Bikes · Car Free

Cost comparison: e-cargo bike vs car

There are plenty of breakdowns of this type out there and I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I just want to give what these numbers look like for us because it’s something that has been on our minds a lot while we made decisions about our future housing options.

I think it’s pretty obvious that bikes are cheaper than cars to buy and operate. Even fairly nice bikes (from the utility and commuting perspective) are cheaper than all but the most beaten up a of cars. As you start getting into cargo bikes and ebikes the picture changes a bit. Even moreso when you start to talk about e-cargo bikes. These aren’t cheap bikes and deciding to get one is no small decision. They’re still substantially cheaper than most cars but starting to touch more like decent used car territory instead of something you can expect to break down once a month. So lets compare owning 2 e-cargo bikes to one decent used car (like the 6 year old Outback with 60k miles that we just sold). Purchase price is fairly similar, so we’re going to focus only on the other costs of ownership.

There are a lot of other things to consider besides purchase price. Insurance, maintenance, fuel, parking, fees. They add up. For us it would be ~$175/month to park at my work (or $125/month at T’s work) and ~$120/month on insurance. The other expenses would vary a bit depending on where we decided to live, but for some of the places we considered living it would have been ~$120/month (~70/month for where we live now) on gas and around ~$150/month on maintenance, plus $25-30/month for registration. For bikes, parking is free and there is no registration. Insurance (we have ours insured as motorcycles) is about $30/month per bike. I haven’t sat down to calculate our electrical cost, but even if we use a fairly high end estimate of 1 cent per mile on charging the battery we’re talking about only $4-5/month per bike. Maintenance over the last 10 months has been ~$40/month on my Packster.

The final component is a time vs money trade off. Bike commuting takes longer than our car commute from the same place would be, and car commuting would mean we could live further away from our jobs without the commute time getting too long (and thus theoretically pay less for housing). On the other hand, bike commuting reduces the variability in our commutes and reduces the time we need to spend at the gym or otherwise working out to maintain fitness. And since we’d need to try to stick to one car we’d also need to factor in the extra time that carpooling would take up and deal with changing our childcare schedules to work with that.

So how does this all play out for us?

Operating both bikes is ~$150/month. Operating one car would be $470-570/month depending how far from work we were living and where we ended up parking. Even if we factor in needing new batteries for the bikes every 2 years (a very conservative estimate even with our relatively high mileage) bringing the cost for operating the bikes up to ~$230/month the bikes are still $240-340/month cheaper to operate than one car. And that’s assuming we don’t end up needing to get a second car. If we did we would be looking at ~$10-15k to purchase the second car (because now the purchase costs are no longer comparable) and ~$450 in car-related costs per month for the extra car. If we spread the car purchase out over 2 years as we did the purchase of one of our bikes that’s an extra $~500/month for the car payment, so nearly $1000/month the second car would cost us (even if we spread the cost of the car out over 5 years we’re looking at close to $700/month for the costs of the second car).

One caveat is that sometimes we do need a car (or at least something other than a bike) to get around. Right now we have a car available to use occasionally because my brother moved in with us and has an older (but still reliable) Honda Fit that he isn’t using very often. But otherwise we have to rely on transit or car-share services. I have a transit pass through work, so transit doesn’t cost me anything extra and T has only needed to use ~$20-25/month. We did do 2 car share trips of ~$30/each in the month before my brother got here. We only use taxi/Uber/Lyft about once a month and it’s typically for things where we would use them even if we had a car (like going to a party where we are likely to drink). And since parking is a big expense we were still using transit pretty similarly when we did have the car because it didn’t make sense to try to take the car and park at work or near attractions like the aquarium. So paying for occasional car use only adds ~$60/month, at most, to our cost of owning the bikes. That still leaves us at least $180 ahead every month.

Do we lose time by bike commuting? It currently takes me ~10 minutes longer each direction to bike than it would to drive. For my husband the difference is ~5 minutes each way. This amounts to 3-7 hours a month that we could save if we commuted by car. On the other hand, that would also mean ~20 hours more per month that each of us would have spent sitting down and we would have needed to spend more time exercising to offset that. On balance, the tradeoff is pretty good for us and I think is fairly break even, or weighted toward the bikes. We also don’t spend our commute time sitting in traffic, which both of us consider a big bonus for our mental health. It’s also worth noting that the time savings of car commuting would likely disappear for us if we tried to stick to one car because of need to carpool. It would also result in our children needing to spend longer in childcare, which would cost us more money and mean less time with our kids.

