Myth Buster: Is a Bicycle a Practical Transportation Alternative?

A popular website that touts the virtues of simple and frugal living is Mr. Money Mustache. The site shares the philosophy of a thirty-something (maybe forty or so now) computer engineer who retired young and now lives the good life from his Colorado home with his wife and young son. It is a popular site with younger adults, in part because it leads masses of young people to believe that they can, and in fact will, retire in just a short number of years by following some lifestyle changes to reduce spending and consumption habits. Younger adults also like the blogger’s pithy writing style, which makes liberal, cutesy use of occasional profanity that the young readers seem to particularly enjoy.

Although I am frequently alarmed by the unrealistic career planning decisions that many of the readers seem to have made (more on that in a later post), I generally have enjoyed the blogger’s posts. I agree with Mr. Money Mustache (or MMM) on many of his suggestions, and I too like the general simple living philosophy that he espouses.

But one theme that he constantly preaches that I just can’t understand is the use of bicycles for transportation. Basically, MMM suggests that everyone should move to a close commuting distance from the work place, buy a good, used bicycle, and ride it everywhere except for the occasional road trip. MMM touts the health benefits and the money savings that come from putting calories to work in lieu of spending big money on gas, maintenance, and insurance costs. He suggests that most errands – even grocery shopping – can be accomplished with the bike and a connected baby carrier.   You can even transport appliances with a bicycle and a trailer!  He even blows off the safety concerns of biking on major roadways, going so far as to call biking the safest means of transportation. Even weather, he says, is no problem as a dedicated “Mustachian” will find ways to bike to work even in the snow. Just bike, MMM says, and you are well on your way to financial freedom.

I have to admit, he makes it sound appealing. Saving money and promoting good health really does sound like a no-brainer, win-win, doesn’t it?

Well, keep in mind, the purpose of this blog is to promote practical frugal living. And I hate to break it to you, but bicycling everywhere is about as far from practical as attempting to live off of roadside berries.

Let’s start with this idea of biking to work. MMM feels anyone in pretty much any occupation can do this. Well, I’m an attorney working in the southeastern United States. Even though we generally dress in business casual attire on days when we have no office guests or out of office appointments, we still expect for our employees to come to work reasonably clean and free of odor. I think most office work places have a similar expectation. For half of the year, if I were to bike to work eight miles, I would arrive fairly soaked in perspiration, which is really not acceptable.

So, to be fair, I once started a thread on MMM’s message board to ask what people do about this issue. You wouldn’t believe some of the responses. One person explained that he keeps a week’s worth of fresh clothes in his office. When he arrives each day, he visits the bathroom, sponges himself off, changes clothes, and apparently stores the soiled garments somewhere in the office before taking them home. Another suggested that I could probably find a local gym or health club that would be happy to allow me to shower and change there. Really? Yes, I’m sure I could use a downtown gym’s facilities to shower and change each day – if I pay the $49/month membership fee. And that would kind of spoil the whole money saving idea, wouldn’t it? As for the first suggestion, I’ve never really managed to accomplish a thorough cleaning by sponging off select body parts before a sink, and I sure don’t relish the idea of trying this technique out in a law firm. Once I start sweating heavily during a workout, it also takes quite a while for my body to cool down in general. In other words, even after a shower, I usually find myself continuing to sweat for several minutes until the blood pressure and body temperature are fully back to normal. I really would prefer to just arrive faster, cleaner, and better rested.

Then there’s the whole issue of time.  Does it ever occur to these folks that they are throwing a good hour of so of additional time into biking to work and bathing and changing afterwards?  Is there any consideration given to the nuisance and value of time factors?

At any rate, when you find yourself making suggestions like these to justify an idea like biking to work, it is a pretty good indication that the idea is not practical. And bicycling everywhere certainly is not.

Of course we have not even begun to look at some of the more serious problems like biking home in the rain, sleet, and snow. Lots of fun there. Work is not always predictable either, and I’m not sure what I would do when I receive the call from a client who asks me to meet him that same day. I’m sure the client would understand if I said, “Sure, just given me an hour to bike down there, and pay no mind to the fact that I will be sweating like a pig.” The client or customer will also appreciate having to drive any time the two of you go somewhere together.

As for safety, I don’t know what utopia MMM lives in, but my community has had multiple cases of bicyclists injured or killed by drivers.  Just a ten second google search found this article on a Navy Seal killed yesterday on a bike.  Here’s another story of a bicyclist killed from the last day.  Oh what the heck, here’s one more biker fatality from just the last day.  And another.

For the most part, bicyclists, especially when on the road during rush hour, are viewed as major nuisances by drivers. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of impatient drivers out there. Besides that, bicyclists bring a lot of hate upon themselves as they demand that the rules of the road apply to them – but only when convenient for the biker. Have you ever noticed how a bicyclist demands that he be treated as an equal motorist until he approaches an intersection? Then, suddenly, it is perfectly acceptable to move into the gutter to squeeze by stopped cars (including drivers who just moments earlier stressed through the process of getting around the bike in the first place), to run through red lights, to ride on the sidewalk and crosswalks, etc. Excuse the rant here, but the point is that bicyclists are not above road rage, (which they often incite), road hazards, and serious accidents.

Speaking from experience, I tried MMM’s idea by biking to my gym in the evenings. Just this two mile ride through city traffic was pretty scary, as cars zipped by me in the dark, sometimes barely clearing me. Dodging potholes and other road hazards was also a lot of fun. I quickly determined that this idea ain’t what it’s cranked up to be.

As for personal errands, if MMM is able to pile his groceries into a baby carrier, congratulations and God bless. For me, the thought of loading a gallon of milk, eggs, bread, canned goods, fresh fruit and meats, and other perishables in there, then pulling the load up and down hills to home is, in a word, nuts.

Then we come to the question of just how long do you really think you could tolerate this mode of transportation? Yes, a healthy young adult can bike a lot. But, trust me here, as you enter the late forties and fifties, changes occur to the body. In fact, the more active your lifestyle has been, the more wear and tear you will find surfacing to the joints. It will be interesting to see whether MMM and his disciples are still biking to and from the grocery store at age 55 when arthritis is coming into full bloom.

My suggestion is this: use a bicycle for exercise if you like (but, please, be responsible when doing so – no riding around in body tights, three feet into the travel lane, just far enough to obstruct traffic and piss off scores of motorists). But if you think a bike can largely eliminate your need for a car in day to day life, you need to think again.

And if you try this “lifestyle,” make sure your life insurance policy is up to date.

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3 Responses to Myth Buster: Is a Bicycle a Practical Transportation Alternative?

  1. Pingback: So What Are Quality Frugal Transportation Choices? | Practical Frugal Living

  2. My bicycles have largely eliminated my need for a car in day to day life for the past. I’ve lived in Nebraska, Wyoming, Alaska, New Mexico and now California, all the while bicycle daily to and from work and errands. Yes, daily, even in Alaska, with 50 feet of snow, 50 below zero and 120 inches of rain.

    It’s easy to sit in one’s car making excuses for not bicycling or walking, rather than actually doing it to find out it works very well.

  3. Bob Deeg says:

    I have a light truck but it only gets used on the weekends as I commute to the office by bike 12 miles each way. Am fortunate that I can take a shower in my employer’s fitness center before arriving at my desk. The route is safe, I get a great 50 minute cardio workout twice per day, never have to wait in a traffic jam, not contribution to air pollution and cutting transport costs. Winter riding is very doable if the streets are not slippery with snow and ice. My bikes have panniers and like MMM, I can carry groceries and various other stuff when running shopping excursions. All good.

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