I ride a bike everywhere. Yes, everywhere. I know it sounds strange, but I have good reasons for doing so. My primary reason is because I only pay for things that are worth their price to me. Allow me to explain….
As a child, I watched my parents and most of my extended family spend more than they make. My Dad was an accountant but neither of my parents were particularly spectacular at managing their money. Thus, in my family, there was a lot of talk about money. Often arguments, sometimes discussions; you get the point. As an adult, my primary goal in life is to not worry about money.
I moved out of my parent’s house as soon as I turned 18. Within a week, I was across the country in Northern California. I’ve always had a job or 2, always had my own place, always got my own food, etc., but I’ve just never had enough money at the end of the month to comfortably afford a car. That’s not to say that I haven’t had a car. I’ve had 2 and both were more trouble than they’re worth.
A few months after I moved out, I got my California driver’s license. My family who I was staying with at the time had an extra car that wasn’t seeing much use so I got to drive the 1992 Ford Escort wagon. It was an ok car, really not bad for being more than 15 years old, 160k+ on the odometer, but decent for it’s age. It wasn’t mine, but it was mine to drive. Honestly, I didn’t have too many problems with it, but it’s age finally caught up with it when the engine gave out. Cheap cars only last so long, right?
Fast forward to summer of 2007. I was living back in Eastern Michigan, have my own small apartment, 2 jobs… living “the dream”, right? My step-brother is selling his wife’s 1992 Pontiac Grand-Am. Have you ever made a decision that you wish you could go back and un-do? I’m sure we all do. This was probably the second worst decision I’ve made in my adult life. I paid $750 for this car. It was drivable, but not for long. It had a weird transmission issue that caused the torque-converter to lock up when down-shifting from 2nd to 1st. My Dad, a former auto mechanic, said he would help me fix the car. My family had always done our own auto repairs (I should re-word that: my Dad, has always done all of our auto-repairs while I hand him tools). I figured it couldn’t be too difficult. We ended up trying everything. Gave the car a good tune-up, changed the transmission fluid and filter, re-did the transmission oil pan gasket… we even tried changing the torque converter, which required taking the entire engine and transmission out of the car to replace. While interesting, it wasn’t fun. The car never did work right and to drive it I had to drive “double footed” to keep it from stalling, as well as constantly worry if my car would die everytime I decelerated. Needless to say, driving my car wasn’t very pleasurable, or even tolerable.
What really chapped my ass about the car wasn’t so much the problems, but how much it was costing me. I owned the Grand AM for almost a year. In that year, I spent $750 on purchasing the car, $1500/year to insure it (and that was ONLY liability insurance mind you, so if I were to get into an accident, any repair costs to my car would come out MY pocket), and another $500+ in parts to repair it to a reliable daily-driving state. How many miles did I put on it in that time? 1100. The way I look at it, I paid $2000/ year to drive 1100 miles. That boils down to approximately $165/month just to drive approximately 92 miles a month. That might sound like a lot but the average mileage for a vehicle is about 1000/month. Sure, I had a car, but I was getting virtually none of the benefits that came with the car. I barely got to drive it and when I did, it was dying, stalling, looking like a pile of rust and glass… it was more of a hassle than it was worth. My partner and I had to move and I couldn’t take the car with me and no on would buy it, even for as low as $300. I ended up selling it to a wrecking yard for $180.
Now, I’ve always loved cars. My Dad was a huge car guy so I guess I got the car bug when I was little. As a teen, I fantasized about what kind of cool car I might get. As I got older, my friends all got cars. Many of them stayed living with their parents, some got the family sedan or van, a few got newish cars, even fewer actually got “cool” cars like Mustangs, Camaro’s, Firebirds (keep in mind, this is Eastern Michigan, and this particular town was a manufacturing town for General Motors so seeing a car that wasn’t GM out on the roads wasn’t common). In California, the mix of cars is much more, well… mixed. The import scene is strong in the Bay Area so it’s common to see souped up Civics, Integras, 240SXs, etc. I’ve always wanted a car, but owning car shouldn’t be like what I had with my Grand AM.
