Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

WHY BIKES WIN

I propose a race. A modern day duel between tortoise and hare. Picture this: a bicycle and an automobile, across Canada. Which one would you bet on?

Are you sure about that?

There is a catch. First, both drivers must earn enough money to buy their respective vehicles. Ah, you say – that’s different. To be more accurate, it’s only fair. 

Let’s say Nadine, the cyclist, has a disposable income of $500 a month; in one month she has enough to buy a shiny new touring bicycle, and she peddles away from Tofino, B.C., heading east. Meanwhile, Susan, the car driver, who also has $500 a month to spare, is desperately saving for a new car.

Five months into the race, Nadine triumphantly pulls into St. John’s. Susan, sadly, hasn’t even left Tofino yet – she still has another two years to go before she can buy a new car for $18,000. Like the old fable, the tortoise upsets the hare.

I haven’t told this tale to convince you of the efficacy of transcontinental bike travel, because to do so would be pure lunacy. The moral of this story is about the oft-overlooked false economy of the car, which applies equally, and more relevantly, to the local scale.

Many of us succumb to the myth that a car gets you where you’re going faster than a bike (or a bus). And it’s easy to see why, because on the surface it does seem true – after all, don’t you zoom past bikes in your car everyday? If you look only at the immediate situation, the car is faster. But what happens when you take a step back, and look at the larger picture?

There are many factors to juggle when making transportation decisions, but two of the most decisive are time and money. How long will it take to get from point A to B, and how much will it cost? And yet, money can also be thought of as an expression of time, as in the time it took to earn that money. For the business person, time might be money, but for the average worker, money is time. Therefore, as the above race illustrated, any truthful estimate of travel time must include the time spent earning money to pay for your chosen vehicle.

I hope you liked those high school math problems, because I’m going to give another example now: John, a dedicated car driver, makes $13 an hour. According to the CAA, he will spend on average $9,500 a year on his car. The upside of all this expense is that it only takes John 15 minutes to get to work, meaning he spends 2 ½ hours a week driving to work and back. In addition, he spends another 1 ½ hours a week behind the wheel, for personal reasons, bringing his weekly total to 4 hours.

Then there’s Sam, a cyclist, who (in the interest of controlled scientific experimentation) lives in the same neighbourhood as John, works in the same building, and makes an identical salary. Owning and operating a bicycle costs Sam just $250 a year. But Sam must spend 30 minutes biking to work each morning, meaning commuting takes 5 hours of his time each week. Add to that another 3 hours of biking for personal reasons, and we get a total of 8 hours a week spent in transit.  

So John spends a total of 200 hours a year getting around, while Sam spends double that – 400 hours. It would seem like John is the clear winner but, as we know, we can’t stop there. Next, we must factor in money spent on their respective vehicles as an expression of time.

In order to earn the $9,500 needed to pay for his car, John must work for 730 hours. That gives his yearly total of time spent in transit a substantial boost – to 930 hours. Meanwhile, Sam need only work 19 hours a year to pay for his bike, bringing his yearly total of time spent in transit to 419. Now, the tables have turned: John is spending over twice as much time as Sam on transportation. Who’s got the faster set of wheels now?

I can hear some objections to this admittedly simplified model, like what about when Sam needs to transport people or bulky items, or when he needs to travel long distances? Yes, the cost of taking the occasional taxi or bus should be added to Sam’s annual total. But I could then counter that the health benefits of cycling represent a further saving over driving. We could go back and forth for some time, adding layer after layer of complexity to our model. But the result would be hopelessly theoretical. Instead , I urge you to use this model as a starting point to run your own calculations, based on your personal situation, which you can then make as complex as you wish. My suspicion is that once the numbers are all crunched, the bike will still win the race.

Copyright Sean Butler 2005

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