Your Bicycle Is Faster

One of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30)
Originally published in Fall/Winter 1991 on page 7
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Most people who pass me in their cars probably think I am terribly impractical to commute on a bicycle. As they fume by, I smugly recall a calculation by Ivan Illich, the Austrian-born philospher and social critic, that the private automobile actually travels about 2.5 miles per hour (where he was living at the time, in Mexico) – if the time spent paying for and maintaining the beast is included.

Unwilling as we are to part with our personal cars here in the autocentric United States, there are still lessons to be learned from Illich’s insight. To minimize inevitable and substantial expenses incurred by your trusty fossil-fueled vehicle, I recommend leaving it at home and cycling whenever possible.

Let me illustrate with the following full-accounting fable. Suppose Max’s new $12,000 Hi-Techmobile will be paid for over the next five years at a deferred total of $15,000. Furthermore, Max will spend $1,200 a year for fuel, parking, maintenance, and repair; $700 a year for insurance; and $100 a year for taxes and licensing fees. That adds up to $25,000 over the next five years.

For $1,700 – about one-fifteenth as much – Brad can buy a sturdy new city bike with helmet, lock, lighting system, rear rack, and panniers ($700 cash); and budget $200 a year for maintenance, repair, incidentals, and the occasional foul-weather commute using public transportation .

Assuming Max drives 50,000 miles over the next five years, he will spend $.50 a mile for his expanded mobility ($25,000 divided by 50,000 miles). Brad’s 100 miles a week of cycling takes him 24,000 miles over the same period and costs him about $.07 a mile ($1,700 divided by 24,000 miles), or about one-seventh as much per mile. Even if Brad keeps his small aging car in the driveway for unavoidable excursions, it has been paid for since 1985 and its monthly fuel consumption and mileage have decreased by four-fifths since Brad’s bike took over most of the car’s local duties.

Finally, the average speeds of Max’s new car and Brad’s new bike, using Illich’s full accounting proposal, include the hours spent for purchase and maintenance. Assuming Max and Brad each net $10 an hour, Max’s $25,000 outlay costs him 2,500 hours of his life, while Brad’s outlay of $1,700 costs him 170. (Hang on, I’m almost finished calculating.) If Max’s car averages 40 mph and we add in his work hours (50,000 miles/40 mph plus 2,500), we arrive at the total time Max used to travel those 50,000 miles: 3,750 hours. Dividing 50,000 by 3,750 gives us Max’s fully accounted-for average speed – 13.33 mph.

Brad won’t travel 50,000 miles on his bicycle over the next five years since he is not a RAAM (Race Across AMerica) contestant, but his respectable 24,000 miles are pedaled at an average speed of 15 mph. Adding in work hours (24,000/15 plus 170), we find Brad has spent 1,770 hours to travel 24,000 miles. Brad’s fully accounted-for average speed is 24,000 miles divided by 1,770 hours – or 13.56 mph.

Furthermore, of the total time Brad has invested in his bike, ninety percent is spent doing what he usually enjoys – bicycling! Whereas Max spends two-thirds of his time working for the privilege of driving his new car the remaining one-third.

– Brad Morgan

Reprinted with permission from Bicycle USA, 190 W. Ostend St. Suite 120, Baltimore, MD 21230.