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.


  1. Good point but presumably, even if you're driving your car, you're still going to eat 'some' breakfast and lunch though? No?

    Shand Cycles

  2. I agree, I commute in the U.K and the price of petrol and diesel is very expensive, friends often comment on how much money I save a year cycling into work, but the truth is cycling can equally be expensive, new bikes and accessories and that's not even taking into account the cost of recharging the batteries for the lights through the winter months......but then cycling into work and arriving with a big smile on your face cannot be beaten.

  3. You still need to eat anyway to keep your body working even if it wasn't doing anything. But you know that Jill. The food also has to use fuel to be produced and delivered. Same with the bike. Same with the car and parts and fuel.

    Never ending cycle, excuse the pun. Or is it never ending? For the oil that is.

  4. Nice write-up.
    Just for argument's sake, the fine folks at the IRS claim it costs .505 cents a mile to drive a car once insurance, mainainance, gas etc are figured in...
    And because my spouse is able to bike the fourteen miles round trip to work, we were able to get rid of our second car--that was a rather significant savings.

  5. I too was able to reduce our 5 member family down to one car this month simply because I don't drive anywhere and it seemed stupid to keep it and pay insurance.

    You also have to take into effect the amount of CO2 that you are NOT putting into the atmosphere.

  6. Jill- I've been meaning to tell you for a very long time that I love your beautiful photographs that you include with your posts. Thank you for sharing them- you're lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world. Also, a huge CONGRATS for finishing the Iditarod. I can't wait to hear about your next adventure.

  7. Jill as a fairly regular bike commuter I've got to agree with shandcycles and point out the hole in your argument. I don't change my eating habits depending on whether I ride my bike to work or drive my car.

    It's a 6 mile commute for me one way and my car doesn't get great city mileage so I burn roughly a gallon every 2 days. In a month's worth of commuting I can easily save a full tank of gas or roughly $45. That adds up over a year.

    On the other hand, when I go on a longer ride or a multi-day tour with higher caloric requirements my costs would definitely go up and start to become a little more comparable.

  8. Your logic is failed. Both bike commuters and car commuters have to eat, thus the cost difference between the 2 is the price of gas.

  9. 31,000 calories in a gallon of gas is equal to...check this out

  10. Some of you are off point. Her caloric calculations are replacement calories independent of standard caloric intake provided by 3 meals a day. Those 1,350 calories are extra calories required by the effort of riding, not just her daily bodily requirement. Now, I understand that the cost to replace those calories might be high, but you have you consider that your $6.68 is money that you're not spending on gas. Not spending money on gas reduces demand, which in turn drives prices down. I'm aware that $6.68 is nearly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but if more people shifted their expenses from six dollars in gas to six dollars in something else that fuels transportation, it would make a difference.

  11. I was going to make the same point as Dr. Chococlate Donut. It's true I'd eat breakfast and lunch whether I drove or not ... but I put down more food later in the day because I basically burned off the first 1,300. When I'm training, I regularly eat 3,500 calories a day. That's quite a bit more than the 1,800 recommended for a woman my size, and costs more too :-)

    Of course this example in this post only applies to me and no one else. I'm one person, not a family. I drive a uniquely inexpensive car. And ride somewhat more than the average commuter.

    Of course most bicycle commuters actually save money on commuting, even on gas alone, not to mention the expense of a vehicle, insurance, repairs, etc. When you add in the cost to the environment, it's astronomical. I admire people who are car-free and plan to go that direction that way myself someday soon, especially with my own car nearing the end of its life. I was really just having a little fun with this post.

  12. Commuting also is like health care insurance. That is one way my husband and I look at it. Exercise can do wonders for you mentally unlike driving which can be frustrating at times.

    great post as always!

  13. This interesting issue is complicated enough to support rationalizations of opposing points of view. A few tidbits:
    * At the Seattle Bike Expo a poster claimed a car costs $1.20/mile once you include some infrastructure costs. How do you think such calculations should be made?
    * A gallon of gas has about 31,000kcal of energy. Why can't most people buy that much food for $3 or $4?
    * Many people will pay more for less food if it is labeled "diet". How should you calculate how much Jill's extra 1300kcal costs? Where do our food dollars really go?

    There is plenty of interesting food and energy stuff to learn and think about.

    Matthew Newlin

  14. Interesting post. It would fall down for me as I'm so used to eating enough for my commute that I eat that much even if I drive to work!

  15. I sold my car a couple years ago and have been bike commuting (I was losing weight until I figured out it takes 2-3 good sized lunches to equal the commute energy). My wife (with the three kids) last bought gas for the van in January... and we still have a half tank. There is a lot in the calculations, but I would far rather be on my bike than stuck in a steel box.

  16. Then there is also the avoided cost of a quadruple bypass to figure in ;o)

  17. Living only a couple miles from work, riding my bike doesn't save me much money.

    I ride to work because:

    * It's fun.

    * I arrive to work energized.

    * For the freedom. I don't feel at the mercy or under the control of the car culture or domestic and foreign oil cartels.

    * For the experience. Conversations with pedestrians, sights, smells, interaction with the natural world. All this is lost in a car.

