Trying to estimate the cost of bike commuting can be a little difficult if you’ve never really done it before – I know, as it’s something I had to figure out over a few years (yep, not just months!). So, to help you understand the costs involved in bike commuting, I want to go through many of the key points that every (would be) bike commuter needs to consider before deciding if it is right for them. To get started, let me first summarize the key question:
How much does bike commuting cost? It costs around $1,000 to buy all the gear bike for commuting. This is $500-600 for a good bike plus gear for the four seasons ($400). Remember that you don’t need to buy everything at once. However, long-term costs need to be considered, too, as explained below.
With the start-up costs covered above, let’s dive a little deeper into the points mentioned to help you get a better idea of how much bike commuting will likely cost for you in the long run and when compared to your current commuter journey.
Gear You Will Need
To give a little more detail to the costs mentioned in the summarized answer above, it’s time to consider all the items you will need to ride to work by bicycle. Before working through these, remember that some of them are things you will likely already have, so feel free to skip that cost/section and move on to the next section below.
You might also not need to buy all of these at once when getting started. I’d recommend doing something similar to what I did, namely riding to work first on good weather days then gradually building up your gear so that you have every type of weather covered in your climate.
If you need or want to buy a bike for commuting, then expect to pay around $500-600 for a brand new bike that will cover most commuter journeys up to 10 miles each way and last long enough to be worth investing in.
This kind of spend will get you a bike that is comfortable enough to ride to work every day of the week and perform well enough that you actually enjoy riding it (which is a crucial part of commuting on a bicycle!).
The lifetime of a commuter bicycle in good condition can be easily up to 10 years (or a lot more), although this depends on the care you take of it and also the maintenance done on it. A longer journey to work might bring down this lifespan, although a bike in this price range with today’s materials that is ridden far and often should still easily last 5 years, so working out at around $100 per year in the worst-case scenario. Add to this the added bonus of having the bike for other social outings and activities and it becomes an even more attractive investment.
One of the most important ways to make your bike last longer is actually by buying a lock that costs a little more than you would like to pay.
Spending $40 on a lock for bike commuting will give you the piece of mind that your bike will be a difficult target for thieves and should mean that you have the bike for a few more years of use. If your bike is worth more than $1,000, then double that to $80 or simply use a combination of locks on the front and rear wheels of your bike.
This is because many people spend a good amount on a commuter bike, only to underspend on a lock, meaning that their bike is far more likely to be stolen. When you combine this with the fact that commuter bikes are often outside for many hours of the day, often on display in public places at predictable times, it makes good bikes with cheap and nasty locks an easy target for thieves.
With a bit of lubricant or a spray of WD-40 every year or so, a good bike lock should last a lifetime, so it is not something you will need to buy more than once.
A good commuter bike helmet can be quite a cheap purchase if you know what to look for.
I recommend a quality brand, something like Specialized, with MIPS protection for added safety and some kind of reflective detail. I currently use the Specialized Align helmet, which has since been released with the advanced safety feature of MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System), making you less susceptible to head injury in case of falling.
Remember that this is something that should last for decades if used properly, but always change a helmet after any kind of fall to be sure that you are protected the next time around since they are guaranteed only for one accident.
Rear Rack: $40
Buying a rear rack is an inexpensive addition to make your bike commuting journeys a lot easier and flexible. This is because carrying a bag on the rear rack means that you won’t arrive at work with a sweaty back and it reduces the strain of carrying a weight on your back while riding.
These fit onto most commuter bikes and can be done within an hour by a novice, although many commuter bikes come with them already fitted (a definite bonus).
If you are set on getting a road bike then note that you will need to use a rear rack that attaches to your seat post as road bikes don’t come with the points to attach a rear rack onto the frame given the design of the bikes. These can be a little more expensive but are still affordable.
One of these racks could really last a lifetime if treated right, so it’s not something you will need to buy more than once and
A comfortable, waterproof bag with enough space for most of your waterproofs, lunch and other bike commuter essentials is a good investment.
I recommend a pannier backpack if you can get one as they give you the best of both worlds, being able to carry them on the rear rack but also having a good backpack for the rest of your day. Just in case, a pannier bag is a type of bag specifically for bikes bag that has special clips to hook onto the rack.
I have also found that my bag with a 22-liter capacity is just enough to carry my everyday items, but on days when I want to do sport at work, I need a ‘spillover’ bag and add another pannier. With this in mind, you might like to buy a pannier bag set or pair, which works out a lot cheaper than buying two pannier bags separately.
These are something that you might find will wear out after a few years of use, perhaps 5, which is still not bad for something that you can get a lot of use and joy out of. However, if you spend more on a premium brand like Ortlieb, they offer lifetime warranty, so the added investment can pay dividends in the long run if you have the cash up-front.
The $80 in the heading above is disproportionately split between front and rear lights, with the front light being worth around $60 and only $20 needed for the rear light.
