Wednesday 27 August 2014

How to reduce your cycling operating costs to less than $150 per year

Summary: I ride my bike daily for 99% of trips between 2km and 20km, and in 2014 (~4000km) my direct cycling expenditures were $0 and my amortized operating costs were around $140. Over the last 3 years, my total cycling operating costs (including amortization) have averaged under $150 a year. Yet, many urban cyclists spend hundreds of dollars a year on cycling and these actual or potential costs can be a barrier to more people riding for more trips year after year. This post provides advice on how and why my cycling operating costs are so low and may help you reduce yours.

Another Bicycle from Paris
Flickr CC by 2.0 - Dustin Gaffke

Related Posts:
> See the "saving money" category of this blog.
Actual cycling expenditures prove how cheap cycling can be
My calculated benefits of cycling for transport

1. Track all of your cycling expenditures
- As they say, you can't manage what you don't measure. Everytime I buy some cycling-related product or service, I just add it to my list. It was also simple enough from my email, credit card statements and cycling website account orders to compile the historical purchases. See: Actual cycling expenditures prove how cheap cycling can be. I've tracked both good and bad purchases as the bad purchases are useful reminders of mistakes I shouldn't make again.

- By applying all of the advice below regarding the type of bike and equipment to get, minimising cycling-specific accessories, rejecting consumerism and pointless upgrades, preventing theft/damage and performing most of your own maintenance you can drastically reduce your cycling operating costs. In the table below, I've provided accurate estimates of my operating costs (having now learnt these lessons) versus ballpark estimates for a typical utility cyclist. Note that some of these costs are amortized. E.g. My tyres only need to be replaced every 5 years so the total replacement cost of $75 is divided by 5 to produce a yearly operating cost.

Operating Cost ItemMy Expenditure (4,000km)Typical Expenditure (4,000km)
Puncture repair (inc emergency bike shop repair)$0 / year
(I use puncture-proof tyres)
$25 / year
Clothing replacement$5 / year
(Only cheap jacket, gloves)
$50 / year
Chain lubricant and cleaning products$7 / year$20 / year
Tyre replacement$15 / year
(Highly durable tyres)
$25 / year
Brake shoe, brake cable replacement$8 / year
(Cheap pads; I brake gently)
$20 / year
Replacing light batteries and broken lights or mounts$0 / year
(I use rechargeable USB lights with robust attachments)
$20 / year
Replacement of other components$0 / year
(My bike doesn't have them)
$20 / year
Drivetrain and Bottom bracket replacement$13 / year amortized
(I ride a durable, single gear to destruction)
$50 / year
Replacement of other essential equipment$10 / year
(Inexpensive; they last a long time)
$40 / year
Cycling-specific food, gels, energy drinks, etc.$0 / year
(I don't buy extra food or drinks)
$20 / year
Multiple accessories that aren't necessary$0 / year
(I don't buy them)
$25 / year
Consumerist, status and fashion motivated purchases$0 / year
(I don't buy them)
$20 / year
Unnecessary component upgrades$0 / year
(I don't buy them)
$20 / year
Theft and damage losses$0 / year
(I use U locks, multiple when necessary)
$60 / year
Bike shop servicing$0 / year
(I do my own)
$100 / year
Cycling fines$0 / year
(I know and follow the rules that matter)
$20 / year
Bike and liability insurance$5 / year
(I self-insure and will likely never need it)
$80 / year
Depreciation of bike(s) cost$75 / year
(My bike cost only $380)
$150 / year
Total Operating Costs:~$138 / year~$765 / year

- Note this isn't a competition to see who can get by with the least expenditure. The purpose of the above table is primarily to provide specific actions for anyone struggling with the costs of using a bike for transport. There are clearly many areas in which money can be spent and thus also saved. However, if your cycling costs are already completely affordable and some of your expenditures (clothing, equipment) simply lead you to use your bike more often, this isn't a situation that needs change. Just keep riding and use this guidance to protect yourself from the hidden, potential costs (e.g. theft, cycling fines).

2. Obtain a quality, durable, low maintenance bicycle
- My first Melbourne bike (2008) was bought from eBay for $140. It was a low quality, heavy, slow mountain bike. It came poorly assembled and, as a result, its ultra-cheap disc brakes got ruined on the first day. Its chain and gears started rusting quickly and I stopped using it after around a month.

- The key to low operating costs is to have a quality, durable, robust and low maintenance bike. Avoid "bike shaped objects" from eBay and general department stores. Understand the different styles of bikes available, choose a bike suitable for your likely trips, and consider the ongoing maintenance needs upfront.
What type of bike should I buy?
Key decisions that will help narrow down the most suitable bike to buy

My Fuji Declaration 2012 single speed with essential equipment

3. Make bike type/component choices that optimise simplicity, robustness and low maintenance (e.g. single speed or internal gear hubs)
- I discuss many of these key choices relating to maximising simplicity, robustness, durability and low maintenance here: The best existing design solutions for transport utility bicycles

- The biggest choice affecting future operating costs is whether to get a single speed bike or one with internal gear hubs as opposed to a bike with an exposed drivetrain - derailleurs and multiple front chain rings and rear cogs (gears). Exposed drivetrains ridden in all weather will require much more frequent replacement of parts, servicing and adjustment. Most non-enthusiast cyclists are not inclined to fully service exposed drivetrains and so must visit a bike shop for regular servicing or put up with a bike that doesn't run smoothly.