In August of 2009, I moved with my Fiancée at the time to Northern Florida. She wanted to go to school here and I was offered my job in Technical Support. I drove her a car for a bit, but it was acting up as well, and the registration was about to expire. Knowing my luck, I didn’t want to be the one to get pulled over for the expired tags one morning when I’m late for work. I decided to pick up a bicycle to commute to work on. While I’ve always been a car guy, I’ve spent countless summers as a kid riding my BMX bike and wreaking havoc on the trails of various parks around my neighborhood. Even as an adult, in between my 2 cars, I had a bicycle of some sort (often a cheap mountain bike, sometimes a BMX bike), but I’ve never really been much of a cyclist.
My financial situation didn’t really leave a lot of wiggle room. My Fiancée was having trouble finding work and we were trying to do the best we could with the money I made at my new job. While I could pay the bills, it didn’t really leave much room for saving up for anything big. Small displacement scooters are very popular around Gainesville but I’ve never been crazy about these little machines or the people that drive them, but that’s another topic for another post. Motorcycles are another option, but I wasn’t really too sure. As always, I’d been shopping around for cars but I just couldn’t afford one. I also didn’t want to relive what I had with my Grand AM. The bicycle seemed like my only option at the time.
If there’s one thing that being a Linux user has taught me it’s that Google usually has the answer to most any of my questions. Like most everything I do, I made sure my home work was done. I picked up a used mountain bike on Craigslist for $60, as well as spend a little bit more for the necessary accessories like a lock, basic tools for road-side repairs, a spare inner-tube, helmet, and lights. With as little as $150, I went from nothing to read to pedal to work.
At first it was very difficult. I was out of shape, my arse was getting used to a bicycle seat, and I had to learn the area. My office was 3.3 miles away from my apartment by car if I were to take the expressway. Since bicycles aren’t allowed on the interstate, that wasn’t really an option. My safest route was a 5 mile trek via main roads with side-walk access most of the way. The first time I did it, it took me an hour. One way. Yes, an hour. Like I stated earlier, I was out of shape and hadn’t really been on a bicycle in over a year at that point. Within a few months, I could hustle to work in about 20 minutes but that was pushing it and essentially meant me pedaling like I was trying to win the Tour De France.
A lot of people don’t realize how awesome bicycle commuting is. To sum it up, it’s good for me, good for the environment, and good for my wallet. I don’t have insurance bills every month, not a dime spent at the gas pump, don’t have to sit in traffic jams, rarely have to worry about parking. When I get into the office, I’m refreshed and awake. Cycling also has obvious health benefits. While I haven’t lost weight, I’m not really in a position where losing weight would be a good thing. I’m 6’1″ and used to stay around 130lbs, though sitting at a desk all day helped me get up to 170 and develop a small pudge in my belly. I currently weigh 155 which, while low for my height, doesn’t look sickly thin.
I liked riding so much that I didn’t stop with my initial investment. While the bike I initially got worked ok, it was slow, needed more repair than I could perform, and was mildly uncomfortable. I knew that I like cycling enough to stick with it, but I also could identify what I really wanted from a bike. I started riding to work in swimming trunks, a cotton under-shirt, and athletic shoes. As the weather got colder, I ended up rocking a hooded sweatshirt and jeans on my commutes. While this works, it’s uncomfortable. My favorite cycling related accessory has been my spandex cycling shorts, with the pad for your man bits and arse. It takes a bit of practice putting them on, but once you get used to it (and the looks you may get walking into the office with “the bump”) you’ll likely never turn back.
I’ve also since upgraded my bike. The mountain bike I got was a bit small on me due to my height and my back, wrists and hands often hurt after an hour or so on the bike. Most cheaper bikes like the ones found in your local Target, Walmart, sporting goods store, etc will often only come in 1 size. Most people get these kind of bikes because they want something to take out and ride occasionally. Take a bike ride around the neighborhood, at the park… things like that. America is one of the few countries that views bicycles as toys rather than as a viable mode of transportation. For most people’s needs, a cheap bike is perfectly suitable. Ride it 2 maybe 3 times a year, and after 5 to 10 years, sell it at a garage sale or on Craigslist for a little extra cash. However, when you start looking at nicer bikes, particularly road bikes, you’ll see that they’re available in different sizes and different frame geometries. Different bikes for different types of riding, and riders of all shapes and sizes. My first bike cost me $60, my new one cost me $600. I’ll touch more on the financials of it all later.
