Updated on 02.10.12

Use a Bicycle (40/365)

Trent Hamm

The winter is easily my least favorite season. It is very difficult to be outside for a long period of time when the temperature is approaching 0 F, as it often is in Iowa during the winter. You can put on a lot of clothes and do okay out there, but you’ve eliminated the possibility of doing anything that requires significant agility.

But spring, oh, the glorious spring.

One of the first things I do when the weather starts to turn warmer in March is get out my bicycle, oil up the chains a bit, air up the bicycle tires, and go for a ride. I’ve had this bike for a dozen years now and I expect to have it for at least a dozen more.

I’ll be wearing a backpack with some mail in it that needs to be mailed at the post office. I’ll stop by the small general store in our town if I need anything. I’ll ride out near the new construction in town just to see what’s going on.

I’ll get home, finding my legs just a bit sore and my lungs full of fresh air. Considering that I also usually spend that first really nice day mixing compost into the garden and playing soccer in the yard with the kids, the combination of fresh air and lots of exercise leads me straight into a deep and refreshing night of sleep.

I get exercise, I got fresh air, I got some errands completed, and it costs me virtually nothing. It’s something that I try to repeat as often as possible during the months of pleasant weather.

Use a Bicycle (40/365)

The thing to notice here is that I’m not using my car to get to the post office or the general store. I’m using my bicycle. Rather than using gas and putting more mileage on my vehicle (contributing to depreciation and maintenance), I’m simply using my trusty old bicycle to get the job done.

To make a trip to the post office and the store is just shy of three miles, round trip, on the roads. I could do the driving portion of that trip in about eight or nine minutes (the speed limit is about 35, after all, and there are several stop signs I have to go through, and there are always things like pedestrians and bicyclists and other cars that further reduce my speed).

On my bicycle, the distance of the full round trip is about a mile and a half, because I can cut through a park and also utilize a trail that connects a street to the lot on the back side of the post office. I can do this round trip in … about ten minutes.

So, I save about a minute using the car. However, every mile I drive in that car costs me at least $0.50 in fuel, depreciation, and maintenance, giving me a total of $1.50 for the trip.

Add in the fact that the bicycle trip gives me some moderate aerobic exercise (improving my health and my life span) and the bicycle trip is an enormous win.

What’s the message here? It’s simple. Use a bicycle instead of a car for short trips. If you’re just going a mile or two from your home, bicycle there and back, provided the weather is good. Used bicycles can be found at very low rates if you look around and the maintenance cost of a bike is nonexistent. Meanwhile, every mile you drive in a car eats up $0.50 and does nothing to help your health.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. Matt says:

    I’m a huge proponent of bicycling everywhere possible… but I wouldn’t say that maintenance costs are nonexistent.

    They’re pretty low – especially if you do any of your own maintenance (and particularly compared to cars!), but there are still some costs.

  2. cv says:

    I agree with Matt. I commuted by bike for 4 years, and while I loved it and it was way cheaper than driving, there are definitely maintenance costs – oil for the chain, flat tires, worn break pads, batteries for the lights if you ride at night (and replacement lights when they break or get stolen), new helmets every few years, and, if you’re like me and don’t know a lot about bike maintenance, tune-ups at a bike shop every so often.

    Also, if you use a bike for a significant portion of your transportation, as I did, you may want panniers, a rack or basket, a waterproof backpack, a good rain jacket and pants, reflective clothing or patches, warm waterproof gloves, etc.

    I don’t mean to sound negative – I love biking and used it to get around all the time in my old city (now I live in a bigger city with better public transit and fewer bike lanes). It’s good for your health, the environment, and your wallet. It’s not free, though.

    Of course, I’m coming from the perspective of using a bike daily, in all weather, for places I wanted to get to quickly. Biking to run errands on a sleepy Saturday in nice weather is a totally different ballgame, gear-wise.

  3. Mister E says:

    Good tip, and I do take my bike out for errands and whatnot.

    But going to work isn’t so much as an option (for me). Distance wise I could do it, I’m only about 12KM from work, but if the temperature was anything over about 5C I’d be too much of a sweaty mess for it to be practical.

  4. Jules says:

    Agree with cv: there’s a difference between an occasional trip to the store, and riding every day to and from work. And there’s a big difference between the sport bikes in the US and the European monster bikes that carry groceries, kids, a crate of beer, six cats, and a pizza (and I’m not even talking about the container bikes, either). Hm. Now that I think about it, I really wonder how I managed not to break anything when I was riding in Philly….

