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Bike to Work Day: Ditching the car could save $9,000 a year

Chelsea SheasleyThe Christian Science Monitor

Fed up with $4-a-gallon gas and a morning commute? Bike advocacy groups have declared Friday, May 18, as national Bike to Work Day to encourage commuters to pedal their way to work instead.

For most people, health and fitness are the main reasons to start biking to work. But since 2008, the economic benefits of ditching four wheels for two are climbing on people’s list of priorities. The savings can add up.

“When you pay $70, $80 to fill up your car, you start to think maybe it is possible to bike to work,” says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington advocacy group and national sponsor of Bike to Work Day. “We want to give people the opportunity to try biking and see if it works for them.”

For Bike to Work Day, bike groups across the country are sponsoring group rides and offering buddy services to pair new riders with experienced commuters. They hope the day shows people it’s easier than they think to bike to work. The incentives, they say, are better health and fitness, a more ecofriendly commuter footprint, and cost savings.

Just how much can you expect to save if you commit to biking?

You’ll save the most money if your bike can replace a car, cyclists say. Mr. Clarke, who bikes 12 miles each day to and from his office in Washington, estimates that his family saves $3,000 to $5,000 a year by not needing a second car.

AAA says the savings can be even higher. In April, the automobile club released a survey that found that the average cost of owning and operating a mid-sized sedan in the United States is $8,946 per year, based on national averages for gas, insurance, maintenance, tires, taxes, and car loans.

“There are significant savings if as a family you eliminate a second car. Then you really do save that $9,000,” says Stephanie Frans, commute programs manager at Cascade Bicycle Club, a nonprofit education and advocacy group in Seattle.

If it’s not possible to jettison a car, Ms. Frans says you can “incrementally but significantly” reduce costs by incorporating bicycling into your routine more often. Leaving your car at home cuts down on gas, garage payments, parking tickets, and tolls. Since a bike commute is an exercise regime, it’s possible to save hundreds of dollars a month by canceling a gym membership.

Congress is willing to incentivize bicycling, too. As of 2009, cyclists are on the list of commuters eligible for a transportation tax benefit, although the benefit is capped at $20 a month and can’t be combined with other commuter tax breaks.

If you want to reap these financial benefits, however, you will need to make some investments. The Cascade Bicycle Club recommends 10 essentials for bike commuters: a bike, helmet, U-lock, front and rear lights, reflective and bright clothing, rain gear, fenders (to protect from rain or mud), commuter clothing, a bell, and a mirror on your handlebars or helmet.

If a commuter bought all those accessories new at popular outdoor equipment store REI, they would spend between $200 and $1,000-plus. If they have to buy a bike, it could cost considerably more. Adult bikes at REI currently run from $380 to $3,500.

Then there are other items that most serious commuters buy, including biking gloves, shoes, bike racks, and panniers to store clothing and laptops, which can add a few hundred dollars more to the total. Costs for bike maintenance should also be factored in: Frans estimates that she spends $100 a year for regular maintenance and a few hundred dollars every few years for a more extensive tuneup or upgrade.

Biking advocates are swift to point out that not every commuter needs extensive gear, and that investments are quickly recouped if you stick to the new routine.

“If you’re looking at investing in solar energy, or a Prius, you’re happy to have a five- to 10-year return,” Frans says. With the money you put into biking, “you’ll probably get a return within a year easily.”