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Biking in the City: An Economic Assessment

We love bikes, especially fixie bikes, it's fun, it's exercise and really unless you live in the town from Footloose it can be a pretty cool pastime.

But for now we'll put all of that aside as this installment of the Regal Bicycles blog is going to check out the pure economics of owning a bike in an urban setting. This piece will focus on using a bike to get to work, as often times those in urban areas live close enough to basic amenities so that there is no, or less of, a time and financial cost associated with getting to a grocery store or the dry cleaners.  Moreover the motivations for purchasing a car or investing in a monthly transit pass come largely from the need to effectively get to and from work.

We recognize that using a car is often the easiest mode of transport but it can also be an expensive luxury. Cycling may be out of the question after a certain distance, and public transportation is a fantastic institution worthy of greater investment. This discussion applies mostly to those who live in a neighbourhood that enables the use of a bike for everyday activities and errands.

Stats Canada: Average Commute Time to Work

Key Facts to consider from the 2010 Canadian Census:

  • - The national average for commute distance is 7.2km,
  • - 37.8% of Canadians live within 5km of their workplace
  • - Average commuting time for Canadians: 26 minutes.
  • - Average commute time for those with a car: 24 minutes
  • - Average commute time for those taking public transportation: 44 minutes
  • - Average commute time for those walking/cycling: 14 minutes

Financial Cost:

Buying a bike should be seen as an investment; the cost is flexible to the consumer's price range and bicycles can last a long time with minimal maintenance costs. Bicycles also maintain a sound resale value after purchase.

Public transit is a recurring expenditure that only maintains value for the period a given ticket or pass is valid, be it a day, week, or month. When that time expires, money spent does not represent any future asset, but rather assures more money that would need to be spent in the future.

A car, the largest cost of all three has a small resale value as a percentage of initial investment, has recurring costs in the form of gas and oil changes and a high associated maintenance cost.

Time Cost:

A recent study by MIT has suggested that cycling in European cities is faster than taking a car:

"Over an average trip, cyclists travel 2.49 km in 14.7 minutes so their average speed is about 10 km/h. That compares well with the average car speed in inner cities across Europe. During the rush hour, however, the average speed rises to almost 15 km/h, a speed which outstrips the average car speed. And that's not including the time it takes to find a place to park which is much easier for a Velo bike than a car."

Canada has not yet reached that requisite level of bike infrastructure to make a similar claim, but the points around finding a place to park and speed variances during rush hour do resonate.

The time cost with public transit can vary depending on a person's distance to a transit hub, the wait times that are associated with catching a train, subway or bus, and the overall reliability of the system. Many forms of public transit (streetcars, buses) are subject to the same rush hour issues that cars face.

Current Infrastructure and future outlook:

Congestion around major cities in Canada is increasingly getting worse; similarly, the strain on public transit systems are growing larger as commute times rise. Both cars and public transit rely on large scale capital investment projects to improve, and these projects can take easily take years to complete. What's worse is that within cities, there is often a lack of space to improve road infrastructure that would reduce traffic. That means that relief can only come from getting people out of their cars (and into a better public transit system, or even better - onto two wheels).

Canada could be doing better in terms of its cycling paths but things are getting better (shout out to Ottawa, maybe Toronto not so much) and it is easier to be hopeful for a short term solution. Cycling lanes are much cheaper and as a construction project have a much shorter turnaround time.

Mental Health Cost:

It may be easy to suggest that biking has a net advantage in terms of health promotion over other forms of commuting as it is by far the most active. However people who drive for example are not exempt from otherwise living a healthy life style. Isolated to the act of commuting though are a few key facts from the 2010 census that indicate high levels of stress in commuters:

  • - Workers with longer commutes find most days stressful
  • - Drivers find commuting more stressful than those who take public transit even with similar commute times
  • - Traffic congestion is a source of major dissatisfaction (for both drivers and those on public transit) even in shorter commutes

There is no current evidence empirical or otherwise that suggests that these stresses translate over to those who bike to work.

Let's be honest, who isn't woken up by a crisp morning ride? It gets the blood pumping and the wind blowing past your face. And if you ask us, hopping on your fixie on the way home from work has some seriously de-stressing effects.

But all economics aside, let us know, why do you ride to work?

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