Why you should ditch your car for a bicycle
It’s good for you, it’s good for others, and it’s good for the environment
Cars are so ubiquitous these days that it’s hard to imagine what it was like a century ago when this wasn’t the case. In fact, with the average driver clocking in around 50 kilometres per day in both Europe and the United States, it’s hard to fully grasp how much society has changed because of automobiles. A broken promise of freedom of movement, we have become slaves to machines that were supposed to make our lives easier.
I wrote about the impact of parking spaces on cities before, but it’s worth mentioning that, at any given time, an average of 30% of traffic in cities is composed of people looking for parking. Speaking of traffic, it has gotten so bad in some areas that American commuters tend to rank traffic as one of their top concerns, right alongside education and crime. Some studies estimate we spend hundreds of hours a year in traffic jams. We are spending more time than ever in our cars, and we’re none the better for it. It doesn’t have to be this way. An Australian survey found that up to 60% of all trips by car were for less than five kilometres, a distance easily covered by bike for most people. So, this week, let’s look at why you should consider ditching your car for at least some of these trips, and why you should want more bicycles on the road.
It won’t surprise anyone to learn that cars are more expensive than bicycles. What you might not realize is exactly how expensive they are. AAA, an American car association, estimated that, in 2016, the average sedan cost US$8,558 (€7,227, £6,472) per year to own and operate. Meanwhile, the average Briton spends upwards of 500 hours a year working just to afford their car. That’s nearly 10 hours a week for an entire year. To be clear, this is not accounting for the time spent in the car going to the place to work to afford the car that is used to live in a place where one can afford a place to park the car. Everything is going well.
Bikes are cheap. Like, a-few-hundred-dollars-a-year cheap, no matter how you account for it. Imagine just how much money you can save if you replaced at least some of your trips with bicycle trips. Imagine if you used a bike as your main mode of transportation and used car sharing and public transport for when you need to cover longer distances? What would you do if you suddenly found yourself with an extra US$8,000 (€6,756, £6,050) in your pocket?
There are societal costs too. Studies have a hard time agreeing on how much society has to pay per kilometre driven, with estimates going from US$0.04 (€0.03, £0.03) to US$0.50 (€0.42, £0.38). One thing that comes out clearly though is that biking is either much, much cheaper, or actually comes out positively if the impact on health is included. That’s right, building bike infrastructure can bring a net monetary gain to society.
Sure, riding a bike is not without risks. You often have to share the road with metal beasts that are one mistake away from seriously hurting you, and helmets are far from being a one-stop solution. You also have to account for the increased amount of pollution you’ll breathe in from cycling behind cars and trucks. Both of these things will have negative health impacts.
Yet, looking at society as a whole, the exercise from cycling is so good, that the reduction in deaths dwarfs the added risks. This is compounded by the fact that the air in the city is also improved by people who use their bike instead of a car. A study focusing on Barcelona found that a 40% reduction in car trips would lead to a yearly reduction of 4.67 deaths per 100,000 people. In a city like Paris that’s roughly 500 people, or 3.9 times more than the total number of homicides. Scaled to the United States, that’s more than 14,000 people.
Meanwhile, cars continue to be dangerous to everyone. More than 36,000 people died in traffic accidents in 2018 in the United States, and millions are injured every year.
A 2010 study conducted in New Zealand found that a 5% reduction in car use in favour of bicycles would negate 223 million kilometres of car travel in that country alone. It would also save 22 million litres of fuel and diminish greenhouse gas emissions by 0.4%, reducing the impact on climate change. A similar study conducted in Sweden found that it would lead to a strong reduction in particulate matter, a common cause of health problems. An MIT study concluded that a reduction of 10% in vehicle weight in the United States would cut fuel consumption by about 7%, a change they highlight will be needed if the country wants to improve its energy efficiency in transportation.
The list could go on, but the fact is that cars are clearly established as a major cause of environmental degradation — from the massive impact of extracting the resources needed to build them, to the risks associated with recycling vehicles, and everything in between. Bicycles also need resources to be manufactured, also need tires and oil made of oil, and can also be a problem with regards to end-of-life, but the scales are entirely different. The previously mentioned MIT study suggested a 10% reduction in vehicle weight by shifting to lighter materials, arguing that the higher cost would be made up by the energy savings. Bikes are lighter, cheaper, use fewer resources, and have an overall lesser impact on the environment. They’re just much, much better at reducing our impact on the planet.
Speed and convenience
Now, you may be thinking that this is all fine and well, but that you have places to be and a car just cannot get you there on time. And, certainly, no one will argue that you should ride your bike to a beach that is 200 kilometres away for a day-trip. Not every journey is a trip to the beach, however. No, the average journey is much more mundane — more precisely, 400 hours a year in traffic jams and an average speed of 13 km/h (8 mph) levels of mundane. Sure, cars can drive faster, but what really matters is how fast you get to your destination, isn’t it? Think about it, ever complained about finding parking? The time to find a parking space once you reach your destination goes as high as 14 minutes on average.
Bicycles might take longer for you to get to your destination in general, and even that isn’t always the case, but the number of externalities to account for is also smaller. Traffic is usually less of an issue, parking is no longer a concern, and most of all, you’ll average much more than 13 km/h (8 mph).
Cars still have a role to play in our society, and most people can’t be expected to stop using their car directly from one day to the next. We’ve made sure that these metal hunks are too integral a part of our lives for that. However, there isn’t anything standing in the way of reducing how much we use them, and only good reasons for doing so. Do it for your wallet, do it for your health, do it for the environment, or do it because bikes are awesome. Whatever your reason, it’s time to ditch the car.