    * As little money as I do save by bicycle commuting, I still feel like I'm voting with my dollars. It's a social statement.

  18. Jeff,

    Don't forget

    * Always knowing where you will park :-) (no parking lot amnesia here!)

  19. Where it gets interesting though is with the "hard-core" cyclists who don't commute. For instance, a lot of bike racers train hard, training everyday. But they still drives their cars to work, often hauling their bikes along in their car for their pre- or post-work cycling workout. Thus, they're spending the money on gas PLUS spending the money for theose extra replacement calories. So why not just commute on their bicycles, and throw their intervals and such in on their ride to work or home? When you think about it, it's really quite silly.

    Forget everyone switching to bikes for a moment, and just imagine if all of us who are already cyclists just rode to/from work instead of driving, and then going out for a ride separately.

    And I like the one poster's comment about saving on the cost of the triple bypass down the road... :-)

  20. I ride to work because the cost of parking went through the roof.
    Anyone working in a big city will note that it's not the price of gas but parking that is the tipping point.
    The local public transport system leaves a lot to be desired as well.
    I chose cycling to work because of those factors but now it is my commute of choice because I've grown to love it.
    The exercise and interaction with nature and the community are just bonuses.
    I eat less and I'm enjoying the weightloss! I don't feel like I have to "fuel" my ride - it's not far enough for that!

    Keep up the good work Jill.


  21. If you factor in the value of your time, then bicycling becomes an even less economical proposition.

  22. Long time reader Jill, good work and excellent blog.

    I've thought about this subject before. I work at a job and get paid by the hour with all the OT I want. Consider the extra amount of time I would spend on the bike while commuting and not making money.
    Should I get up earlier and stay at work later to earn the same as before?
    Then the cost of our time comes into play again.

    Not taking any side of the argument just another thing to consider.


  23. Interesting perspectives on time here...that cycling would cut into your time and money. For me, it's work and driving that cut into my time! I'd much rather spend time riding my bike than being stuck in a car or hanging out at the office, even if it meant less money.

    Add up all the time you spend sitting in a car each year...just to get to work and back. You may be surprised to find that you spend several days of the year stuck in your car. That's LIFE you don't get back. I'd much rather spend those days doing something I love.

  24. yeah, if you enjoy biking then the "value of your time" arguement doesn't really carry much weight... unless of course you're one of those "typical americans" who thinks that the value of time can be measured in dollars.

  25. Also, regarding the time argument, I think that time is saved via driving is often a misconception. Many people drive to/from work, drive to/from the gym, and workout for an hour + at the gym. Add in your gym time, including the drive to/from, and are you really saving time?

    For instance it takes me about 40 minutes to drive to work, thus 80 minutes round trip. It takes me about 70 minutes one way by bike, thus 140 minutes round trip. Add in the hour at the gym, plus the 10-minute round trip time to get there from work, and I actually spend slightly more time driving. On days where I would ride or run outside after work, it's even less of savings, as I'd often be out for a couple extra hours then.

  26. Thanks for the link. The calorie count article gets multiple hits ever day since I posted it. (More now thanks to your link.) Obviously a subject that interests many people.

    On a different subject someone recently emailed with an article he was trying to get to you. Must have thought us top drawer bike bloggers are in constant touch with each other. Email me at dave [AT]ProdigalChild[DOT]net and I will forward the article.

  27. I'd still workout if I didn't ride to work every day. I like to bike so I do that. My commute is short 6.5 miles one way. All country roads. I can easily do the round trip in under an hour without breaking a sweat. I can also push myself and get a great workout.

    I think the bottom line is that biking to work makes me feel good and I enjoy it. I enjoy it more than a commute in a car so I do it. Call me selfish, but the other benefits (environmental, cost, even health) are a very distant bronze medal compare to those two reasons.

  28. Thanks for putting up an article that has fueled (pun intended) so much discussion. It is nice to get a feel for how other people see this topic. Keep up the good work, and a HUGE congrats to finishing the Iditarod!

  29. All I can say is that right now I'm on vacation on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I rode in the snow this morning, hiked this afternoon, and time means nothing right now.
    I did have to drive to get here. Without the car I would still be home.
    I start commuting in a week, so maybe that will give a better perspective.

  30. I know a couple of really hard core bikers. They both do multiple thousands of miles a year, but still hop in their oversized SUV and drive parallel to a MUP, one mile to the store, for a gallon of milk.

  31. Jill,

    Great post. I think whether the gas vs. food calculation varies by distance and, of course, the type of car you drive.

    I live in Portland and commute 18 miles a day on my bike. When I'm not on my bike, I drive a pickup truck that gets about 14 MPG in the city.

    I did a similar calculation and found that, with today's gas prices, I save a couple of dollars a week by riding to work.

    Love your blog, by the way.

  32. That's funny as I wrote virtually the same thing last month (we almost had the same numbers too!). check it shirt inspired my question.

  33. What are the various types of health insurance programmes that are available to me, and which is best suited to suit the needs of my family and myself? How do I choose the ideal health care plan? What are the major points that one needs to bear in mind while buying Health Care Insurance Policy?


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