How Biking Can Save You Money

Saving Money And Yourself

Parking lot obstacle course

Average Trip Length

The US Bureau of Transportation does annual surveys about the travel habits of typical Americans based on anonymized cell phone data. A "trip" is defined as a movement that includes a stay of at least 10 minutes at any location away from a person's home and included transportation via driving, rail, transit and air. This data is reported in miles, and numbers have been converted to kilometers and assumed to apply equally to Canadians, as this type of data does not appear to be available for Canada (if it is, I wasn't able to find it). This information is from 2021 (see the data).
  • Under 1.6km = 28%
  • 1.6 - 4.8km = 24%
  • 4.8 - 8.1km = 12%
  • 8.1 - 16km = 15%
  • More than 16km = 21%
Doing some simple math: 
  1. 52% of trips were less than 5km in length. 
  2. 79% of trips were less than 16km in length. 

Time Factor

General internet searching doesn't yield many hits on what the average speed of a cyclist moving through an urban environment is, but Sustainability Info has compiled some data from various sources, including Strava, to come up with some averages. Obviously, terrain, fitness, infrastructure and distance travelled all factor in and the ranges vary: globally, their data says urban cycling has an average speed of 19-26km/h. If you put a route into Google Maps in Calgary, the time it takes to ride it appears to be based on an average of 14-19km/h, depending on terrain. I have spent many hours on bike, both on road and pathway, by myself and with participants in a course with frequent stops: I believe Google Maps is more accurate in terms of the average speed of cycling in Calgary. I chose a speed of 15.5km/h to do calculations. 
  • To travel 5km on a bike (at 15.5km/h average) would take about 20 minutes.
  • To travel 16km on a bike (at 15.5km/h average) would take about 60 minutes. 
The majority - 52% - of trips which are currently done by auto, rail, or transit (let's be serious, these aren't air trips) could be done by bike in about 20 minutes. An additional 27% of trips could be done by bike in an hour or less. 

Look at a Google Maps route that you normally take & compare the time it takes to travel by auto, transit or bike. Auto may be faster some times, but if there's a crash, things can get backed up in a hurry, adding a significant delay to your drive. Depending on the time of day, transit and bike may be similar, or - because a bike can go wherever, not tied to a specific route - the bike may actually be faster. 

Random cycling map

Fuel Efficiency

Based on a 2019 report by the International Energy Agency, the average Canadian automobile uses 8.7L of fuel to travel 100km. This value is based on registrations of light-duty vehicles (passenger cars, passenger light trucks, light commercial vehicles) from 2005 to 2017. While comparable autos improved in fuel efficiency, and demand for hybrid and electric vehicles grew in this period, the overall size of autos increased and the technologic improvements can only go so far. In some countries - and within countries, certain areas - the fuel efficiency actually worsened through the study periods: I would hazard a guess that the increasing demand for pickup trucks and larger SUVs in Alberta would be reflected in this data. 

Distance Travelled Annually

Up to 2008, Natural Resources Canada compiled data about the average distances autos travelled annually by province. These numbers are not available anymore, but Natural Resources Canada now uses an average of 20,000km/year as the "annual allowance" for leased autos. In the previous reports, Alberta autos travelled pretty close to the average across Canada, so using 20,000km for an annual distance travelled would be reasonable. However, because it was difficult to find accurate statistics, I have used the average distance of 15,200km from 2008 for Alberta as the number to make my calculations. I have also made calculations based on my family's actual auto use per year. 

Using the average of 15,200km/year for a typical Alberta auto:
  • 7,904km of the total was done in trips of less than 5km each. 
  • 12.008km of the total was done in trips of less than 16km each. 

Reducing Auto Use

I will never suggest that anyone has to, or even should, change out all of the short trips they make by auto with a trip by bike or on foot. There's a multitude of reasons why that is unreasonable, including but not limited to the weather in Calgary (I don't ride my bike in the winter at all, and I don't walk for groceries when it's -20*C either!). However, even looking at what was average for 2008, my family puts far less distance on our auto than average. I have owned my current smallish SUV since December 2010, and lived in my current home since April 2014. Since 2015, the highest annual travel done in this auto was just over 10,000km; the average is 8,500km/year. Granted, we do also own a pickup truck, but the truck is used almost exclusively for camping and hauling things (like loads of gravel, helping people move) and not for errands or commuting, so I will disregard the distance travelled in our truck. 

