I think it’s useful to start off any cycling-related post with a disclaimer: Your mileage is likely to vary. I live in London, a city with:
- very few hills, so short-ish bike rides are unlikely to be too taxing
- plentiful bike lanes, including marked paths rather bombastically called “cycle superhighways”
- other useful infrastructure like racks to park bikes
- a non-aggressive, pedestrian-friendly driving culture, where there’s no concept of jaywalking
- a generally cycling-friendly culture, with a public bike rental scheme, employer loans for buying bikes and accessories, cycle cafes, local council-funded cycle training, etc.
London’s government authorities could be doing more to facilitate cycling, but it’s a credit to them that they’ve recognized that all of the public benefits of two-wheeled transport (such as less air pollution and less strain on the public transport system) merit public investment. Of course, even in bike-friendly cities like this, plenty of people have mobility issues or cultural barriers to cycling, or might simply have to travel too far each day to make it viable.
Ok, whew, preface over.
I picked up urban cycling specifically to save money. I was spending about £80–100 ($104–130) a month on buses and the London Underground. And the costs of public transport were rising faster each year than any other expense. Even my rent payments have been more stable than public transport costs.
In the seven years that I’ve been cycling in London, I’ve had three bikes. This is an unnecessarily high number, as I went through some trial and error. First, I bought a used electric bike from a charity shop, for about £150 ($196). Having not ridden a bike in many moons, I liked the prospect of having a motor to help my unfit self along. The problem was that this bike, being more valuable than a standard one, was a target for thieves. One night I found that some frustrated would-be thief had damaged my back tire. Since this was an unusual bike, replacing the tire would have cost more than I paid for the bike itself. I’d learned my lesson with electric bikes.
I found my second bike from an internet message board. The person selling it had a business buying up bikes from police auctions, and fixing them up for resale. This cost £75 ($98), and seemed like a reasonable purchase. The bike didn’t last long, though. And I had no way of knowing for sure that the seller had indeed bought it at auction, rather than stealing it off the street. I’d learned my lesson with secondhand bikes of possibly dodgy origins.
My current bike was a birthday gift from my partner. We picked it out together, so I know that it cost about £250 ($327). It’s a sturdy workhorse of a bike – a hybrid, so it’s less zippy than a road bike, but not as heavy as a mountain bike.
As for other expenses: I’ve had the same two bike chains (one absurdly heavy and the other light) for all seven years. I’ve had to replace the lock on the heavy chain once. I’ve replaced my helmet once, after the plastic top peeled off and a nasty bit of bird poop left a permanent stain. I need to have a tire puncture repaired maybe twice a year (I should really do this myself, but I don’t want to have to carry a puncture kit around with me). I get a bike tune-up less often than I really should, but it’s generally about as often as I see a dentist. I need to buy a new set of bike lights (USB-charged, so no batteries) every year or two. A single bottle of bike lubricant has lasted me five years. My cycling bag doubles as a backpack, with pannier rack hooks that can be zipped away and replaced with backpack straps. These expenses would be higher if I were more of the Lycra and gadgetry persuasion, but I’m an un-fancy cyclist.
Because I’ve anal-retentively recorded these and all other expenses for the last seven years, I know that my total bike-related expenses have amounted to £545 ($712), or about $100 a year. So I spend less per year on cycling than I used to spend per month on public transport. I still take public transport, but infrequently – when it’s raining hard, I’m travelling far, or I’m expecting to be drinking a lot.
Still, replacing bus and Tube journeys with cycle rides has been the easiest, most pleasant way I’ve found of saving money. For short journeys in London, cycling is often faster than driving or taking public transport; it’s also more reliable, given the frequent transport delays and traffic standstills. And it’s a lot more enjoyable to cycle past medieval buildings on my way to work than to spend my commute being smushed into a disgruntled transport rider’s armpit.
There are also less quantifiable health benefits. Even taking into account the air pollution load breathed in by an urban cyclist, the advantages to health outweigh the disadvantages. A big (and possibly costly) health risk would be having an accident, but cycling in London is much safer than many people believe. There are generally only around 16 cyclist deaths each year. Yes, that number should be 0, and injuries are far more common than deaths. But the media’s over-reporting of each cycling casualty, and under-reporting of car accident mortality because it’s so common, gives the public the impression that cycling is more perilous than it actually is.
So, while I started off cycling to save money, it seems that I’ve become—like so many other urban cyclists—a bit of an evangelist.