This difference is because it is a similar scenario to cars when you compare the headlights in the front to the lights in the rear, with the headlights illuminating the road and surroundings in front of you while the rear lights simply let other road users know that you are there.
If you will be riding in an entirely urban environment with street lighting, then you might find that you can reduce the price down to around $40 for good bike lights, but this won’t cover you if the lighting is out in a certain area and you will be less visible to cars.
Spending a bit more here means that you can get a front bike light for commuting that illuminates everything in front of you, giving you more confidence to ride and be seen. I bike commute with a front light with 1100 lumens for this price and it is more than enough for me. I should add that I had to upgrade from a much cheaper front light as my journey to work changed when I moved house, meaning that I had a section of my route without any lights at all. The cheaper front lights (around 200 lumens) were just plain scary when riding without streetlights as I could barely see more than a few yards in front of me!
Another point is to go for USB rechargeable bike lights as these can run off your computer’s power supply at work and are easy and quick to charge.
Waterproof Clothing and Accessories: $150
To price up the waterproof clothing and accessories you need, there 4 main items for bike commuting: jacket, overpants, shoe covers, gloves.
I would also caution you not to try and save a few bucks and buy waterproof items that are not specifically for cycling as these will often be uncomfortable when riding a bike and not really do the job in the same way given the difference in design. Trust me on this one – I’ve tried the cheap route and it just didn’t work!
Spending $80 on a good, waterproof cycling jacket will help you bike commute more safely, comfortably and often.
Look for a jack with reflective detail to help you be seen at night and, ideally, a hood for rainy or wet days (although these aren’t as common as you might expect). You can also find jackets with an integrated light in the back which is a good back-up to have if your main rear light runs out of battery en route.
I have found that my waterproof cycling jackets take a bit of a beating from my daily bike commute and start to look a little worse for wear after two years. By this, I mean that some of the reflective detail is starting to wear out and that the zips tend to brake (mainly from me tugging at them with one hand when riding!). I have found a seamstress that can replace these for relatively little near where I live and I also need to ‘reproof’ them to maintain their waterproof qualities every year or so. So, depending on your preferences, you can expect to either have to repair (inexpensive) your waterproof cycling jacket every two years or buy a new one.
Cycling overpants help you not only to keep your pants dry but are also a good extra layer for warmth in winter.
The size of these means that they also pull on easily over your normal work pants so you can just keep them in your bag every day ready for action as needed.
Getting cycling specific ones also means that they should come with some kind of reflective detail, an added bonus for your visibility on the roads at night.
You can expect to get some good use out of these and for them to last many years. The only weak point being that the Velcro might wear out after around 5 years of heavy use and that you will want to ‘reproof’ them for them to retain their waterproof qualities.
Shoe covers $20
These are an essential addition for bike commuters as without them, you will be having to change socks when you get to work or, worse, change shoes!
It always amazes me how wet shoes get when riding a bike, and this seems to be even more exaggerated when wearing waterproof overpants, which seems to direct the rainwater directly down onto your shoes!
Make sure you go for the gaiter type shoe covers here since the specific cycling shoe covers are designed specifically for slim and sleek cycling shoes with clips on, something which I never wear or use, and are not well suited to normal shoes. I have been through 3 pairs of the cycling shoe covers in 3 years and wore them over my normal shoes – they were all pretty well shredded and destroyed by the end, whereas my new gaiter-type shoe covers are a better fit, provide more waterproof protection and should last longer as they are not so stretched beyond their standard design.
These are the weak link in the gear recommended here, unfortunately, with them only lasting around 1 year to 18 months for me. That said, if you are able to only put them immediately before getting on your bike and take them off as soon as you get off, then they will last a lot longer! I say this because I often end up walking in them back and forth between where I lock my bike and my office (100 yards or more), which is where the majority of the wear and tear happens.
Waterproof cycling gloves are also a must as your hands will get wet when cycling and, not being able to put them in your pockets, they get cold pretty quickly!
Again, getting cycling gloves specifically here means that you can perform all the necessary actions of braking and changing gear without too many problems as these kinds of gloves are made with that in mind. They should also have added padding and some reflective detail to help you to be seen in low light or at night
These should be a simple investment and should last you many years, probably 5-10 years of heavy duty use, as well as needing reproofing every 12 months to maintain their waterproof protection.
Annual Maintenance: $60
Getting a yearly service for your bike is highly recommended as it will help you to keep it on the road for longer and also identify any problems before they become a safety hazard.
I used to like to do my bike maintenance myself, often spending many hours trying to fix things that didn’t appear very complex on the surface but, without the right tools, could become quite a time-consuming thing to do. For this reason, I switched over to dropping my bike in at a store near my work and leaving it there during the workday to have it serviced, just like you would with a car. This has proven to be good value with me not getting stressed and also saving my time. If you can afford this, I’d highly recommend it, not least because it is a far cheaper option than the equivalent service usually done on a car!
