Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Garage Full of Bikes

Our garage is full of bikes. Is the expense worth it?

We went many years without a car, and now have only one minivan, so for car-obsessed California, the answer would probably be yes. (In spite of having all sorts of "fancy" bikes we still haven't come close to spending as much on them as on the car.)

But are bikes the most economical way to travel?

At Stanford, biking easily beat out driving. (Even with the added expense of replacing a stolen bike.)

Cost of commuting to Stanford:
"A" parking permit: $747/year
or "C" parking permit: $291/year
Gas: ~ $4/day ~ $800/year

Thus, if there were a "freely available" car with no additional expenses (oil, maintenance, depreciation, insurance, etc.) the yearly cost to drive would be somewhere between one and two thousand dollars.

Bikes can park next to the building, while "C" permits are a 15 minute walk, and A permits can be a couple minutes walk away. A high-speed bike ride during rush hour can easily be faster than "C" parking, and even competitive with "A" parking. During off-peak times, however, driving can be faster. However, biking leaves you a bike on campus which allows for fast trips to other areas of campus (as well as journeys in to Palo Alto.)

Overall, the convenience of biking is similar (or perhaps better) than driving, with a significantly lower cost. It also provides exercise.

However, it is not the cheapest means to get to work. It requires purchasing a bike, along with maintaining it. Stanford also provides free bus and train passes. If timed right, a walk to the bus stop + bus + train + bus can be somewhat competitive with driving or biking. However, there is typically only one "fast" timing per day, with a few other "somewhat acceptable" timings. However, every few months a schedule change can change this timing (and sometimes, there is no good timing. A late bus can also throw everything off.

Thus transit is low cost, and can be comparable timewise - if you are lucky. But also provides limited options.

Now I'm working closer to home with free parking. Cost to drive to work would be around $1 per day in gas. Driving is a little faster, but not by much. (Stop signs and lights are more of the limiting factor. A fast bike ride during AM rush hour could easily be faster than driving.)

Biking's main advantage is in physical activity. In addition to biking to work, it makes it easier to go to the nearby gym (there is plenty of bike parking, but car parking can be hard to find.)

Transit would cost $4 per day and still require between 1.5-2 miles walking per day. (Or for $6/day you could get it down to less than a mile walking, but at the expense of a transfer and a much longer trip.

Walking the entire distance (without a bus) is also fairly reasonable, and only takes about as long as the drive/bike to Stanford. (But why walk if you can go faster?)

Walking would lead to shoes getting worn out faster. Biking would wear out pants faster. This would offset some of the cost savings. Add in a couple slices of bread to account for the extra calories consumed, and the cost advantage from not driving is almost totally eliminated. (The other costs from driving would probably not significantly impact costs. The extra 1000 miles driven would probably not impact insurance rates, registration costs, depreciation or maintenance.)

If I already had a car, but didn't have a bike, driving would win out in the strict monetary calculation. A decent low-cost bike well equipped for commuting (lights, fenders, rack, etc.) could cost a few hundred dollars. Add in rain gear and you are looking at years to earn back the investment.

Reverse the equation, however, and a bike really wins out. Adding a car would cost thousands of dollars in purchase cost, insurance, etc. If a bike can eliminate the need for a car, the savings pour in.

But do the bikes eliminate the need for a second car?

It would seem to be yes. However, looking at the past year, most of the trips could have been accomplished with one car and no bikes. It would, however, have required a great deal of shuttling people around and dropping then off at different places. The shuttling would result in increased gas and parking cost, and would probably be sufficiently large to have a small impact on the other costs of car ownership.

As for the few times that couldn't be solved by excessive shuttling, a rental car could probably be used. (Though this would require some advanced planning and expense.)

If we span these extra costs over a few years, we probably come close to the money we have spent on bicycles. However, bicycles are much more convenient than overloading car use.

Thus, the garage full of bikes is either a break-even proposition for a similar level of convenience, or a money saving alternative to a second car. Physical activity, exercise, easy communication and stress reduction? Well, that's the free bonus.

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