Rob Carrick of the Globe and Mail recently wrote an article that really struck a chord on the real cost of owning a car. For a lot of families, owning a car is a necessity right there with food, clothing, and shelter. I’m proud to say I’ve lived car-free my entire life, instead relying on my trusty bicycle as my primary mode of transportation. Not only does my bicycle keep me physically fit, I save $6,182.16 a year by traveling on two wheels. I’ve been able to put this money to better use by paying down my mortgage and topping up my RRSP. Let’s take a look how cars and bicycles stack up in total costs.

Cost of Ownership: Cars

Here are some of the most common costs of car ownership:

  • Auto Insurance – Your home insurance probably seems like a bargain compared to the premiums you shell out to protect your car. The premiums you pay depend on a number of factors, including your car make and model, driving record, deductible and type of coverage.
  • License and Registration – Owning a car is a privilege, not a right. Not only will you have to obtain and renew your driver’s license, your vehicle needs up-to-date license plates and stickers. That means even more moola.
  • Fuel – The price at the pumps often has drivers seeing red. Although you can try to drive your car less frequently, you’re ultimately at the mercy gas stations.
  • Maintenance and Repairs – Just like your home, your car requires TLC. Skipping tune ups and regular car maintenance can lead to expensive costs down the road. It’s a good idea to have some money set aside for emergency car repairs, as cars have the habit of breaking down at the worst possible times.
  • Financing – Most families don’t have a spare $30,000 sitting around to purchase a car. You’ll have to carefully look at car loans and purchase financing to see what makes the most sense.
  • Depreciation – It’s often said new cars lose a lot of their value the second they leave the lot. Although not a direct cost, you shouldn’t expect to receive anything near full list price if you resell your car.

So how much exactly does it cost to own a car? Let’s put some dollars and cents on these expenses. Be forewarned that the results may shock you. The estimated average annual cost of owning a modest Honda Civic LX is $6,482.16. Looking for a fancier ride? The cost rises by nearly $2,500 to $8,854.80 if you opt for a higher-end vehicle like the Chevrolet Equinox LT.

Cost of Ownership: Bicycles

Here are some of the most common costs of bicycle ownership:

  • Maintenance and Repairs – If you plan to ride your bike rain or shine, five days a week from April to October, proper maintenance is vital. This includes annual spring tunes up, flat tire repairs and oil for your chain.
  • Purchase Price – Although you can spend upwards of $5,000 on top-of-the-line bicycles with hydraulics and a gazillion gears, $500 is all you really need for a decent commuter bike. Toss in an extra $50 for fenders for the rain and you’re good to go.
  • Clothing and Accessories – If you’re serious about cycling, you’ll want to invest in some decent cycling gear that’s both breathable and waterproof. While you don’t have to dress up in spandex, it’s probably a good idea to buy cycle gloves and waterproof Gortex rain gear for those less pleasant days.

You can expect to spend $200 a year on your bicycle for maintenance and repairs. You should set aside $100 for a tune up and another $80 for flat tire repairs (4 repairs at $20 each). Throw in an extra $70 a year for clothing and accessories and the grand total is $300.

Cycling Has Its Downsides

Although you can save a lot of money cycling, it isn’t for everyone.

  • Location – When purchasing a house, location comes at the top of the list for many homeowners. If it takes you more than an hour to cycle to work, it might not be a realistic goal. If you can’t picture yourself cycling at 6:30AM in the morning in the dark, it might be wise to stick with your car.
  • Family – For single folks and couples, cycling can work out perfectly. Children make it a lot more difficult to be car-free – it isn’t the easiest to drop your kids off at school and daycare by bicycle.
  • Weather – With proper cycling gear, you can ride your bike nine months a year. As soon as snow hits the ground, it’s wise to leave the bike indoors and take the transit or your car. Not only is cycling during the winter dangerous, road salt can do a number on your bike. It’s not worth ruining a $500 bike just to cycle an extra three months.
  • Storage – There’s nothing worse than having your bike stolen. Even the most expensive bike locks can be broken. By parking your bike outside you’re leaving it vulnerable to theft, vandalism and severe weather. Unless you have a safe place to park your bike, it might be best to leave it a home.

Do you ever cycle to work? Would you ever consider trading in your car for a bicycle?

About the AuthorSean Cooper is a single, 20-something year old, first time home buyer located in Toronto. He has experience in the financial sector as a Pension Analyst, RESP administrator and Income Tax Preparer. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce in business management from Ryerson University. You can read some of his other articles here.
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I’ve been cycling to work almost exclusively since April and I love it! I don’t think we’re quite ready to pull the trigger on selling our second car, but it’s getting easier to see it as a possibility.

We did the car-free way that people with kids can realistically do: we went down to one car. And love it! one car rules (with ttc picking up the slack on occasion). Getting a kid to daycare on a bike is theoretically possible; getting a kid to hockey practice with 100lbs of gear is impossible.

Sean, I do hope though that you’re on someone’s occasional driver insurance though. Otherwise that might be a rude awakening if you decide to buy a car.

PS You missed one big downside of not having a car: Girls. Or lack thereof.

I cycle to work every single day, rain or shine or snow. A big plus of living in Lotus Land. I used to race pro-am so I actually do love riding a bike and parking costs a fortune.

But I still own a car which costs ~$3,000/yr (5-yr average all-inclusive).

Cost is also relative. As per your example, if you buy a $500 bicycle, and then spend $300/yr on it…that’s 60% of the cost of your vehicle per year. Doesn’t make sense.

Frugal Tip: learn to change your own flat tires!

