Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

The Tally

Riding w_trailer

After nearly seven months of going “car-lite” (that is, virtually car-free), I decided to do a year-end tally of the costs and benefits.

For the last 7 months, I have done almost all my commuting to work by a combination of bike and bus.  It takes longer, but fortunately I have a job that allows me to do some of my work while I’m riding the bus (checking email, doing routine paperwork, etc), and thus the time on the bus is not wasted time, as it is in the car.  I found that once I adjusted to the bus schedule, I actually arrived at work less stressed because I already had accomplished several tasks on the bus and I didn’t have to hassle with traffic and parking.  For part of my commute home, I ride my bike, which is necessary because the second leg of my two-bus ride stops running after 7 pm, and I must ride home (the absurdity of stopping bus service after 7 pm is the subject for another day).  The upside is that this bike ride home has become the most enjoyable part of my day.  I have figured out a route for this 10-mile ride that is relatively low stress because part of it is on a dedicated bike path and I’m able to take side streets for the remainder, on which traffic is relatively light during the time I’m riding.  It is a great way to unwind, de-stress, and get my cardio exercise.  This means I no longer have to go to the gym 3 days a week, which not only further reduces my driving but also combines my commute time and my exercise time.

As many of my readers know, I also run most of my errands by bike, and I’ve been using the cargo trailer to do most of my grocery shopping (see photo, above).  Again, once I figured out my route and my routine, it became as easy as taking the car and has the added benefits of reducing my automobile usage and providing me with more exercise.

I’m not superman.  I sometimes have used my car, like the day in October it was raining heavily and I was struggling to get over a nasty head cold.  I drove to work that day.  My arthritic knee gives me problems sometimes, and I might forego a big haul with the trailer on those days.  My wife still uses her car as she always has, and she takes my daughter to school most weekday mornings, and picks her up in the afternoon.  For family outings, we’ll usually all get in my wife’s minivan.  But my son, who goes to the local community college, has been using the bus to get to school, and my daughter and I ride our bikes to her middle school one day a week.  I’m not ready or willing to sell my car … yet.  Last weekend I finally had to fill my tank, but the fact is I’ve cut way down on my driving and I can actually imagine life without a car—something most of my fellow Americans cannot do.

So, what is my tally after 6 months of car-lite living?

Health:  When I embarked on this experiment, I used to work out about 3 days a week at the gym.  Since then, I have biked just about every day.  Sometimes it has been for a short ride to the post office or coffee shop, other days riding home from work, and still others pulling a cargo trailer loaded with groceries or other household supplies.  In that time I have not changed my diet (in fact, I think I eat a little more, because I’m always burning calories), and I’ve dropped 10 lbs, and about an inch in my waist.  Better yet, I feel great.  I no longer get winded as easily as I did before.  All-in-all, in addition to the physical well-being, my cycling has improved my mood, and I’m a much happier person when I ride my bike.

Money:  The last time I put gas into my car was June 7, 2012.  When I used to drive everywhere, I would need to fill my tank an average of about once every  9 days (less in the summer, when my work schedule slows down).  According to my estimation, adjusting for summer, this has saved me about 20 trips to the gas station since June.  The gas tank in my Corrolla holds about 10 gallons.  That means I’ve avoided burning about 200 gallons of gas since June.  If I estimate an average price of about $3.90 per gallon over that time period, that means I have saved about $780 in gas since June 7.  That’s almost $800 that stays in my pocket instead of going to pad the obscene profit margins of the likes of Exxon and BP.  The pleasure of sticking it to the oil companies: priceless.  My Corolla gets approximately 30 mpg, so that means I haven’t driven about 6,000 miles.  That’s an oil change for every 3,000 miles that I haven’t had to pay for.  At about $40.00 each at my local mechanic, that saves me about another $80.  Figure another $20 saved in parking.  My total estimated savings since June: about $880.

Environment:   According to the US EPA, each gallon of gasoline adds about 8887 grams (or a little over 19 lbs) of CO2 to the earth’s atmosphere.  This does not include the greenhouse gas produced by extraction and transportation of the fuel, so this is simply the CO2 coming from my tailpipe.  By not burning 200 gallons since June, I’ve avoided adding approximately 3,800 lbs of CO2 to the atmosphere—nearly 2 tons.  In addition, I’ve also avoided adding a significant amount of smog-producing crap like Nitrogen Oxide (NOx), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Ozone, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter (including brake and rubber dust) to the air we breathe as well.

Costs:  Of course, I had to buy a bike to commute with (about $1,200, when racks, fenders, lights, and pannier are factored in), and my croozer cargo trailer (about $120).  There are cheaper alternatives on the bicycle market, not to mention used bikes, but I am hard to fit and was looking for a particular bike setup, so I paid a bit more than one might expect for a commuter bike.  I have not bought any cycling-specific clothing, though I did buy a good rain shell ($100 on sale), helmet ($80), and cycling gloves ($20).  Total amount spent on commuter bike setup: about $1,500.

From a purely short-term economic standpoint, my bicycle commuting has cost me a little over $600 in 2012.  However, if I continue to commute by bike in 2013 (that is my intention), I should recoup the rest of those costs some time in the spring, depending on how often I drive this winter.  Longer-term, I think the benefits to my health and well-being (not to mention the environment) far outweigh the costs.

It has not been easy, but not because bicycling itself is hard.  The hardest part of my experience has been the time and effort dealing with an infrastructure designed around the automobile.  This necessitates taking time to scout out routes that are safe for bikes when traveling to a new place (nothing like finding yourself on an arterial road with cars whizzing by you at 45 mph and no bike lane) and the frustration of dealing with the lack of something as simple as a secure place to lock your bike at your destination.  Despite these difficulties, I am convinced that it is not only possible, but enjoyable, for the average suburban American to use a bike for at least some basic transportation needs. Even in the short term, it’s worth it.

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