How have I managed to drive half of the average distance driven in Alberta every year? I walk and bike when it makes sense to do so: that's how. My daughter has been driven to school in an auto less than 5 days per school year (when they had an overnight trip, or we had to transport things like ski equipment for example); we walk or bike, even when it's very cold and/or snowy. One memorable winter day, it was -23*C and there had been 23cm of snow overnight: I wore my snowshoes and broke trail through about half of the almost 1.5km distance - I was definitely warm enough that day! We also walk or bike to get small amounts of groceries, to visit the library, to go to the doctor or physiotherapy as well as just for recreation. When covid shut down the schools in 2020, my daughter and I biked or walked every street in our community just for something to do, as well as loaded bikes onto the car and took them to other places to ride: we rode the entire 150km Rotary-Mattamy Greenway in bits and pieces that year (it's actually about 180km including all the spur routes).
Is it reasonable to suggest that the difference between my mileage and the average was all done by bike or foot? I don't think so. A big part of it is that I simply don't see an automobile as recreation: it's a mode of transportation and I use it when I need or want to get somewhere that's too far, too inconvenient or when I have too much to carry for my bike or feet, when it's too cold, or when it just makes the most sense. Since most of my job is done from home, I don't need to use an auto to commute very often, either (my husband had an auto when he used to work away from home, but we sold that car when he switched to work from home permanently). Whether accurate or not, looking back at my Google Timeline for 2021 (I got hurt in ealry 2022 and wasn't as physically active), I walked 531km, biked 597km and covered 6,128km in an auto (my SUV went 8,002km that year).
2021 Google Timeline

Fuel Savings

Going back to average automobile use, reminders:
  1. 52% of trips were less than 5km in length. 
  2. In 2008, the average distance travelled by auto was 15,200km. 
  3. The average Canadian automobile uses 8.7L of fuel to travel 100km.
Putting this together - and again, I'm not suggesting that it's an all-or-none situation, but just for calculations sake: if all trips under 5km (7,904km of the average) were done by bike or walking, the average Canadian auto would use 687L less fuel in a year. 

Fuel Cost

The price of gasoline has gone up on average every year, with the exception of a few moments of crisis, and is currently around $1.45/L in Calgary. For the sake of calculations, I chose an average price of $1.30/L, leading to a total of $893.10 in savings by not using the fuel. In reality, the amount trips taken will likely be less than 52% of the total, the amount of fuel saved by walking and biking would vary depending on your auto and it's efficiency, but the cost is higher, so the dollar value of walking or biking will be different than this calculation. 


Minion passenger

Other Benefits

Cycling has other benefits besides saving fuel. Get on a bike to experience:
  • reduced stress
  • increased muscle strength
  • decreased risk of certain types of cancer
  • improved cardiovascular health
  • lessened mental health issues
  • boost in bone health.
By not using an auto to get around as much, you will also:
  • reduce air pollution
  • increase safety
  • decrease wear and tear on your auto
  • improve the communities you travel through
  • lessen road congestion
  • boost local businesses. 
The day this photo was taken, my daughter and I had ridden to the rink to sweep off the gravel and use some chalk paint to draw circles for an upcoming course. On the way home, we saw this Minion stuffie sitting in an alley, so I attached it to my bike bag. It provided a huge boost for a tired and hot child, who literally laughed out loud as the wind from my bike made this Minion "reach" for her as we finished our ride. The stuffie is still sitting prominently in our home, as we are all huge Minion fans. We wouldn't have found this if we hadn't ridden our bike that day. 

One Pedal Stroke At A Time

Riding a bike could save you $900 a year and has immense benefits for yourself, your community and the environment. You probably won't be able to replace all the short trips with a bike ride or a walk instead of getting in your auto, but can you replace some of them? If you spend a little time planning, learn how to ride on appropriate roads for where you would like to go by bike, and get the right gear to be able to carry things with you (more on that in a later blog post), I'm confident that you can reduce your auto use at least a little bit. Every epic journey begins with one step... every bike ride begins with that first pedal stroke. 

You may surprise yourself with what you can attach to your bike, that you wouldn't have stopped for if you were in your car, and how using your bike to return a library book can became a ridiculous-looking load of pillows to make your patio chairs very comfortable, and meant you've had your car for 12 years and are just now due for a timing belt change. 

What will you do with the money you save by driving your auto less?

- Melissa Malejko, Owner of Safer Cycling Calgary
Packing pillows