Reduce Gas the Easy Way: Try 'Bike To Work and School' Month

With gas up to a national average of $3.97 for the first week in May -- a nine-cent rise over the previous week and 48% higher since Labor Day -- it's getting hard not to panic about gas prices. My sister, who drives more than 25 miles round-trip every day for work, is starting to reduce or eliminate all other trips; my dad, who lives 50 miles outside of Portland, decided it would be better to get a motel for two nights than to drive there and back when helping me with a fixer-upper project. "I break even," he said shaking his head. "And I don't have to drive tired."

The rising prices are enough to get people to do drastic things -- like give up your car and switch to a bike, as I did several years ago. We started easy, though, with a "car diet" for a month (anything is possible if you do it for a month, right?) It was, and we just kept at it.

That's why I love National Bike Month, a celebration that, coupled with the Bike to Work and School Day, has morphed in my circle of friends into Walk and Bike to School Month (grown with inspiration from a friend and fellow bike activist, Olivia Rebanal). It's a challenge I make to friends and family: Don't try biking to work just for a day. Give it a month -- I can almost guarantee you'll love it.If you choose to do it for just one day, you'll find it's hardly easy, what with the typical tire-patching and helmet-finding that go along with taking an ill-used recreational bike out of storage. One day, and you'll think, "This is really hard." After a week, you might be grumbling because of sore thighs or the need to buy a pair of rain pants.

But after a month? You're geared up, you're in the rhythm, and you'll think to yourself, "Why not just keep going?" Why not indeed? You'll do more than just feel proud of yourself for cutting carbon emissions. You'll save money, and that money will only increase over time.

Here are a few of the ways biking to work or school for just one month could save you:

  1. Gas. Of course, you'll save a ton on gas. If you decide to bike just for a commute to school and work, your savings, of course, will depend on the length of that commute. The average length in 2001 was 11 miles; more recent data suggests routes have gotten longer. If you're even a little below average, 100 miles a week at about 25 mpg and $4 per gallon of gas works out to be a very nice $832 a year.
  2. Parking. Most city parking spaces cost in excess of $100 a month; most bike parking spaces go for zero dollars. Many workplaces and schools even have special sheltered cages for employee bikes or allow employees to bring their bikes in their offices (If not, ask! It's considered a "green" perk, and it's a very easy one for an employer compared to other perks). And let's not forget about parking tickets; I'm sure I spent a few hundred a year on those when I was a downtown driver. Your savings? At least $1,000 a year for most city dwellers.
  3. Car upkeep and repairs. I'll be honest: We were eager to give up our car, temporarily at first, because we needed $400 worth of new tires and preferred to spend that money on groceries (I know, silly priorities!). It will depend on your car and the sort of driver you are, of course, but we all know that feeling of fear that comes over us when we drive up to a dealership or mechanic's garage. Will we get out in under $1,000? Probably not. You'll be lucky to have only $1,000 in such costs each year.
  4. Insurance. Many companies are beginning to offer pro-rated insurance for low-mileage drivers. The savings may not be huge now -- $50 to $200 a year -- but once you find yourself objecting on principle to the paltry savings ("Only 15%!" I can hear you saying to your spouse. "But I drive over 50% less! I'm far less of a risk now"), you might have the impetus you need to get rid of your car entirely.
  5. Health discounts and other benefits. A few companies offer lower premiums for employees who bike to work, or give them cash in exchange for the free parking premium offered to other employees. This could be huge (especially if you get cash for parking) or not-so-huge (a discount on health premiums is sometimes hard to count as "savings" when premiums rise so much every year), but it could grow into harder-to-quantify benefits as your overall health improves from all that exercise.
  6. Car payments and licensing fees? Can you do it? Can you get rid of your car entirely? I did it, and I have three little boys (all of whom I tote around at once upon occasion, prompting lots of stares), a pretty heavy grocery habit (I buy milk in large quantities and in glass bottles and pick it up at the bottom of a large hill), and a husband who's currently overseas serving in the Army. Other bike-crazy friends get rid of just one family car, leaving an old faithful for big grocery trips, grandparent visits, and days with nasty weather. Still others join a car-sharing service or share a vehicle with other families. It's hard not to love the money saved: Many of us spend several hundred dollars a month for the privilege of getting around fast in a motorized vehicle. And for the record, even the most cushy, handmade, custom bike costs less than I paid each year for my car payments, way back when.
The thing about a bike-to-work-and-school month is that it makes all this seem possible. It may not be forever, or for everyone, but it's worth a try. And as I rode my bike yesterday to pick up the groceries at rush hour, I found myself going faster than the cars on the highway next to me, and I looked over at them and at the clear blue sky up ahead, and I grinned. Just a little.

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