Alex Baca and Rebecca Rindler both bike (sometimes together) and also think about money. Biking for transportation is a key intersection of those topics. In this series, we’ll talk about the quantifiable and less-quantifiable parts of bike commuting.
Bec: Alex, we are friends who bike for recreation (long rides in spandex) and transportation (shorter rides in yoga pants). You live in D.C. I used to live in D.C. and now live in New York City. Let’s talk about how we got started.
Alex: One quibble: I bike in jorts, because I bike in pretty much anything, because I ride a bike for transportation. But, totally! What did it cost for you to get started?
Bec: When I started biking for transportation, I already had my most crucial pieces of gear: a bike, two locks, and a helmet. I ride a vintage Schwinn Le Tour, which I bought used at Bike Club in Virginia. It was in perfect condition and priced at $250; I negotiated it down to $200, plus $50 for a u-lock and chain. The helmet I’d had forever—I think I bought it after college for $50. I got a light at some point, or maybe it was a gift ($25?). Altogether, it cost me $250-$325 to start biking. How about you?
Alex: I had a bike in college. It was a horribly heavy single-speed Schwinn. I didn’t ride it much because College Park is a really hard place to bike around! (Funnily, I now commute to and from College Park by bike. We can talk about that later, though.) It got stolen the night I moved to D.C. I planned to come back to pick it up the next day, but my roommates had thrown it off the porch and it got snatched. I was bike-free in D.C. for just under a year. Eventually, I got tired of waiting for the bus and went balls-out at BicycleSpace. I bought a new (so, 2011) 24-speed Jamis Coda Femme for $550. Despite occasionally riding a bike for transportation in the past, I didn’t have many of the necessary accessories, so I bought a u-lock ($60), a floor pump ($40), a light set ($50), a helmet ($80—that’s a lot of money for a foam bucket, even if it’s protecting your head, but it’s a Bern and it’s cute and comfortable, and because it’s cute and comfortable I actually wear it), and a rack ($25). It cost me around $800 to start biking.
Bec: Right, I would say my initial Level One Biking investment was in necessities that got me started on the basics in my first year in D.C. (later, I would spend more and bike more). I chose my used bike for a few reasons. One, I love vintage bikes. Two, I live in terror of my bike(s) being stolen. If my $200 bike got stolen, I would be more sad than financially pinched. Three, I think that, like new cars, bikes lose a lot of their value the day they move from “new” to “nearly new.”
Also, I was a novice biker then, and was just starting to bike for transportation. I didn’t know how much I would end up using my bike, and was reluctant to invest in something that might just sit in the closet (Craigslist is full of people who overestimate how much they will use a bike and then have to sell it for a lot less). The Schwinn (and its price point) were awesome for an entry-level rider. Now that I’m a more fluent transportation biker, I could see upgrading to something lighter that costs a little more.
Alex: I spent more to start biking than I needed to, but I’m glad I did. By buying a bike new, I struck up a relationship with BicycleSpace; their mechanics and sales staff have done awesome things for me since then. As with many shops, BicycleSpace checks out your bike after 30 miles or three months to make sure things are running smoothly and will fix your bike for free within the first year of purchase. This was especially handy when my derailleur broke in half!
I also wanted the best possible setup I could get. I bought a bike so that I would ride a bike. I didn’t want anything loose, uncomfortable, or difficult to keep me from biking. I may have had to make compromises with a Craigslist purchase, which may have, in turn, disincentivized me from riding. (I see this a lot at work now! People won’t ride bikes that they don’t enjoy riding, even if they don’t enjoy riding for the tiniest, most easily fixable reason. This is totally legitimate!)
Bec: We’ve covered the costs of biking. What about the benefits and money saved?
Alex: I will say that I know quite a few people who have replaced their gym memberships with biking. That’s awesome, but as I’ve gotten more into biking as recreation, I’ve gotten more into fitness in general. I pay to go to a CrossFit gym ($159 per month) and a yoga studio ($59 per month); fitness is my hobby now and it helps offset my high-stress job (which has to do with, yeah, bikes). I have a really short commute to work—I’ve switched jobs since buying a bike for transportation, but my commute has stayed around two miles—and I don’t want to take the joy out of riding by making it my exercise, too. (I usually ride around 30-50 miles on weekends, anyway.)
I don’t know how to measure, exactly, the time I’ve saved by biking, but I think that’s the biggest value I’ve gotten from riding for transportation. It’s just so, so much easier and more efficient to get around, especially in D.C., where Metro was built to bring commuters into the city, not connect neighborhoods; buses don’t have dedicated right-of-ways; and WMATA’s fractured funding has resulted in terrible maintenance work and very long late-night headways.
There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t have a dollar value, like time, convenience, and knowing how to get around your city. I rarely have to consult Google Maps anymore, not because I go to the same places but because I’ve biked all over D.C. (and a lot of its suburbs, too!). It’s awesome to have that kind of confidence.
Bec: Exactly. When I lived in D.C., biking made the city feel smaller and more accessible, and allowed me to explore new places. It definitely saved time, too. Living in New York, I bike for transportation around Brooklyn, and I’ve started bike commuting once a week. Commuting by bike for me is not faster than the subway, but I like being above ground and active. It feels good to have my cardio done by the time I start my workday, and I have more energy, too. For getting around Brooklyn, you really can’t beat biking. It allows me to get places that aren’t close to the subway. The other night I biked to a bar in Greenpoint; I wouldn’t have gone out if I had to take the subway because, ugh, the G train. Also, riding my bike makes me really happy, much more so than being in an underground tube, shoved up so close against a stranger that I can smell the red onions she had for lunch. It may not save me money because I’d have a Metrocard anyway, but biking adds to my quality of life.
Alex: We might have scared people off by talking not-tiny sums of money regarding getting started, even if we’ve provided (what I think!) are a lot of great reasons riding a bike is an A+ way to get around. But it’s not that bad! If you had to summarize, what’s the absolute bare minimum you have to put out to get started with biking for transportation?
Bec: For me, it was about $300. Two important points: I’ve had the same bike, helmet, and U-lock for 4 years. So that comes out to $75 per year (not including maintenance, which we’ll talk about in another post). Second, in my experience, bikers are generous with gifts and barters. I have received lots of things for free from family and friends (things like a bike that would have otherwise hit the trash heap, lights, helmet, and free bike repair, and I just gave you some pedals I didn’t need). If you’re thinking about biking for transportation, talk to your friends and family who bike. Maybe there’s a lock and a helmet around that someone will lend or give you to get started.
Alex: Basically: Obtain a bike and lock from whatever source you’re budget-comfortable with, whether that’s Craigslist, a local bike shop, or even Target. After that—probably immediately after that—invest in a helmet and lights. I did this all at once because my priority was making biking my primary mode of transportation. Others might follow your method, Bec, of buying things as you realized you needed them.
And while this is a discussion about the financial aspects of biking, we need to say it: be safe. There’s plenty of resources available on local and national channels about bike safety. The League of American Bicyclists’ website is a good place to get started.
Happy shopping, happy riding!
In our next installment we’ll talk about additional stuff we bought to make biking more awesome, and we’ll do our best to address questions and thoughts you leave in the comments.
Alex Baca works in bike advocacy in Washington, D.C.
Rebecca (Bec) Rindler writes, lives and bikes in New York City.
They are founding members of Capital Spokeswomen, an awesome group of women who bike in D.C.