- Strong, rust-proof frames and components that will last many years even if ridden in all weather are another key choice. Hardened aluminium or Cr-Mo steel frames with quality welds and rust-protecting finishes are the best choice. Such frames will last decades.

- Puncture-proof tyres eliminate all of the ongoing operating costs of new tubes, puncture repair kits, bike shop visits and having to use fallback options (e.g. taxis). See: Puncture-proof tyres are the key to reliable transport

4. Only buy essential gear that is high quality, long-lasting and flexible
- I discuss the essential equipment and gear I have bought and use here: Essential gear for cycling and what type to get. Once you have all of the essentials, you should only need to buy something new when they need to be replaced. If you've bought the right type of low maintenance gear, replacements and operating costs will be minimal.

- For example, front and rear lights are essential gear but you can learn from others experience and avoid the cycle of buying lights that: (a) Need batteries to be replaced - get USB rechargeable ones; (b) Have attachments that break after regular use; (c) Can't be flexibly attached (e.g. to saddle bags rather than seat posts); (d) Lose power too quickly; (e) Get damaged or stolen easily.

5. Make flexible use of clothing you already own and layers rather than having many cycling-specific clothes for different weather or seasons
- For example, I have one rain jacket that I also use as an extra layer in winter rather than having a different jacket for the cold. The rain jacket also folds up small and fits in my saddle bag. All of the other variations I make in layering are clothes I already own, just like I would do when walking in different seasons in Melbourne. There is little need for cycling-specific clothing for most utility cyclists making their common trips if the distances are less than 15km.

- You can apply the principles of layering and mostly use your existing clothes and, if necessary, purchase any new clothing elements that you can wear for both cycling and non-cycling purposes. My existing sports clothes (shirts and shorts) are also often used for cycling.
> Tredz: Layering for cyclists
> Bike Magic: Essential Guide: It’s all about the layers
Solve the sweat problem without showers and changing clothes

6. Use other methods to make cycling comfortable rather than depending on multiple products
- I also have just one pair of full-length, waterproof gloves that I use when it's cold - not also a half-length pair and other gloves of different thickness and material. Conversely, my girlfriend has acquired three pairs of cycling gloves with varying protection from the cold and switches between them. While my gloves aren't sufficient to keep my fingers warm when it's really cold, I just vary my pace and clench my fists to warm my hands up.

- Remember that while having the right type of gear can make cycling comfortable and thus something you actually choose more often it is also worthwhile being capable of a level of robustness. Then when you temporarily don't have the perfect gear or experience exceptional circumstances you will have methods to handle this rather than be miserable or give up.

7. Reject consumerism, status anxiety and being a fashion victim
- Buying something because your peers are or it has higher status or is currently fashionable is not necessary but is the actual driver for most discretionary purchases and cycling is no exception. Many people rationalise these purchases as actually providing greater utility but, in truth, it isn't necessity or a radical improvement in usefulness behind most ongoing cycling equipment purchases, particularly accessories like clothing, shoes and bags.

- Also remember that all sources of information that need to make money are engineered to sell you stuff you probably don't need even if under the banner of "everyday cycling". For example, Momentum Magazine has some interesting articles but also exists to sell you more fashionable, expensive versions of things you either already have (bells, handlebar grips) or don't need (waxed canvas bike bags, bike speakers).

8. Eliminate performance and upgrade anxiety. Focus on value-for-money utility for your circumstances
- Just as human beings tend to be on a hedonic treadmill (your happiness stays about the same despite positive and negative events) your enjoyment and satisfaction with cycling isn't likely to be affected much by additional upgrades once you already have something that is fit for purpose. While enthusiast cyclists and cycling sites/forums may suggest that your wheel rims, gear shifters, drivetrain, saddle, pedals, bike computer, etc could all be upgraded as technology improves to boost performance, efficiency and enjoyment the difference is rarely significant or worthwhile.

- For components that are objectively superior (e.g. disc brakes compared to rim brakes) make sure your decision test is whether the actual utility for your circumstances is worthwhile and value-for-money. In Australia, utility cyclists typically don't ride in wet conditions often enough to merit needing disc brakes (unless inexpensive, mechanical ones).

