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Bikenomics: Whose Streets?

This post is excerpted from the Whose Streets? chapter of Elly's book Bikenomics. You can pre-order the book here. The publisher will begin shipping preorders around October 25th.

One of the biggest barriers to bicycling people report is simply access to a bicycle. Getting started biking can be overwhelming, and it does cost money—but it doesn’t have to break the bank. A low-end but good quality commuter bicycle can be had for under $500 new, though $500 to $1,000 is a safe range to estimate. Used bicycles can cost considerably less, and if you live near a community bike shop, you can get a good quality bike for free, in exchange for labor and learning. Add-ons like child seats, panniers, and sturdy kickstands also run the gamut of pricing, from stupidly high to nearly free. Cheaper bikes are available at large department stores, but more expensive bikes from local bike shops last longer, so it’s a trade off. Or you could scour the internet, thrift stores and yard sales for a much cheaper vintage bike. A tune up to scrape off the rust might cost $150—about the same as buying that big box store bike new. Helmets, locks, and lights are another expense—you could spend up to $100 for these basics, though it would be easy to spend somewhat less or quite a bit more if you were inclined.

On the high end, a fancy European cargo bike might set you back as much as $4,000. If your heart is set on an electric pedal assist, that could add another $2,000. This brings us up to the sticker price of a decent-quality used car, which is in fact the vehicle that many of these bicycles are being bought to supplement or replace. This high end is not the norm, but many families and small business owners are finding that this sort of investment makes sense. So are the banks in west coast cities that are starting to offer special financing packages for bicycles.

As with cars, of course, it’s the annual cost that really matters. There is no standard yet for calculating this for bicycles, though one estimate puts bicycle operating costs at an average cost of $100 to $300 per year, if you annualize the cost of bike purchase and maintenance.

In terms of what people actually spend, nobody seems to be counting, at least not with the same rigor that other transportation investments are considered. At the low end, you can do all the maintenance yourself, with the help of a book or the internet. You’d only need to buy a few new parts a year, plus a set of new tires every so often—it’s possible to keep your bike in good running shape for well under $100 a year. If you let a bike shop take care of your maintenance, you might spend as much as $300 a year, or a bit more if you like to outfit your transportation bike with gadgets and gear. A 1997 survey of relatively well-off bike commuters found their average costs were $714 a year, including new bikes, maintenance, gear, and special bike clothes. Any way you play it, it’s a screaming deal.

Bicycles gain or lose value, but the amounts at stake are considerably lower than with cars. Because bicycles are simpler machines, a good quality one can hold its value for decades, and it isn’t uncommon to see them passed down from parent to adult child, forty years after the fact. Moreover, the used bike market is not predictable—it’s common to get a deal on a good used bike and then resell it, five years later, for more than what you paid for it.

Children’s bikes are subject to depreciation in the U.S., as the ones available are almost universally produced cheaply, intended to be scrapped once their original owners outgrow them. A few sturdier ones are on the market here, and these, along with imports of better-made European models, hold their value extremely well. More expensive bicycles generally hold their value better by virtue of being rare or imported.

But are bicycles practical for transportation? Stories of bicycling families like Sarah Noga’s are inspiring, and the math is compelling, but it’s still hard for many to really imagine the logistics of the transition from a car to a bicycle.

The first thing I remember being surprised that I could carry on my bicycle was a television. It wasn’t a large TV, but it wasn’t a tiny one either. My friend was moving and offered it to me. I carried it out to my bike, balanced it on the rear rack, and strapped it down tightly with a bungie cord. Would it stay there, or would it come crashing down, spilling shattered glass all over the road? I wasn’t sure, but it seemed steady enough, so I set off for home. There was no disaster, and I barely noticed the extra weight and bulk on my bike. No problem, I thought. My horizons had opened.

Since then I have carried any amount of unlikely cargo, on my regular bicycle, equipped with nothing more than a rack. A couple of large panniers attached to the sides of the rack is all I’ve needed for most things: Going to work, staffing events, camping trips, grocery shopping, dropping off boxes at the post office… if I can’t fit everything inside them, I’ll strap some of it on top of the rack, or wear a backpack.

I’ve carried bulkier things, too. A few years later, there was another, larger television—this one required two bungie cords. There was a large office chair—the swiveling kind with arms and a high back—resting upside down on the rack. I debated the best way to carry a full-length mirror, and ended up resting it horizontally across the rack. Like the bicycle repair stand I bought and rode home with a year later, it had an amazing traffic calming effect—nobody felt inclined to pass me too closely.

Over the years, I bought a trailer—and then a cargo bike— and then a trailer for the cargo bike—and that’s when things got really out of hand. I’ve moved a full size bed and frame (with a friend riding on top of the bed), a drafting table, a sleeper sofa, my dog, another bicycle and its rider, a load of twelve foot long 2x4s, and half a garden’s worth of plants.

Car sharing services are available in my neighborhood if I need them, but I never have. In the rare case that there’s something I want that is too far away and bulky to make bicycling seem like a good option, I’ve often discovered that I really didn’t need that thing after all. And in truth, the biggest things that I’ve carried by bike would be tricky to fit in a car or even a small pickup truck—but they sit on the trailer just fine.

One of my favorite things about the bicycle movement in Portland is the tradition of helping people move. When someone moves, instead of renting a truck, they invite a bunch of friends and strangers to help them move by bike. A dozen or more people ride up at the appointed time with their biggest cargo panniers and trailers. It doesn’t take long for everyone to load up with whatever they can carry, be it a single houseplant or the fridge. The group rides to the new house together in a celebratory procession, unloads their bikes, and socializes for hours—all in far less time, and with less effort, than it would take two or three people to make the same move by truck. The host provides coffee and snacks at the beginning and pizza and beer at the end, and it doesn’t feel like a stressful move—it’s a big party, the modern equivalent of a barnraising.

One kind of cargo I’ve never carried is kids. But sitting on my front porch, on a quiet street near a couple of schools, I see people bicycling by with their children all day, chatting quietly with them and noticing the cats and butterflies and flowers that it would be hard to see from a car. Bicycling with a child on board seems like the most normal thing of all—something one could be proud of.

Everyone who wants to and has either the determination, social support, or infrastructure support can ride a bicycle, as recent times are proving.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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