Now, there are downsides, just like anything else in life. First and foremost, it’s inherently dangerous. Get into a fender bender in a car and both drivers are usually unscathed. Get into a fender bender on a bicycle and the car gets scratched while the bicycle is totaled and rider injured: bumps and bruises at best, dead at worst. If you know your local cycling laws, then abide by them. If you follow the rules, ride like you’re invisible (because you essentially are), and ride paranoid, then you minimize your chances of getting into an accident exponentially.
The other bad thing about the bicycle is the stigma that comes from not having a car in a car-focused society. I’m not going to try and brag and say that I make boat-loads of cash but I make decent money. I have a nice apartment, I’m never hungry, can afford my bills, and I can still go out and do fun things when I want to. However, I often get labeled as poor because I don’t have a car. I get remarks all the time from people both out in public as well as at work saying that I should get a car. I can kind of understand where they’re coming from, but that’s like calling Amish people poor because they don’t have internet access.
Another reason I can understand where this idea comes from is because there’s generally 2 kinds of people riding bicycles out on the road. The first is what I call a “cyclist”, a person who has cycling gear, usually riding a decent bike, and who generally appears as though they know what they’re doing. The second is the person who looks homeless and is usually riding a really old BSO (Bike Shaped Object), with trash bags of their belongings, wobbling all over the place, and generally doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere specifically. They’re just meandering around really. I generally don’t refer to these people as “cyclists”, but rather merely as “people on bikes” or “bicycle riders”. I know it might sound like a douche thing to say but I just call ’em like a I see ’em.
I’m not going to say that owning a car makes you bad person. I’m not one of these car-free lifestyle zealots. While I can certainly relate to them to some extent on some issues (like the US’s over reliance on oil and cars in general), owning a car isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I commute by bicycle because it fits my lifestyle. It’s fun, exercise, eco-friendly, and it’s relatively cheap. My current commute has me riding between 11 to 16 miles daily. If I lived farther away, had to carry a lot, had kids, or could easily afford a car, I’d get a car. However, right now, if I were to try and get a car, I’d be cutting it close to pay all of my bills, still have a buffer in case of emergency, save for a rainy day, and not be in the red (which isn’t an option).
I’ve thought about this long and hard and for my current situation, everything I need and every place I go is relatively close, as in, less than 10 miles away. Traffic is also impressively bad in Gainesville. It’s a small town, dominated by University of Florida so most of the town is in the 18-24 age range, and many of them have cars.
The truth of the matter is that I don’t feel like the sheer convenience of owning a car isn’t worth the cost involved. To buy a decent car, you’ll need to spend a decent amount of money, and then you still need insurance, fuel, maintenance. A friend of mine pays about $600/month TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) for his 2007 Mitsubishi Eclipse. It’s a nice car and he loves it dearly. To him, it’s worth it and I can respect that. To me, $300/month for TCO of a car is the most I’d pay and that’s only on the condition that it’s a car I actually enjoy driving and owning. There’s no sense paying for something that just makes me upset, stressed out, pissed off, or worse. I only pay for things if I feel like they’re worth it to me. Obviously this doesn’t always work for everything. I’m not particularly proud of my utility bill but it’s not bad. I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. I pay about $80/month for my cell phone and I have an unlimited data plan from Sprint. I get good service most all of the time, and I actually use all of the features of the plan. While I could definitely go cheaper and save some money, I fee like the added cost I pay is worth the premium services I’m being provided.
This is why I have a hard time trying to pay for a car. Figure $125 for insurance, and $150 for car-payments on a $5000 auto loan, $50/month for gas, and I’m already paying over $325 just to drive to all of the same destinations in half the time that I could do on the bicycle. Plus, I’d be losing my daily exercise, a fun activity, and polluting the environment, not to mention it costing 2 out of my 3 largest monthly bills.
When I get a raise, then I’ll revisit the idea of getting a car, but until then I’m very happy living only by bicycle. As always, ride safe, obey your local laws and enjoy the ride!