A Case for Bicycle Commuting

While I either take the bus or drive to work in the winter, I bike to work 36 miles round trip almost every day during eight months of the year. Over the past 20 years, I have bike commuted almost 100,000 miles from nine different home-to-work locations ranging from 9 miles to 18 miles one way. It takes me, on average, 56 minutes to bike 18 miles from Brooklyn Center to work in downtown St. Paul. This compares with 85 minutes on the bus and 45 minutes driving in rush hour and walking from parking. While biking takes me 11 minutes longer than driving, I actually save more than an hour per day because biking allows me to get in a workout, as opposed to driving, which is an unproductive activity (taking the bus can also be productive because you can read instead of drive). Also, the consistency of travel time is much better biking than driving. My bike time varies at most by plus or minus 4 minutes depending on the wind. This compares favorably to driving where times can vary significantly due to ramp meters, accidents and general congestion.

While biking is not for everyone, and each individual’s ability and speed varies, the benefits of biking are clear to those who have experienced them. Most people do not consider commuting to work by bicycle a viable transportation option because of preconceived ideas about what would be involved. Only those who have tried it really know how fast, easy, fun and inexpensive bike commuting can be. Unfortunately, few people try bike commuting and less than 1% of the population do it on a regular basis.

Minnesota Bicycle Laws
Minnesota law gives cyclists the same rights and privileges as motor vehicles. This means you have every right to ride on the road. It also means that when you are bicycling, you should know the applicable traffic laws and act accordingly. The summary below of local statutes will help.

1.Ride on the right with traffic: obey all traffic signs & signals; bicyclists have all rights/duties of any other vehicle driver.

2.Legal lights and reflectors required at night.

3.Continuous arm signal required during last 100 feet prior to turn or lane change (unless arm needed to control bike) and while stopped waiting to turn.

4.On roadways may ride two abreast but don’t impede normal & reasonable movement of traffic. Ride in single lane.

5.Ride as close as practicable to right hand curb or edge of roadway except:

when overtaking a vehicle

when preparing a left turn

when necessary to avoid conditions that make it unsafe, e.g. fixed or moving objects, surface hazards, or narrow-width lanes.

6.Yield to pedestrians on sidewalks and crosswalks; give audible signal when necessary before overtaking. No riding on sidewalks within business districts unless permitted.

7.No hitching rides on other vehicles.

8.Only one person on a bike unless equipped for more, or legal baby seat is used.

9.Don’t carry anything that prevents keeping one hand on handlebars or proper operation of brakes.

10.Brakes must allow skidding on dry, level, clean pavement.

11.Handlebars must not be above shoulder level.

12.Bicycle size must allow safe operation.

13.On sidewalk, parking that does not impede normal & reasonable movement of pedestrian or other traffic is allowed unless locally restricted.

14.Legal parking on a roadway, that does not obstruct legally parked motor vehicles, is allowable.

15.Safe bicycle events approved by local authorities, which do not seriously inconvenience other highway users, are not unlawful. Traffic laws can be waived.

16.When passing a bicycle or pedestrian, motor vehicles shall leave at least 3 feet clearance until safely past the bicycle or pedestrian.

More info at: www.winternet.com/
or www.minnesotacritical

While saving time is the biggest benefit to bike commuting for me, the next best personal benefit is that biking is fun. Being outside, feeling good, being able to converse and be friendly with other bike commuters and pedestrians, and having freedom and independence of travel are all elements of bike commuting that I enjoy. Biking provides such a different mindset that the frustration that I commonly feel while driving is replaced with friendliness toward others. It is also gratifying to be self-reliant and have the freedom to come and go when I want (no bus schedules) and go as fast as I want or can, no matter how fast or slow others are going. Biking to work is one of the most enjoyable parts of my day. In fact, I wonder if I don’t have more fun before 8 a.m. than some people have all day.

