Make money by commuting on your bicycle

August 31, 2007 | By | 29 Replies More

There are lots of reasons for you to be commuting by bicycle, but many of you who could cycle to work are still burning expensive gasoline to get there.  What’s it going to take to get you out of that expensive car and onto a high-precision, environment-friendly, health-enhancing bicycle?  How about some money?  Not just gas money, either. Read on.  This post might change your life in a dozen healthy and bank-account enhancing ways. 

More than half of Americans live less than 5 miles from the place where they work. That’s easy striking range for a bicycle.  Studies have shown that trips of less than 3 miles are often quicker by bike, and urban trips of 5 to 7 miles usually take about the same time.  Here are more statistics to consider:

According to the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey, 25 percent of all trips are made within a mile of the home, 40 percent of all trips are within two miles of the home, and 50 percent of the working population commutes five miles or less to work. Yet more than 82 percent of trips five miles or less are made by personal motor vehicle.

I’m one of the many people who live about five-miles from my place of employment.  Traveling five miles to work takes me only about 25 minutes.  This is only about 10 minutes more than it would take to drive to work in good traffic. 

I have commuted to work by bicycle since 1998.  Making the change from car to bike seemed so difficult and intimidating, until I made the change.  Looking back, I wonder why it seemed like such a difficult decision. 

[My trusty Trek 7900.  I purchased it 5 years ago for $500] 

I admit that cycling to work is not for everyone. Many people live long distances from their place of work.  Many people need to transport several children or heavy equipment every morning and evening.  Some people really do have physical limitations that make bicycle commuting impossible.  But chances are that many of you who are reading this don’t fall into any of these categories.

Many millions of Americans are terrific candidates for bicycle commuting.  Some of you can even combine use of a bicycle with public transportation, stretching your transportation access across your city.  Where I live, for example (in St. Louis, Missouri), you can roll your bicycle onto a light rail train or place it on a rack in the front of a public bus.  This has allowed me to quickly “bicycle commute” to places 10 or 15-miles away from my home. 

I’ve tried to anticipate many excuses for not cycling to work.  People who having tried bicycle commuting yet will resist the thought.   Many of you just don’t want to consider this healthy and cost-saving change.  Why?  Because it’s a change . . .  Check out these lists of responses to the most common excuses for not commuting by bicycle, here and here As you can see, they’ve anticipated your main concerns.  BTW, there are TONS of good bicycle websites out there.  You have no excuse for lacking information on how to buy a bike, how to repair it and how to enjoy it.

I started commuting by bicycle because I was compelled to work especially long stressful hours for several months straight.  After several weeks of this crushing work, it became apparent that I was not getting enough exercise and that I was feeling over-anxious while sitting at my desk.  I decided to run an experiment one morning: I hopped on my bicycle and rode to work for the first time. It felt a little strange and I felt out of place rolling up to my office building on a bicycle—it even felt a bit embarrassing.  After all, this is not how most people who work in office buildings get to work. Not in a conservative city of the American Mid-West, anyway.  I quickly got used to this change, though. I have been commuting by bicycle ever since.  In fact, when I die, they will have trouble prying my handlebars from my cold dead fingers.

Statistics show that only 2% of Americans take the opportunity to commute by bicycle.  Here’s another interesting bicycle statistic: Nineteen percent of those who rode their bicycles to work reported that their commute was the most pleasant activity of their day. In contrast, only two percent of workers who drove to work liked that part of their day. The advantages to commuting by bicycle are numerous.  The exercise of cycling to work lowers your stress level at work.  You will find that you no longer need to make time to exercise, because you will be building your exercise into your day, making exercise a natural and sustainable part of your life. 

Oh, yes. I promised to tell you how to make money by commuting on a bicycle . . .   If I walked up and handed you $200 would you consider that to be a significant sum of money?  Of course you would.  You’ll save significant money by cycling to work.  You’ll no longer need to purchase gasoline for your work commute.  I’ve calculated that I save at least $200 per year in gasoline costs because use a bicycle instead of a car.  Imagine filling two gallon-sized milk cartons with gasoline every week.  I save that much gas every week, even though I drive an efficient car that gets almost 30 mpg.  You might save much more than that.

Using your car less often will result in other cost savings:  fewer car repairs, fewer oil changes and possibly a discount on your auto insurance (based on a smaller number of commute miles you’ll need to report).   But there’s even more. You can cancel that expensive health club membership, because you’ll be getting great exercise while you travel to work.   If your employer pays for your work-related parking, consider relinquishing those privileges in exchange for cash; why would your employer care whether it pays your “garage” money to you directly?  I did that for years at my previous employer, thereby “earning” more than $1000 per year.  If you pay a daily fee to park your car, it’s even easier; every day you hop on a bike and pedal to work, it’s like you just paid your self the amount that you would have paid to park your car (at $10/day, that adds up to $2,500/year).  And here’s another thing to consider: because you’re much less stressed after cycling to work, you can quit seeing that expensive therapist so often.  Free mobile meditation time! Here’s another thing to bank on:  if there is a God, I have no doubt that He/She approves of you riding your bike.  At least you’ll never find anything about driving a car in the Bible . . .