9. Minimise damage and theft risks
- If you park or use your bike in areas where it is exposed to significant risks from damage or theft, take steps to minimise the risk. For example, using small rechargeable lights that you take with you. Or securing anything that may be a theft target to your bike if you don't take it with you when you park. If buying integrated features (lights, electric assist) choose a bike design that protects these from theft and damage. E.g. See the design of the Vanmoof lights and electric assist battery here: The best existing design solutions for transport utility bicycles

- A key way to miminise the chance of theft (of your bike or its parts) is not to use expensive, desirable parts that aren't necessary. For example, a Brooks saddle is expensive, desirable and easily recognised - so if exposed to theft risk it is better not to opt for such components. See: How to prevent your bike being stolen

Mangled Rear Wheel
Flickr CC by 2.0 - itsbruce

10. Learn how to perform as much of the necessary maintenance yourself
- If you've obtained a low maintenance bike and equipment you've already eliminated all unnecessary maintenance tasks (e.g. fixing punctures, adjusting the derailleurs). You'll be left with just the common bicycle maintenance tasks that apply to every utility cyclist. Most of these tasks are very easy to learn how to do and only require a few, inexpensive tools. Being able to do these tasks yourself will save a lot of money over the long run. A large proportion of the yearly operating costs of regular, utility cyclists is due to the cost of getting bikes serviced. In Melbourne, the typical service (not including replacing parts) costs $70-100.

- For all common maintenance tasks (e.g. lubrication, mounting wheels/tyres, adjusting brakes, trueing wheels, adjusting saddles, adjusting derailleurs), I have a post with links to the best video guides I've been available to find. See: The best how-to guides for common maintenance tasks

- You can find links to many of the inexpensive tools I've purchased for this maintenance here: Actual cycling expenditures prove how cheap cycling can be. E.g. My spoke wrench cost $8 and I now do all wheel trueing myself. Bike shops in Melbourne charge $18-25 a wheel to true them. If you live within 10km of Fitzroy North, register on Streetbank and you can try using such tools to fix your bike before buying your own and becoming self-sufficient.
bike day may 2009
Flickr CC by 2.0 - bagaball

11. Eliminate cycling fines, repairs/costs due to accidents and insurance fees
- Getting heavy fines for using your bike conveniently and safely can be a major disincentive to riding for transport. However, there are simple ways to eliminate the chance of fines which I've summarised here: How to avoid cycling fines with minimum inconvenience

- By equipping your bike properly and learning how to ride safely (including developing the skills needed) you can also virtually eliminate the chance of accidents and costs due to repairs (for your bike or others property) and injury. Everyone makes some mistakes initially but if you learn from them you'll soon be riding without any fear of accidents. I ride daily throughout the year and haven't had an accident since June 2012.
The most important tips on how to ride safely
Actual cycling accident history proves how safe it can be

- Once you've virtually eliminated the chance of serious accidents or injury it is just common sense not to waste money on paying others for insurance. Mathematically you will be better off by self-insuring. See: Self-insurance usually beats paying for bike insurance

12. Minimise the number of bikes you need, don't overspend on them and don't replace them unnecessarily
- Most utility cyclists can choose a single bike that is efficient, comfortable and robust enough to cover their most regular trips (e.g. commuting) and also general getting around. If they fit that bike out to make it practical and flexible, they are unlikely to need multiple bikes unless there is a special usage like hauling cargo. See: How many different bikes do I really need?

- If your bike is at significant risk of theft if you wish to freely use it and park it outside, you definitely need to ensure you don't overspend so that your bike becomes a theft target. See: How to prevent your bike being stolen. However, if the theft risk is manageable (e.g. you mostly keep the bike in secure areas and use multiple, strong locks when you aren't) then don't rule out getting a bike like a Vanmoof if you can afford it and it means you'll be riding a lot more and saving money in the long run.

- In my post: My calculated benefits of cycling for transport, the major annual operating cost is an estimated depreciation of $75/year as I've estimated my $380 Fuji Declaration bike will be ridden for 5 years. In reality, it could easily last much longer but, as I can easily afford it, I may decide to get a new bike before I need to. The key point regarding annual operating costs is that if you minimise the number and expense of your bikes your annual depreciation will also be minimised. It's important to track depreciation as otherwise it's tempting to just buy a new bike whenever your current one becomes unsatisfactory, including due to not being maintained.

13. Remember that the key to saving money overall is to reduce the number of cars you own and your car usage
- Cycling operating costs are part of your total transport costs and so if the affordability of cycling is an issue, you should consider it in that wider context. Typically, the big financial savings come only when you are able to reduce the number of cars you need to own to meet your transport needs. So if spending more on bikes, equipment and accessories leads you to reducing your car ownership it can easily be justified financially. This infographic from MintLife provides some perspective on annual cycling operating costs compared to cars:

MintLife: A Visual Guide to How Cycling Can Save You Money

Further Info:
Mint: The true cost of bike ownership

Perth Urbanist: Become an unimaginably frugal bike-riding superhero

Get Rich Slowly: Reader Stories: Bicycle commuting and frugality

Forbes: Pedaling to Prosperity: Biking Saves U.S. Riders Billions A Year

Bicycles StackExchange: How much does bike price correspond with maintenance needs?

Mr Money Mustache: What Do You Mean “You Don’t Have a Bike”?!

The Guardian: How much money (and time) does cycling to work actually save you?

Cycle to Work Calculator

Ask Metafilter: Bike costs - am I doing it wrong?
> Reply from bike mechanic - spikelee...

Bicycle Network Forum: Maintenance
Bicycle Network Forums: Cost of owning a bicycle

Leon Arundell: The cost of cycling (pdf)