We’ve been trying to figure out where to buy a house, so we’ve been running through these sorts of numbers a lot lately. If we were willing to deal with the tradeoffs that come with only having one car and no bikes the price difference per month isn’t necessarily huge. But every time we’ve considered that we conclude that 1 car is only really viable for us with at least one e-cargo bike around. And 2 cars are dramatically more expensive than 2 (or even 3) e-cargo bikes. We also considered the cost savings in housing, since we’d be able to commute from a greater distance by car without going over the 1 hour each way mark. But the housing prices here just don’t drop quickly enough for that to work out in favor of the cars. By the time we get an hour out by car the houses are cheaper, but we’d absolutely need to have two cars to make the timing of everything work which completely negates the cost savings on housing.

E-cargo bikes are expensive. Not just to buy. They’re fairly expensive to operate too, compared to a regular bike, but for most people they can do a LOT more than a regular bike and you can reasonably expect to put a lot more miles on them every month before it gets too time consuming or too physically taxing. Cars are even more expensive and we don’t notice a lot of the costs associated with them because they’ve become so ingrained as normal.

There is some serious sticker shock when you look at the prices of ebikes, and especially e-cargo bikes, and compare them to a regular commuting bike. But I’d argue it’s the wrong comparison for most of us to be making. Spend some time on an ebike and you realize it really is replacing a lot more than a bike. And when you start comparing them to cars the sticker shock really does go away.

Will we always be car free? Likely not. For us the biggest drawback to not having a car is that we don’t have an easy way to access certain recreational activities, like camping, hiking, and snowboarding, particularly if we want to be able to bring the large bikes with us, since that means pulling a trailer. It’s entirely possible that sometime in the future our desire to more easily participate in those activities will outweigh the cost savings of not having a car. But we’re definitely going to be a lot more informed about the costs associated with that choice now and we have a lot of incentive to not buy a car until it’s really worth it.

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Using the Packster to do the shopping for a party. No car required!
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5 thoughts on “Cost comparison: e-cargo bike vs car

  1. Hi! I’m considering a cargo bike and have a couple questions.

    Could you explain a little more about your decision to insure your bikes as motorcycles? What do you get for that $30/mo? Also, can you break out what $40/mo in maintenance goes towards?

    Thank you!

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    1. When we were looking to sell our car we became concerned not just about the bikes being adequately covered by insurance but also about us being covered in the event we were hit by an uninsured or underinsured motorist. We ended up talking to our insurer about it and settling on motorcycle insurance (not all insurers will do this for ebikes, and my experience is that you need to be ready to have a pretty in depth conversation about what your bike is and how much it cost, etc. to be sure that you’re going to get the coverage you need). We have Liability, Comprehensive, Collision, and Un/Underinsured motorist coverage at that price, with fairly low deductibles (highest is $250). We don’t currently have Personal Injury Protection, roadside assistance, or similar coverage. The other insurer we considered is Velosurance, and there we were looking at slightly higher rates for similar coverage, around $40 a bike without the liability coverage. It’s really important to note that ebikes are typically NOT covered under homeowners/renters insurance the way that regular bikes are but many agents don’t know the difference well enough to tell you that. This leads to people finding out the hard way that their ebike isn’t covered when they try to make a claim after it’s stolen from their garage or something similar. Any time you are confirming insurance coverage of an ebike you need to be very specific with the insurance agent.

      For maintenance, the majority of the cost has been brake pads. I’d expect that to be a lot lower in some place less hilly than Seattle. I go through one set of brake pads every ~500-600 miles on average (usually any one set lasts 800-1200 miles and it’s improved a bit over time. I think I ride the brakes less now that I’m completely comfortable with the bike). I put about 400 miles a month on the bike and it’s ~$40 including tax, labor, and parts to get them replaced. I could do it myself for less but I don’t have the time available for that right now. I’ve had to replace the chain and get a light tune up once and that was about $100. The first chain lasted about 9 months. If you went with an IGH you’d spend less on that aspect of maintenance but would spend more up front. For my bike it would be about 4-5 years before the IGH actually paid for itself with lowered maintenance costs.

      As with a car, maintenance costs are eventually going to increase as more expensive parts wear out. I don’t yet have an idea of how much that will be and I haven’t seen good estimates for it. If we add in the battery needing replacement at ~3 years, things like rotors and cassettes wearing out over time, new tires every couple of years, etc. I would guess that averaged out over the first 3 years or so our maintenance costs per bike could end up being as high as ~$80/month. So two bikes would still be on par with what our Outback was costing us in the last couple of years that we had it but more than my estimate in the post, which was based on the costs we’ve incurred so far. If we learned to do some of our own maintenance (as we tended to do with things like oil changes and headlight replacement on the car) we could definitely bring the cost down pretty substantially.

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