When you start commuting by bicycle, you might encounter some minor obstacles.  For instance, when I was hired at my current job, the manager of the large office building told me that no bicycles were allowed in the building, including in the parking garage.  In other words, the official policy was to allow large pollution-producing machines in the garage, but not an environmentally-friendly bicycle. I solved that problem by simply talking to a person in charge of the garage.  He invited me to ignore the official policy and I now lock up my bike next to a stairway in the corner of the garage.  You might hear similar silliness.  Don’t be deterred!

If you’re new to bicycle commuting, there are various approaches to changing clothes when you get to work.  Here are some ideas on changing into work clothes. I highly recommend not riding to work in a business suit, especially when it comes to long commutes in hot weather.  Rather, take your clothes with you in a backpack or in bicycle panniers (bags that hook onto the rear rack of a bicycle). When you roll up your clothes, they really don’t get wrinkled. Amazing little trick! 

A lot of people assume that you need to take a shower when you get the work.  I find that taking a shower before I start my commute works great, at least for my 5-mile distance.  For insurance, use deodorant, but smell has never been an issue with me—yes, I’ve asked my co-workers!  When I arrive at work, I use a towel to quickly dry off, hitting my hair quickly to avoid “helmet head hair.” I usually cool down while looking through my mail. I’m lucky to have my own office, so I simply close my door while I’m cooling down and I eventually change into work clothes. 

I admit that on some occasions I don’t actually cycle to work.  For instance, I sometimes need to appear in court wearing a suit (I’m an attorney).   On those days, I often drive to court. I also avoid riding when there’s ice or snow on the ground.  There are many people who are braver than I am in this respect.  In fact, there are bicycle websites from some of the colder states where people excel on riding bikes on ice and snow. I suspect that co-author Grumpypilgrim will supplement this post with a few of those sites where the authors even give advice on how to ride when it’s less than 20°, less than zero or less than 10 below.  That kind of talk amazes me.  It makes my toes feel frozen just thinking about it.  On the other hand, I will ride a bike whenever the high temperature is at least going to be somewhere in the 20s. In many cities, most days qualify.   The trick is to dress in layers.  It really works. There are also some special gloves and head coverings that keep you warm when others can’t believe you’re out there on a bicycle.

Oh, yeah . . . “But what if it rains?”  Here’s a little secret.  It won’t rain.  Ignore those “60% chance of showers” forecasts.   For those times when it really rains, you’ll get wet.  Big deal.  Get a cheap riding poncho and have a towel ready at work.   Here’s the real trick.  Every morning, assume that you’re going to ride your bike to work.  Know that you will ride unless there is a great excuse not to ride.   Don’t wake up wondering whether you should ride to work.  Yes, you’re tired.  You stayed up too late last night, you think your bones hurt and you’d rather hop in that gas-guzzling monster and listen to your expensive car radio, you think.  Once you’re on the road on your bicycle, though, you’ll feel the breeze and you’ll see and hear sights and sounds of real people.  You’ll be energizing and tuning your muscles so that when you’re on foot later that day, you’ll bound up stairways, ahead of all of those slow grunting people who fell to the temptation of gasoline.  When many of those high-stress car-sitting-overweight-lazy-arterial-plaque-laden types are hospitalized for their strokes and heart attacks someday, you’ll still be zooming around with your muscle-powered high-precision two-wheeled rocket.  Isn’t this alone a great reason to join the ranks of the ecologically-friendly road warriors? 

Some people think that riding a bicycle requires the purchase of expensive equipment.  Not true. A brand-new quality bicycle can be bought for about $350 at a bike shop.  If you want to really load up your bike with accessories, you can pay another $350.  Common accessories might include a high-quality light for night riding, panniers, odometer/speedometer, bike lock and helmet.  Don’t forget the helmet!  Alternatively, there are many people out there whose garages contain un-utilized bicycles. Ask your neighbors and friends if they want to sell a bike.  Probably every other adult in the country has a used bike they’re willing to sell cheap.  If it’s not in perfect shape, take it to a bicycle shop for a tune-up or learn to do this yourself by referring to one of the many great bicycle repair sites on the Internet (e.g., see here or here). 

Don’t be intimidated about buying a new bike.  Just go to your neighborhood bike shop, do some test riding and buy yourself a name-brand bike.  There are several styles available (mountain, road bikes or hybrids) and they are all far better (and almost always cheaper) than anything you could have bought 20 years ago. 

The main caveat on buying a bicycle is to avoid cheap bicycles sold by stores such as Kmart.  You find that these big store bicycles are not nearly the quality as bicycle shop bikes and they tend to be rather heavy, which can affect your enjoyment of your ride.  Here are some other tips on bike equipment.  The bottom line on bike expenses is this.  If your car needed a $500 repair, you’d just do it.  After all, it’s your transportation, you’d think.  Compared to the suction that cars do to your bank account, bicycles and bicycle repairs are laughably cheap.  Think of your bicycle as your transportation and the costs of owning/operating/repairing your bike come into context.