    And why has nobody mentioned a good lock as part of the cost? I just had my bike stolen about two weeks ago (it happens when you live in the Netherlands). Even though I don’t strictly *need* a bike to get around or run errands (happily enough, we live close enough to just about everything that I can walk everywhere) it’s annoying to have your ability to get around crimped so badly.

  5. BirdDog says:

    When the weather is good, I enjoy biking to the gym and back. It’s about five miles round trip. However, I have to be careful not to workout too hard while there, otherwise the legs don’t have enough left in them to pedal uphill to get back.

  6. Steven says:

    There are so many fun winter activities that one can do: snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding, ice climbing, building snowforts, having a snowball fight (provided there’s snow!), etc.

    I also used to hate winter, but since I began snowboarding, I’m sad about the lack of snow. Also, one can ride a bike year-round if you have the right tires.

  7. Evita says:

    My girlfriend used to take her high-tech bike to get to work… in the traffic of a busy city. Until she was thrown from her bike and fractured her elbow (her helmet protected her from being killed). She was out of work for four months.
    This really turned me off from using my bike in the city!
    If you do it, use a bike path! you just never know…

  8. Des says:

    Good timing for me, I’m training right now to do this very thing! I live on the edge of town, so it is 10 miles each way to work or the nearest store. Still, inspired by mr money mustache, I’m confident that it will be doable if I can just get in shape. My employer has a small workout room with an stationary bike. I can do 10 miles right now (in an hour) but I need to be able to get home too :) I made that mistake once a few years ago, and had to walk my bike home because my legs wouldn’t peddle! I do wish cities were less car-friendly and more bike/ped/bus friendly, tho.

  9. MattJ says:

    Iowa has caves – go caving in the wintertime!

    It may be below freezing or over 100F outside, but it’s always about 50 degrees in Iowa caves. You’ll find this temperature to be more comfortable than you think.

  10. Kai says:

    Evita (#7)
    Do you not know a single person who has been in a car accident?
    Have you stopped driving your car for the same reason?

    People fear illogically based on anecdotes that don’t necessarily relate to actual likelihood of a problem.

    Some cities are more friendly to non-cars. You just have to look at the right cities – or often, find the right part of a city. I live in a huge sprawling low-density city designed for cars through and through. But I live in a small place in the middle of the city and bike the 4km to work (or on good days, the 10km winding exercise route), and I can bike the 1km to the grocery store, and walk the 10 minutes to a train when I’m not up for biking. The system in my city is pretty bad, but you can find the good pockets.

  11. Gretchen says:

    Anyone else sad the photo isn’t of a neon with a bike rack?

    I prefer bike trails because of all the stop signs in my town. You can’t get any momentum going!

  12. valleycat1 says:

    Just please don’t buy a black or gray bike & wear black or gray clothes when you’re cycling. Then you’re essentially invisible to drivers – especially at dawn/dusk or at night, even with lights on the bike.

    I had a great bike when I was in college eons ago & really enjoyed riding it for the fun of it as a break from studying. The college town had some great hills to coast, & little traffic to worry about.

  13. Michelle says:

    I use my bike tons, and I have 3 kids. 2 go in the trailer, the little one goes in the baby seat on the back. Works great. And hauling 100 lbs makes it a GREAT workout. I ride to the grocery store, to the library, to the park, friends houses, everywhere. I live in suburbia, so it’s not like I’m right downtown. The only time we don’t ride is during the worst of winter, so from about the beginning of December to the end of February. I find that I warm up quite quickly on the ride if it’s cold, and in the summer, it forces me to plan my errands for the cooler part of the day.

  14. Dave says:

    The alternator in my car went out and will cost around $300 which I can’t afford right now…so I started riding my bike almost everywhere. I sleep like a top at night. Am I ever out of shape! I am 64 and have been seriously overweight…have lost around 20 pounds in about three weeks. My out look is better. While I find the same problems of driving around Atlanta like everyone else, I think I’m becoming more skilled at handling traffic. I take the sidewalks whenever possible, and besides, I walk the bike more often than not because I’m not yet in shape.

  15. Roberta says:

    I love my bike! I really really want one of the Florida trikes with a shade on top and a big basket on the back. If the roads in my city were’t crazy I’d bike to the nearest little shopping area which has almost everything I need – bank, grocery store and great produce store, mail place, dry cleaner, hobby store, several restaurants… even a homemade ice cream place, but the suburban moms in SUVs would run me off the road. I do wish I had a safe bike lane to use.