With roadway congestion getting worse each year and the damaging effects of greenhouse gases becoming more and more pervasive, bike commuting is a highly efficient alternative. According to a 1999 joint report by three local environmental organizations, motor vehicles are responsible for at least 50% of cancer-causing air pollutants, 29% of smog-forming compounds, 90% of carbon monoxide and 31% of nitrogen oxides (which contribute to acid rain) and CO2 emissions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), driving a car is typically a person’s most polluting daily activity; air pollution from road vehicle travel caused about 40,000 premature deaths in the U.S. in 1991, which is comparable to the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents.

Commuting to and from work accounts for a significant portion of total driving miles. According to the Metropolitan Council, 87% of people drive to work, 7% ride as auto passengers, 5% use transit, and 1% use other methods which include taxi, motorcycle, walking and bicycling. While driving alone to work may be the only feasible option for some people, most people could easily use a more environmentally responsible transportation option.

Some benefits other than enjoyment, time savings and reduced pollution are biking’s low cost (it costs very little to bike, and parking is free), health benefits (physical and mental), and safety. I would argue that, on average, major injuries and death would be reduced although minor injuries would increase compared to driving. Commuters could save over $2,000 per year in parking, gasoline, insurance and car wear and tear. Some people would also save money spent on diets and health clubs. Long term, there is also potential for spending less public money on roads, road repair and parking ramps.

Cost Comparison of Commuting Options
According to the Metropolitan Council, the average distance traveled to work in the Twin Cities metropolitan area is 9.2 miles. The distance that is reasonable for biking varies by individual, but many people could handle up to 12 miles without much difficulty. The following cost comparison of different commuting options for a 10-mile one-way commute during rush hour is based on Metropolitan Council data and on my experience (see assumptions below):

BicycleDrive AloneDrive – Car PoolVan Pool (4 riders)BusLight Rail
Average time to commute 10 miles40 min. (B)27 min. (E)27 min. (E)30 min. (E)50 min. (E)32 min. (E)
Unproductive time (F)0 min.22 min.22 min.15 min.5 min.5 min.
Direct cost of Transportation (G)$.03$.35$.18$.10$.45 (A)$1.02 (H)
Cost of Parking (C)$.00$.15$.08$.04$.00$.00
Cost of Pollution (D)$.00$.20$.10$.10$.18$.16
Total Cost per Mile$.03$.70$.36$.24$.63$1.18
Total Annual Cost per Passenger$150$3,500$1,800$1,200$3,150$5,900
Directly Paid by Communter$150$2,500$1,300$700$750$750
A: Includes total system cost. Approximately 1/3 of bus cost is paid via fares and 2/3 is subsidized. Assumes $1.50 average fare per ride.
B: A fast biker could commute 10 miles in 33 minutes and a slow biker could take 47 minutes, 40 minutes is an average.
C: Assumes parking costs $3 per day per vehicle.
D: Based on the work of Mark Delucchi of the University of California-Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. His analysis is considered one of the most comprehensive studies of the full costs of transportation. Delucchi’s cost range for transportation externalities ranged between $.04 and $.43 per vehicle-mile (the middle of this range, $.20, is used here). Per the Met Council, rail travel uses 16.4% less energy than a typical vehicle. For this analysis, the per passenger mile energy efficiency of a bus is assumed to be better than driving but worse than LRT.
E: Includes an additional 5 minutes for waiting for transit or walking from transit stop or parking.
F: This is time spent waiting or driving. Time as a passenger can be spent reading, or as exercise if biking or walking.
G: Includes amortized vehicle purchase cost, maintenance and repair, fuel and a portion of insurance cost. Excludes the cost of roads.
H: Assumptions for light rail (LRT) cost: 22mph average speed, 19,300 passengers per weekday, $13 million annual operating cost, $675 million total capital cost, rail fares will parallel bus fares. Depreciable life of trains is estimated to be 15 years, stations and tracks 30 years.

While these figures are only averages that can vary significantly depending on specific situations, I think they show just how efficient bike commuting is. If all the benefits of bicycle commuting (cost, time, health, safety, environment and enjoyment) are taken into account, an outstanding case can be made for this form of transportation. Imagine the system-wide benefits if everyone bike commuted just one day a week: a 20% decrease in traffic would be huge. Information and tips on how to bicycle commute are available on the internet, from local bicycle organizations and libraries, and at Metro Commuter Services.