Tools and Spares: $50
The first two tools I’d recommend all bike commuters having are a good pump with a pressure gauge (more on this below) and multi-tool (a bit like a Swiss Army knife for bikes) for fixing annoying problems while on the move.
A pump with a pressure gauge means that you can instantly see the exact pressure on your tires, making them less likely to puncture on your bike commute. You can also then get a feel for the kind of pressure you like, with the tires providing a range that you can work with. I like mine to be on the high end of the range, providing a firmer ride, but you might find that you like softer tires that are more forgiving on bumps and lumps.
A good bike pump for commuting will cost around $20 and should last you a lifetime if treated right!
You might also want to buy inner tubes for punctures, WD-40, chain oil, cleaning fluid and lube to keep your bike running smoothly, as well as a few cloths and sponges. Expect to spend no more than $30 for all this, with each item lasting a different amount of time so it being quite hard to say, especially as it depends on how often you cleaning/degrease your bike, as well as your local climate.
Health Benefits (and Some Risks)
I know you might think of this as a ‘cost’ as such, but when you think about the broader benefits of cycling to work and being more physically active as a result, it can help you to lead a healthier lifestyle and even feel better as a result.
Without getting too preachy here, I can tell you that I have improved my own level of physical fitness from bike commuting as it has been a constant part of my working week since I started some 6 years ago.
This really depends on how important this aspect is to you but bike commuting can really be a gamechanger for working people’s health and wellbeing, even offering the potential for better quality of life by maintaining higher levels of the more intense physical activity that is needed to stay in shape and help to fend off some of the less pleasant ailments life sometimes throws at us.
At the risk of perhaps going one step too far, you might even find that you can reduce your health insurance premiums from bike commuting if you do it often enough to have an impact on your fitness and health.
It is also true that bike commuting is not without its risks; there are clearly some inherent dangers of cycling to work through traffic at rush hour, both from the perspective of being in an accident and also breathing in fumes and pollution from the motorized vehicles around you. However, there are anti-pollution masks that can reduce your exposure to the fumes in the air, and by following the tips above for buying the right gear, as well as being sensible on the road, your chances of having an accident on a bike should not really be a concern for you.
Ways to Reduce the Costs of Bike Commuting
Now that we’ve looked at all the associated costs, let’s also consider a couple of ways to reduce the cost of bike commuting if you think that some of the points above will not work for you and your current budget or financial situation.
Get a Used Bike/Gear
Using a website like Craigslist is a good way to save on your bike for commuting. There are usually plenty of bikes out there and some gear, often at a fraction of the price of buying them new. The only thing to be aware of here is that you need to test ride a bike before buying it to make sure that it really is in working order. That said, if you’ve ever bought a used car before, buying a second-hand bike should be a piece of cake!
Do Your Own Bike Maintenance
You can also save on the maintenance aspect of the costs detailed above by doing it yourself. Now, I know I recommended paying someone else to do it, but if you buy a bike maintenance stand ($20 from Aldi or Lidl will be fine) and perhaps even a $10 book, you can do most of it yourself if you are willing to spend the time on it.
The nice thing about bike maintenance is that most of it is pretty simple, it just takes a while to figure out all the different parts and how they work together.
If you are really struggling to afford to pay someone to do the maintenance on your bike and can’t do it yourself, then one option might be to offer to do a skill swap with someone you know who could do it. This might be by offering to do some work for them, or for a nice gesture like baking them a cake – ask around and see what you can get and you might be surprised at what comes back!
How often will you ride to work?
Another question to figure out your likely cost of bike commuting is to think about how often you will do it and how much this will save you compared to your other form of transport.
It is also important to be realistic here as you might think that you can bike commute every day but for most of us, it will likely be something that we start doing 1-2 times a week in the beginning, possibly increasing this over time. This means that you will need to have a back-up travel plan in place and will still incur the costs associated with that kind of commute.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you might be driving to work given that it is the most popular way to get to work in the Western world. Let’s work on the assumption of an average bike commuter journey being 5 miles each way to and from work, working out at 50 miles for weekly commuting journeys. Thinking of this distance in terms of going by car, know how many miles to the gallon (MPG) your car does, or just how much it costs you in gas every week, then you can estimate how much less per week it will be if you bike commute.
The other major costs associated with commuting by car are things like parking and annual mileage when paying for your insurance – reducing both of these by cycling to work on certain days can again help you to save some money.
Similarly, if you normally commute to work by public transit, then your ticket costs will be reduced by bike commuting, discounting the days when you don’t ride if you buy a daily ticket. That being said, you might still need to buy monthly or annual travel passes or cards if you pay that way, so not really saving much in ticket prices if this is your current option, but you will still gain a lot in terms of your levels of activity.