    However, I’m with Mr.E. on the hot and sweaty bit… if you’re going to bike and get a great workout, please be considerate of those around you and clean up if you need to. I’ve had coworkers who bike to work and are unpleasant to be around – they seem oblivious to their body odor. Interestingly enough, the ones who run at lunchtime always shower before they come back to work. (I know that’s much more an American hangup, since when I worked in Germany nobody seemed to notice at all, or if they did, they just accepted it.)

  16. Liz says:

    Sounds wonderful in theory. However, the town in which I live is not bicycle-friendly, not enough nor interlocking bike paths. The speed limit on our major street nearby was reduced several years ago because a bicyclist was hit by a car going 55 mph, the limit at the time, and died of her wounds.

  17. SLCCOM says:

    Kai, when you are on a bike and involved in a collision or fall, you are on your own. There is nothing protecting you. No seat belt. No air bag. No nice, solid body of metal and/or plastic between you and other vehicles.

    The helmet saved my husband’s life in his collision, but the other damage was enough to get him to realize that commuting by bike is not safe. In retrospect, he also had a head injury, which he was fortunate enough to recover from completely. Not everyone does.

    How is it that you don’t understand that difference between auto and bike collisions?

  18. jim says:

    Bicycle fatality rates per mile are about 10 times as high as the fatality rates in autos. Of course I assume almost all of the bicycle fatalities are due to being ran over by cars. If there were no cars then I’m sure bicycling would be much safer. But the reality is that there are a lot of cars and when they hit a bicyclist the result can be fatal.

    But the fatality rate is still quite low per mile. We’re talking in the ballpark of 1 fatality per 10,000,000 miles on a bicycle. And you could probably cut that in half or better by wearing a helmet and not driving your bicycle while drunk. (yes drunk bicyclists exist and are a significant % of the fatalities)

  19. Gretchen says:

    Don’t ride drunk, don’t ride on the sidewalk, or against traffic.

    Do wear a helmet. Obviously it protects your head but it also lets people know you are serious.

  20. David says:

    And above all, don’t walk anywhere. Pedestrian fatality rates per mile are about fifty times higher than the fatality rates in autos. Your best bet statistically is to take a plane from your home to the mall. If you tell me that as yet your home and the mall are not connected by any recognised airline route, that is no excuse. Campaign tirelessly until they are.

  21. Kai says:

    Despite all those safety features in the car, many people die or are seriously injured in car crashes. There are piles of head injuries from car crashes.

    My point is that you know people get in car crashes, yet you drive anyways – so deciding that cycling is unsafe because you know one person who was hit while on a bike is illogical.

    People make all kinds of silly decisions based on the fact that cars are familiar, and thus don’t feel dangerous, despite the many fatalities every year.

    As for wearing a helmet because it shows people you are serious, what exactly do you mean?
    Studies have found that people are actually more cautious drivers around cyclists without helmets – one of those adjusting behaviour back to the comfortable norm as soon as a safety feature arises things.
    I wear a helmet because it is not too intrusive for the safety it can add, but it’s not necessarily going to help you at all in regard to the behaviour of others.

    Fatality rates per mile are a massively useless way to compare different types of transit.

  22. jim says:

    “People fear illogically based on anecdotes that don’t necessarily relate to actual likelihood of a problem.”
    “Fatality rates per mile are a massively useless way to compare different types of transit.”

    So anecdotes aren’t no good… but actual data is meaningless? Just can’t win with you.

  23. Kai says:

    I am saying that it is a particular piece of data that is not very relevant. Given that people choose different types of transit based on how many miles per hour they can go, and given the different sorts of uses people have for different types of transportation methods, deaths per mile is not very meaningful.
    Deaths per hour spent in the activity might be a somewhat better one. Or perhaps deaths as a percentage of people who commute by car every day compared to the percentage of people who commute by bike every day and die. Those would be statistics relevant to how safe it is to commute by car or by bike – though still difficult, because again, it might just be that it’s dangerous to be on the road for a longer commute than a shorter commute no matter what you travel in, but no-one cycles the long commutes.

    Data has meaning, sure. I’m not saying there is no meaning in ‘fatalities per mile’.
    I am saying that is a poor data point to choose to use to try to compare how safe it is to commute in one type of manner or another.

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