Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cost of fuel

Date: March 15
Mileage: 43.4
March mileage: 145.9
Temperature: 28

Let me preface this post by saying that sometimes I like to play the devil's advocate - even on issues I strongly agree with, such as bicycle commuting. I can think of dozens of reasons why bicycle commuting is a great transportation choice - fresh air, good exercise, lots of fun, cutting down on fossil fuel use, reducing global warming impact, reduce traffic congestion, good for the environment, good for the soul, etc. ... But it seems one of the most popular arguments people make in favor of bicycle commuting is to "save money on fuel." Especially these days, with oil hitting $110 a barrel and rapidly climbing. Still, gasoline remains relatively cheap here in America. Personally, I drive way too much because it's "easy." So, selfishly, I wouldn't mind if gas jumped to $10 a gallon and forced me to give up my crutch ... although I wouldn't want to impose that kind of burden on people who depend more directly on fuel than I do. After all, not everyone is physically capable of riding a bicycle.

But yes, gas is cheap. I know it's approaching $4 a gallon. Gas is still cheap. And today I wondered if people took the time to crunch the numbers, how much money on "fuel" are we, as cyclists, really saving?

I had a little too much free time on my hands at work this evening, so I started scribbling figures on a sheet. I woke this morning to beautiful weather - bright, clear and cold. Geoff and I set out for a mellow road ride, cycling 43 miles in about three hours. Based on a table I found on Dave Moulton's blog, a 155-pound cyclist traveling at 15 mph burns about 31 calories a mile. Since I weigh closer to 125, I arbitrarily cut that number to 27. So in theory, I burned 1,161 calories in the ride. But the temperature was below freezing and Geoff and I both underdressed and consequently shivered through most of it (I blame the sunshine ... it made it look like it was 70 degrees outside). So I feel justified in rounding the caloric output up to 1,300 to factor in necessary heat energy and wind resistance.

How much does 1,300 calories cost? Well, let's take another subjective example: What I ate for breakfast and lunch (This is the embarrassing part where I reveal how much I eat.) For breakfast I had three cups of Honey Nut Cherrios, two cups skim milk and 6 oz. orange juice. That nets me about 700 calories and $2.68 in grocery costs. For a mid-ride snack, I ate a Clif Bar - 250 calories for $1.50. For lunch, I had a turkey sandwich - 4 oz. turkey, two slices of bread, 2 tsp. sun-dried tomatoes and mustard for 400 calories and a $2.50 grocery bill. What I land on is 1,350 calories for $6.68.

So how much does it cost me to drive my car 43 miles? Well, I drive a small sedan that I paid for with cash eight years ago. It used to get 40 miles to the gallon, but only musters about 30 these days. It needs a new clutch, but I have yet to put any money in repairs beyond general
maintenance and tires since I purchased it, so I essentially haven't shelled out a dime just to own this car in eight years. I pay about $0.85 a day to insure it. Gas in Juneau right now costs $3.50 a gallon. To drive my car 43 miles would cost me $5.01 in gas and $0.85 in insurance that I pay either way. Total: $5.86. A little cheaper than riding, no?

Granted, it's a lot more fun to stuff my face with Honey Nut Cherrios and pedal through the beautiful clear air of a Saturday morning than it is to inject my car with a gallon and a half of noxious, CO2-spewing liquid. Plus, my calculations don't factor in the original cost of the car, which would be $5,100 divided by however many days there are in eight years. But they also don't factor in the cost of my bike(s), or all the gear I buy so I can ride in cold temperatures.

Again, I'm certainly not arguing against bicycle commuting. I'm just trying to point out that for some people - at least, for myself - cycling has much more value than simple economy. Tell a non-cyclist they should ride their bicycle because they'll save money on fuel, and they're
probably as likely to write that advice off as they would the difference between $6.68 and $5.86. But try telling a non-cyclist they should ride their bicycle because it will change their life. That may be a tougher sell, but in the end, the potential returns are enormous.