The Stupendous, Problematic Cheapness of Bicycles

While there seems to be an arms race driving up the prices of pro-level bikes, the reality is that for the most part, bikes are incredibly cheap. Which is both awesome and a huge problem.

Take a look at commuter bikes.  Whether it’s the one you’re riding, or the ones you see locked up, these bikes can almost be ridden forever.  We’re now 31 years past the introduction of integrated shift/brake levers, and there are countless bikes still on the road with downtube shifters, exposed brake cables, and extension levers–which means the bikes were built sometime between the mid-70s to mid 80s.. You can find bikes with 27” wheels. You can still see mountainbikes with bullmoose handlebars and Biopace triples.

This cheapness extends to my own rides.   My main commuter is 33 years old and going strong.  Despite the fact I’ve logged over 1500 miles a year the past few years on this ancient mountain bike, most of the components are from when I last mountain biked regularly in the 1990s.   Among the newer parts, the freewheel and chain were replaced last year after over 20 years on the bike, and it took me three years to go through a set of brake pads. The front tire is four years old.  The saddle has been in service for over a decade.  Due to a moment’s inattention, I dinged the rear rim (26 years old) and cut the rear tire. I had a spare mtb commuter tire in storage for the past four years ($40), and a spent about $60 on new spokes and a rim. Once I put the new wheel in, I saw I had to replace the transverse cable on the rear brake. That was maybe $3.  In total, I spent about $100 on the bike in 2019. In fact, my main commuting-related purchases of the past four years were arguably luxuries: thermal pants, $100, and winter mtb shoes, $150, which I bought in late 2018. And I expect both should last in the range of four years.

Public transit for these commuting duties would cost me over $1500 for the year. I could buy a new bike from a bike shop every year and still be so far ahead that I could buy a second, and still have money for upkeep and gear. A car would run me at least $6,000 a year, if I could purchase the car (used, preferably) on installments, but more likely $8,000+. Bikes are so cheap compared to other options, it’s hard to conceive why people spend so much on cars when all some cars are doing is going a mile or three at a time.

I love how cheap bikes can be. It’s low-impact, low-cost transit that more people should use—and if you also use bike transit to substitute for a gym membership (average cost in 2018 was $696/year), even cheaper and more practical as you’re multi-tasking on the bike. But the cheapness makes it hard on bike shops. $100 a year from a dedicated commuter per commuter is a hard way to stay in business. You can see why bike shops need to also have clothing—helmets, gloves, baselayers, rain pants, rain jackets, etc, in order to survive.

A big part of me thinks that bikes and bike stuff should be more expensive because keeping a bike going can be so inexpensive. Arguably, the reason bikes and cycling aren’t valued is because bikes and riding cheap. As Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” The second half of the statement gives context and why we value bikes, “it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

But a problem for bikes is that the value proposition doesn’t seem to change much whether a bike is ridden once a year or nearly every day. Someone riding a few times a year probably still needs some maintenance to keep going. Air in tires, lubes, cable adjustments, replacement of dry-rotted tires, and more. The cost of an annual tune-up, including the schlep to a bike shop, is still pretty small, probably $50-150, but looks big to the person who isn’t riding at all.

Worse, people who already are spending $8,000 a year or more on a car probably look at the cost of a bicycle as a luxury. Ironic. Cars are the preferred mode of transit despite the fact that 45% of all car trips are less than three miles in length (Data shows 5% or all car trips are less than a half-mile, 16.4% are less than a mile, 13.8% are less than two miles, and 10.4% are less than three miles). For better or worse, a car can travel a half-mile and it can travel hundreds of miles between stops. Arguably, driving gets cheaper the more people are traveling inside the car and the more miles a car travels, the cost of a car dips as things like insurance and registration are fixed. A driver’s feeling can be that they’ve already paid for the car, no matter that the cost of gas and upkeep add to the cost, those costs are virtually hidden, and thus don’t count.

The IRS put the private car mileage deduction at $0.58 a mile in 2019. AAA estimated that a car costs about $0.7354 per mile to drive in 2017. That number is based on estimates of insurance, maintenance, payments, and fuel economy, and is assuming the car is driven 10,000 miles a year. Drive less and it costs a bit more per mile because there are some fixed costs, like payments and insurance. Drive more, and it costs a bit less for that same reason. 1500 miles of bike riding—250 five-mile rides plus 250 miles of assorted commutes—is the equivalent of $1,103.10 spent on driving in 2017. Assuming gas and other related costs are only affected by inflation, that’s $1,172.00 in 2020 dollars.