I do much of my commuting in the dark, especially in the winter.  For those of you who want to ride at night, please remember that unless you take serious precautions, you will be entirely invisible to the people driving motor vehicles.  Therefore, I recommend several measures.  First of all, wear reflective clothing.  Make sure your bike has reflectors on the back and front. In fact, I wouldn’t feel safe riding a bicycle without high-quality lights on the front and back.  Decent quality taillights can be bought for $25 or more.  To get a real headlight, however, you will need to spend at least $100.  I’ve use lighting products manufactured by a company called Niterider.  These are top quality lights that cost about $300.   Luckily, lighting technology is improving month to month, and new lower-priced higher-efficiency lights are constantly entering the market.  Keep in mind that you might not need lighting equipment unless you plan to ride in the dark.  I probably ride 500 miles per year in the dark, sharing some busy roads with motor vehicles.  For me, then, there is no option. 

One more thing about riding in the dark. On those nights when I need to work especially late, I experience a special treat riding home.  Clean crisp night air fills the quiet city after the fossil-fuel commuters are long gone.  The breeze is magic and, as you sail through that quietude, you too will think magic thoughts.

Safety should be a huge concern for those riding bicycles.  You are extremely vulnerable out there, mixing it up with speeding vehicles made of heavy metal.  You need to constantly operate your bicycle with the assumption that someone will not see you, even in the daytime.  You should assume that cars will occasionally do boneheaded things like suddenly turning in front of you.  On the other hand, I have been delighted with the number of motorists who recognize that I am out there and who consider my safety needs.  In almost ten years, I’ve traveled almost 13,000 miles, without an accident.  I try to return that consideration by obeying the traffic laws (bicyclists riding on public streets are required to obey the traffic laws).

In almost ten years of riding, I have had thousands of motorists respect my right to share the road with them.  This doesn’t mean that I hog a single lane of traffic, however, holding up dozens of cars.  Bicycles are much slower than cars (usually), and I don’t want to make enemies. I typically travel at about 11-18 mph.  Although I have a right to the road, I try to let faster vehicles have their way, eventually. There are many websites that discuss strategies for how to share the road with motorists, such as Trailnet and the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin (or see herehere or here) Before assuming you know how to ride a bicycle in traffic, it is critically important to review the information on websites like these.  I don’t mean to frighten anyone away with the dangers of cycling.  After all driving a car is dangerous, as is crossing a street on foot.   When you get into good habits, they tend to take care of you.

One of the main ways to be safe is to plan routes that avoid heavy traffic.  You’ll find that you can ride your bicycle as fast (or faster) using side streets rather than those congested main roads.  I highly recommend this strategy. Here are more tips on planning your route) In my opinion, one of the most important ways of being safe on a bicycle is to avoid traveling during the middle of rush hour.  Something happens to the brains of motorists during rush hour.  They become obsessed with getting where they’re trying to go, picking up their kids, making dinner, everyone else be damned.  You’ll find cars cutting in and out and otherwise driving aggressively.  You’ll also find that there’s more exhaust out there in rush hour; it’s both annoying and harmful to your health.  You’ll avoid all of these problems if you can stagger your ride to avoid the peak of rush hour and to choose a route that avoids the main roads.

Here’s another advantage of riding a bike to work: you can become an amateur anthropologist.  When you get on the elevator on your way up to your office, the well-dressed people will glance at you wearing your bike clothing and helmet. They sometimes treat you with some condescension because they assume that you’re the delivery guy.  These are the same people on the same elevators that will treat me as an equal when I’m wearing a suit. By the way, the janitorial staff and other hourly workers will often find you to be more accessible than when you’re wearing your real business clothes and strike up some enjoyable conversation with you.

If you’ve got children, you might still be able to bicycle commuting into your life.  When my two children were very young, I pulled them to their preschool in a bike trailer designed for that very purpose (I used a Burley trailer, though there are other good brands too).  It was a 2-mile commute and it only took a little bit longer than riding without the trailer. Now that my kids are older, I still have that bike trailer, which I use for hauling groceries home (the grocery store is only about 2 miles away, which amounts to a 12-minute ride each way).  I’ve often cycled home from the produce market loaded with two huge watermelons and other produce.  You’ll amaze yourself with the amount of groceries you can fit into a trailer (unless, of course your children are strapped in!). 

I still have a car and it is often indispensable.  As you can tell, though, the bicycle has worked well for me. I am amazed at how often a bicycle can get me from here to there quickly, cheaply and with free exercise built-in.  My children are now aged seven and nine, and they are starting to build up some good stamina.  This will only increase the number of troops that are feasible by bicycle (they seem to enjoy trips of up to 3-miles each way, and they’re getting more ambitious each month).

The bottom line?  There are millions of you out there who would benefit from bicycle commuting.  Not only would you benefit form the freedom of biking.  You will probably never go back to commuting by motor vehicle.

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Category: Consumerism, Energy, Environment, Health, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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