Without proper care, the chain may break suddenly, leaving you in a tough spot on the side of the road.
To spot wear before it causes a break, look for loose connections or thin sections of metal along the length of your chain. Replace your chain at least once a year. Cost for lubricant ranges from $3 to $10 per bottle, while costs for chains range from $5 to more than $100.
3. Tire Wear
Bike tires are like car tires: Eventually, they become bald and lose their grip. Older tires may also be more vulnerable to punctures and flats.
If you have a road bike, replace its tires when it becomes difficult to discern tread patterns. You should replace hybrid or mountain bike tires at the first sign they’ve lost their grip. Tires cost $10 to more than $400.
4. Miscellaneous Expenses
Other components of your bike may wear less predictably. If you ride often and aggressively, your gears ($10 to more than $60), seat ($15 to more than $50), pedals ($10 to more than $100 each), wheels ($30 to more than $300), and even your frame could become damaged and require replacement. Depending on the extent of the damage, a compromised frame may mean it’s time for a new bike.
5. Physical Effort
You can’t really put a dollar value on the physical exertion of cycling, but it’s still a potential cost. Though biking is an efficient form of exercise, using less energy per mile than walking, jogging, or running, it clearly requires more effort than sitting in a car. If you need to carry bulky equipment for work such as a briefcase, laptop, or change of clothing, your effort increases further.
Bottom line: Those who don’t enjoy the side effects of exercise – sweating, heavy breathing, muscle aches, and possibly injuries – may find bike commuting unattractive.
Health Benefits of Commuting by Bike
For many who make the switch to bike commuting, health is a big reason why. Even if you ride at a leisurely pace, you get more exercise than you would sitting behind the wheel of your car.
A 180-pound person riding at about 15 miles per hour – a brisk but not aggressive pace – burns more than 400 calories during a 30-minute ride. For someone of the same weight, a more leisurely 11-miles per hour pace burns 245 calories in 30 minutes. By contrast, according to a Harvard study, a 185-pound person burns about 45 calories during 30 minutes of driving.
Office work is even less energy-intensive. Per the same Harvard study, sitting at your desk or in a meeting burns roughly 70 calories per hour. Assuming you weigh 180 pounds, that means an hour of brisk daily bike commuting (30 minutes each way at 15 mph) could save you more than 700 calories compared to a car commute. If you weigh more, the caloric benefits are actually greater, as heavier people tend to burn calories faster.
Better Cardiovascular Health
According to a British Medical Association study of 10,000 British civil servants, biking 20 miles per week reduces the risk of a heart attack by 50%. The same study found that the health benefits of cycling, measured in additional years of life due to better cardiovascular health, outweighed the likelihood of early death due to accidents by a factor of 20 to 1.
Less Passive Sitting
You may have heard that “sitting is the new smoking.” There’s still debate about just how unhealthy it is to sit for long periods, but few experts argue that it’s good for you.
Studies have linked prolonged sitting – as in, a typical day at the office – to increased risk for certain cancers (according to WebMD), blood clots, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions. If you’re an office drone, starting and ending your workday on a bike and not in a car cabin can cut out a significant amount of daily sitting time.
It’s important to note that biking to and from work isn’t a cure-all for the problem of sitting. Studies suggest that exercise alone may not completely counteract the negative health effects of sitting. If you’re really worried about what all that time in the office chair is doing to you, you should stand up periodically (five minutes of standing per half-hour of sitting may help) or invest in a standing desk.
Time & Productivity Considerations
For many commuters, time is precious. In many cases, switching from driving to biking adds time to your commute and pre- and post-work routine. Every route is different, so to get a rough idea of how much time yours takes, do a dry run on a weekend morning. Then, consider additional factors that may add time to your bike commute.
Factors may include the following:
- Less Direct Route. The fastest route between your home and your workplace may be a freeway or major artery that’s dangerous or closed to bikers. To avoid it, you may have to take a more roundabout route on surface streets or bike paths, adding time and distance to your journey.
- Dressing and Undressing. Depending on the weather, putting on appropriate clothing can take a few minutes at the beginning of your ride. Removing your riding clothing and putting on work clothing adds even more time at the office.