Again, 1500 miles by bike is a much cheaper mode of transit than 1500 miles in a car. That’s before trying to compute externalities. On the one hand, extra calories of food is a cost. But then, probably the most expensive way to get that extra cost per day is to eat a candy bar, which is probably about the number of extra calories consumed per trip. On the other hand, exhaust emissions are probably far more costly. Individual cars vary, but the current estimate of emissions for the average passenger car is 0.79 pounds of CO2 emitted per mile driven. That’s 1,185lbs of greenhouse gas emitted in 1500 miles, pollution that comes with a cost that’s currently hard to calculate. One person reducing their exhaust by that much is not noticed; if we could get 10% of all trips under three miles in length, which would be significant.

It’s worth asking at what point people will start to consider driving so expensive that they’ll start considering alternatives. The up front costs of buying a car don’t seem to put people off. It appears that daily operating expenses are what remind people of the cost of driving. Gas and tolls. With the latter, much of the country doesn’t have to deal with them, though crowded metropolitan areas are increasingly considering congestion pricing to incentivize non-automobile commuting.

Gas pricing is largely a problem of our own creation. Gas taxes, which do not pay for roads despite what many people think, haven’t been raised in almost 27 years. They were 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993. The price of a gallon of gas was $1.11, including the gas tax. Gas taxes are worth -64% less than they were at that time. Just keeping up with inflation would put them at 32.6 cents per gallon today, and gas is about $2.50 a gallon.

The larger problem of gas prices in general is that because so many people buy gas, keeping the price low is a way to juice the economy in the short term, and then by keeping them low, it encourages people to buy large, fuel inefficient cars, which then has furthered the pressure to keep gas prices low because those who are driving gas guzzlers will have their pocketbooks hurt, and thus other sectors of the economy will feel the impact as well. Sadly, many of those gas-guzzlers are driven in places where commuting distances are longer and incomes are lower. Wyoming, Georgia, and Alabama had the longest driving distances per capita in 2014; 16, 410 miles, 12,828 miles, and 12, 713 miles respectively. Washington, DC, New York and Hawaii had the shortest; 6,115mi, 6,801mi, and 7,055 respectively.

Gas prices have been higher. Adjusting for inflation, gas prices were highest in 1918, at $4.27 a gallon, and 2012, at $3.99 a gallon. Gas that expensive could possibly change people’s driving, and car-buying habits.

Bikes appear to be getting a boost from younger adults who seem to be getting fewer licenses. 40% of teens had a driver’s license in 2014, a dip of 7% from 2001.

Because of all the expenses that operating a car entails, and the priority that most people give cars in their hierarchy of transportation needs, bikes need to be cheap or necessary to be more popular. Cheap enough that owning and operating one doesn’t seem to be a luxury. Or driving needs to become more expensive.


3 thoughts on “The Stupendous, Problematic Cheapness of Bicycles”

  1. Unfortunately, what Thomas Paine failed to appreciate is that for things which are too dear, new and unexpected uses for them cannot be entertained. For example, computers used to cost millions of dollars. Then in the 1980s the PC became affordable on account of cheap electronics. That spurred an entire societal revolution which took decades to seriously materialize and is still ongoing. Bicycles are not too cheap. It is the very fact of affordability, especially in the realm of electric bikes and scooters, that new, innovative uses are being found every day (See Tern bikes for example). People are suddenly realizing they no longer need a car (with its huge expenses for fuel, maintenance, insurance and parking) for daily transportation. This recent shift in mobility thinking is beginning to have measurable effects on city infrastructure. This would not be taking place if bikes were tens of thousands of dollars. That this is having an effect on bicycle sales/repair stores is part of the creative destruction of capitalism. More bikes will ultimately mean more stores for sales and service. For example, before the advent of the cell phone, how many retail phone stores were there? Now, when cell phones have become so cheap they are almost disposable, there are retail phone stores on nearly every corner, employing many thousands more than when we all had Ma Bell land line desk phones.

  2. Wholeheartedly agree with this surmise.Ride an ‘86 Rockhopper every day,over mountains and along the coast of a Japanese tropical island.Rust is the enemy,yet still have original chain,freewheel,cables etc.Who cares?!

  3. Part of the answer to the question what would make cars too expensive to use is something that struck me while I lived at about the middle of Long Island, NY, visiting NYC frequently. There is plentiful public transport however, at best it would take me twice as long to reach particular NYC destination by public transport and looking just at the cost of the trip itself (average cost of gas and ordinary gas mileage) public transportation would cost me about 3 times more… Counterintuitive but measured many times. Public transport is way too inefficient both in the terms of time and cost, even in traditionally heavily congested traffic area that is comparatively well served by public transport options… Yest, this is on longer distance scale than you considered vs the bicycle but those scales are the ones incentivizing car ownership. Secondary note: look at the average age of American car, it is decade old and cheap, even as a student with 17k$ per year I could easily afford (old,crappy,fully functional) car. Stats are skewed by few rich in 100k$ Teslas. So, to answer your question, the first thing needed to make cars too expensive option is way faster, way cheaper, way more flexible public transport.

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