I’ve had some interesting discussions since my cost comparison post and wanted to explore some other aspects of it.
One thing I didn’t really touch on in my original post is how we funded the cargo bike purchases in the first place. Lindsey over at This Mom Bikes took a good look at how her family was able to afford to start family biking. Her suggestions are great and she touches a bit on the things we did to get our cargo bikes. Our first and third bikes (the BodaBoda and the Load) were paid for by selling cars. The second (the Packster) was funded partially via the sale of the BodaBoda and partially via a bike loan from a credit union. If you’re trying to figure out how to fund your purchase, rather than whether the purchase can save you money compared to using your car, definitely go read her post! I’m going to focus more on cost of operation, as I did in my previous post, but this time with the focus on car miles vs bike miles when you can’t, or don’t wish to, get rid of the car. In that case can getting a cargo bike still save you enough money to make it worthwhile?
Most of the costs associated with owning and using a cargo bike depend on how much it’s used. The only fixed cost is likely to be insurance and even that one typically only applies if you’ve got an electric bike (which won’t be covered under your renters or homeowners insurance the way a normal cargo bike would be). For me that’s ~$30/month. I’ve also found my bike needs one set of new brake pads about every 500 miles on average ($40 each time for parts + labor), a new chain and light tune up every ~2500 miles ($100), and a new rotor about every 3000 miles ($40). I’ve checked the cost of electricity and determined that it only costs at most 6.5 cents to fully charge the battery of my bike, which works out to about 2/10ths of a cent/mile. So that’s $30/month in fixed costs and ~13 cents per mile in mileage related costs. For an unassisted bike it would be more like 0 fixed costs and ~11 cents per mile in mileage related costs (or maybe lower depending how hard you are on the drive train and brakes, I’m pretty hard on mine). I have almost 4000 miles on my Packster but haven’t used the bike long enough to be able to estimate how long I’ll get out of some of the other components (for example, tires). I’d roughly assume a cost of 3-6 cents/mile for eventual battery replacement (Bosch batteries are among the most expensive, so if you use a different system your cost will likely be lower) and about 2 cents/mile for other things like tires, tubes, etc. That brings the high end estimate for using an ebike to ~20 cents/mile and a regular bike to ~13 cents/mile.
Let’s compare that to a car. We won’t be able to get rid of the fixed costs like insurance and registration if we’re keeping the car. But we can reduce the mileage related ones like gas, parking, and maintenance. If you are living in Seattle like I am then regular unleaded gas is currently ~$3.20/gallon. If you were driving our old car, a 2011 Subaru Outback, around the city that would mean you were spending ~17 cents/mile just on gas and another ~1 cent/mile on oil changes. We also spent ~5 cents/mile on other mileage dependent maintenance costs like tires and brakes. So now we’re up to about 23 cents/mile in mileage dependent costs for the car, compared to 20 cents/mile (+30 insurance/month) for an e-cargo bike and 13 cents/mile for a regular cargo bike. If you use the bike strategically, for trips where you would otherwise need to pay parking, for example, then you can really start to save a lot of money by using the bike. If you avoid paying for a gym membership because you’re getting exercise while you run errands or commute to work, that’s also a notable cost savings that doesn’t require you to sell the car. Or maybe you switch to an insurance plan that lets you pay less because you put fewer miles on your car. It’s also fairly easy to learn to do some basic bike maintenance yourself (like those brake pad changes I’ve been spending so much on) and save money that way as well. Doing your own maintenance can cut the cost of operating your bike in half.
Without selling a car the benefits of a cargo bike are more modest than in situations where you’re able to sell a car and forgo the fixed costs associated with it. The bike may not pay for itself very quickly strictly based on mileage cost but it might do so through other avenues. If you’re just wanting to test the waters and see if you can sell off a car it’s likely to cost you relatively little to do so, since cargo bikes tend to have relatively good resale so you can recoup a lot of your initial cost if you decide it doesn’t work for you. Even moreso if you were able to buy the bike used in the first place. If you buy a used Mundo for $1000 and use it for 200 miles a month it’ll likely pay for itself in 2-4 years even if you hold on to your car. And if you do decide to sell a car once you’ve got the bike? Then you’ll save a LOT of money (the total cost per mile in the last year we had our car was nearly $1/mile including the fixed costs, yours are likely at least 50 cents/mile) and even a relatively expensive cargo bike will pay for itself fairly quickly. By keeping us from needing a second car the Packster will have paid for itself in less than 2 years and it’s a very expensive bike that’s relatively expensive to maintain.
What if you’re already car free? What benefit does a bike have over public transit? Here the primary savings will likely be time. Both total time from point A to point B and the flexibility of being able to go somewhere whenever you want without having to worry about the bus or train schedule. It’s also a more active way of getting around, so once again you might be able to skip planning time for exercise, or if you are too busy to exercise otherwise you’ll reap the physical benefits of exercise while saving time compared to taking transit. These things are harder to explicitly quantify than the comparison to a car but they are real benefits of biking that may make it worthwhile to you (financially and otherwise). Depending on how much you use the bike you might even be able to forgo paying for a transit pass and just pay per trip for occasional use, which would be a more obvious savings. We use our bikes for almost all transportation and usually only spend ~$20/month per adult on transit because of it. That cost would stay the same for me without the bike because my work subsidizes my transit pass but T would have to spend at least $90/month if he was taking the bus to work every day (and it would take him more than twice as long as biking).
Your numbers will be different than mine. Everyone’s situation is different and there are far too many variables for me to get into them all. But hopefully these sorts of posts can serve as a good starting place if you’re looking to make these sorts of calculations for your own situation.