- Loading and Unloading. At the start of your ride, loading and securing your equipment in baskets or panniers can add a few minutes. You may need to repeat the process in reverse at your destination.
- Cleaning Up. If you get sweaty or dirty on your ride, you may need to shower afterward. This obviously isn’t an option if your office doesn’t have a locker room or bathrooms with showers. Even without a shower, freshening up in the bathroom can take five or ten minutes or more.
Bike commuting doesn’t always cost you time. The following factors may actually free up a few minutes in your schedule:
- Avoiding Traffic. If you maintain a constant speed and stick to dedicated bike lanes, bike paths, and bikeways (sometimes dubbed “bike highways”), you may make up for your pedal-powered ride’s slower top speed by avoiding slow or stopped car traffic. In some cases, avoiding traffic may actually make your bike commute faster than driving during rush hour.
- Faster, Closer Parking. Depending on where you work, finding parking near your building’s entrance might be challenging. Driving around in search of a spot or waiting in line to get into a lot or garage can waste valuable minutes. By contrast, many office buildings, even in suburban areas, now have bike racks or hitching posts close to their entrances.
- Skipping the Gym. If your bike commute is sufficiently long and strenuous, it could replace your daily workout. Depending on how long you spend at the gym, that simple change to your routine could singlehandedly make bike commuting worthwhile.
Safety Issues for Bike Commuters
For cyclists, safety is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 726 American cyclists died in traffic accidents in 2012. Despite recreational and work-related bike trips accounting for just 1% of all U.S. transportation journeys, cyclists accounted for 2.2% of all U.S. traffic fatalities that year.
Unfortunately, bikers are dying at higher rates these days. Per NHTSA, cyclists accounted for just 1.5% of U.S. road fatalities in 2003.
You may need to adjust your bike commute – or, in extreme cases, abandon it – based on these safety considerations:
- Interaction With Car Traffic. Motorized vehicles may represent the greatest threat to your safety, so you should plan your route to minimize contact with them, if practical. Streets with bike lanes are safer than those that require you to share lanes with cars and buses, but you still need to use caution at intersections and crosswalks. If possible, use dedicated bike paths or bikeways, which don’t allow motorized traffic at all. Bike lanes, bike paths, and bikeways are ubiquitous in bike-friendly cities such as New York and Chicago, but may be nonexistent in car capitals like Dallas and Memphis.
- Weather. Weather isn’t just a matter of comfort for bike commuters. Rain, snow, and ice can turn normally safe roads or paths into treacherous obstacle courses. If you plan on biking through the rain, consider using a hybrid bike or mountain bike – or thicker tires on a road bike, if your frame can handle it. And if you bike when it’s snowy or icy out, invest in winter biking equipment.
- Terrain and Geography. Even in the best weather, not all bike commutes take place on flat, well-maintained roads or paths. Depending on where you live, your fastest route to work may take you on rugged dirt tracks, poorly maintained bike paths, through blind intersections, and up or down steep, curving hills that require special care. All increase your risk of accident and injury. Before you get into the commuting groove, evaluate your route for such hazards. Even if it takes you a little out of the way, it may be worthwhile to plan a route that avoids as many of them as possible. Google Maps is a great planning tool. It shows optimal biking routes and, in certain locations, even displays the total elevation throughout your route.
- Health. Biking is generally seen as a good thing for your health, but not always. If you have an old, dormant sports injury, the repetitive motions associated with cycling could re-aggravate it. Knees are particularly vulnerable. The cardiovascular system is a major concern, as well – if you have a heart condition, biking could be downright dangerous. If you have any concerns, consult your doctor before beginning a regular commute.
Biking isn’t just for kids anymore. For growing numbers of American workers, it’s a viable alternative to driving to work or taking public transit.
Of course, it’s not right for everyone. If you live in a far-flung exurb or rural area, you probably have no choice but to drive unless you have the ability to work from home. In more densely populated areas, commuting by bike may be easier and less costly than you imagined. With a few tweaks to your schedule, you could soon trade the nerve-grating cacophony of car horns and engines with the exhilarating rush of the wind in your hair.
Do you ever commute by bike?