@Geoff: awesome! ;)

This is awesome. Not only are you saving money but you’re building exercise right into your commute. I worked in The Netherlands for a while and I had two bikes there and no car. I love it. I didn’t drive a car the entire time I was there and just loved loved loved riding my bike everywhere. I wish more cities around the world were set up to handle bikes like The Netherlands.

I biked to work occasionally in the summer, but it isn’t always feasible if I have a lot of gear to haul back and forth for my job. It ended up only working out maybe once or twice a week. But I will try to do it more next summer!

Although I am getting a little sick of Rob Carrick lol, this is a great write up. The issue I found when cycling or long boarding to university was that I am a sweaty person lol being in a rural part of the country doesn’t help things but I wish I could bike to the office every day.

Loved this. I’m a car-free bike commuter going on 10+ years which has given me a lot of financial freedom. Note to Geoff – active girls find car-free fellas H-O-T ;)

Don’t forget to factor in the cost of taxis and/or car rentals when and if you need/want to do something which actually requires a vehicle.

If all your mates are car-less…who you gonna call?
(couldn’t help the Halloween reference!)

Thank you for all the wonderful feedback, everyone! I’m glad to hear I’m not the only cycling nut.

@SST It’s not that I don’t know how to change my own tires, it’s that I don’t have the time. When I’m at work, I don’t have time to go outside for an hour and fix my tire. Also, I work in the financial industry, so I don’t want to get my dress clothes scuffed up. I would advise against riding in the snow. The salt will destroy your bike. I ruined a $300 bike in 2 months riding in the snow. When the snow hits the ground I stick to transit.

@Brent Exactly, I save time and get in my daily exercise. I often work 80 hours a week, so if I didn’t cycle I would probably be out of shape. Although it’s not as good as hitting the gym, it still gives you a decent workout!

If only there were more bike lanes in the city, but that’s another topic for another day!

You forgot to mention one of the biggest costs: parking. Here in Calgary, one of my friends just started taking the new train line downtown and is saving $500/month ($6000/year) on parking.

If you go to the gym to work out, you can cancel that membership and save that money as well. And the time you save from turning your commute into a workout counts too.

I bike year round, every day, and keep my bike drive-train rust-free by extending my front fender with cardboard and duct-tape. Also, bike lube every two weeks on the drive-train. I am on year three for this bike and only had to spend $80 for one tune so far. A little self-maintenance goes a long way.

Having said all that, I don’t bike because it saves me money or is good for the environment. I bike because I enjoy it and it is the fastest way for me to get to my office.

“Cars burn money and make you fat. Bikes burn fat and save you money.”

I just started riding my bike to work this week! It is 11.3 miles one way. Anyway to get my bike and myself ready I have spent around $400…so I am not saving money yet!!! I needed to get my bike fixed, needed a helmet, lights, a lock, padded shorts, gloves, ect. I won’t be able to ride my bike every day. But I am hoping I can do it 3 times a week. It basically saves me a gallon of gas each day so that would be saving me 3 gallons a week or about $10. At this rate it will take me 40 weeks to make my bike pay for itself, which doesn’t seem that great. I am mostly doing this for exercise but I like the saving money aspect.

Balanced against this is the additional cost of food and other products that you have to buy at the local corner store rather than Costco or Superstore. Of course, you could take a taxi there and back to haul the items, but that has a cost too.

In some cities, it’s possible. In others, it’s not entirely safe (lots of trucks on narrow roads) or worth it (5 months of snow/ice). Play any kind of sport and you’re probably out of luck (hockey being the worst example).

I would say the all in cost of my vehicle (it was bought used) is probably around 4K/yr including maintenance and depreciation. You also have to take in to account the time a car can save you on a commute. Your time has to have some value. On my commute (8min drive, 22min bike, 40min bus), this would save 150 hours a year. At 30-40$/hr that’s almost 6K right there. You could write some of that time off as ‘workout/fitness’ I guess.

@ Julie –

I realize there are always exceptions, but I think most girls would rather get picked up in the most beatup truck in the world than on the back of a ten speed.

We raised two kids car-free, in Ottawa. Mostly used transit, rather than bikes, but kids are a lot easier to carry around by bike than most people think. See Mr. Money Mustache for details. Now that the kids are big, a bike (and feet!) are my main forms of transportation. Kids and Costco and our supposed nine-month winters are often things we tell ourselves to avoid confronting our car addictions. But really, in most of the country, most of the time, the bike will beat the car by far (on health, money, and environmental grounds).

Gerard, where did you live in Ottawa for most of those years? I live in Orleans and I couldn’t imagine raising kids car free. Maybe in a condo downtown but not in the suburbs. But then you might be saving money on cars but are spending it on real estate and are having a reduced quality of life of living with kids in an apartment downtown Ottawa.

You mentioned using the bus rather than the bike. Four monthly bus pass in Ottawa – two adults and two for your kids – will run you $6000 a year as well.

@ Evan – not sure it’s fair to presume that shopping at Costco saves people money. In my mid-sized city accessing mid-large grocery stores by bike is relatively easy.

@Geoff – I take your point. The author here is a young fella living in Toronto. Even if he lived in a smaller city, I’d say that there are lots of interesting, smart gals who’d see the value in him being a homeowner, and active, over owning a vehicle. Yes, it helps to have a car for some dates, but there are creative workarounds (carshare, borrow, etc.). I for one am not so impressed with the car a guy drives at a time where anyone can drive off a lot with a fat loan chaining them down. Know what I mean?

It takes you an hour to change a flat? Yet you have the time to walk your bike to a shop and wait for them do it? As for getting your financial industry clothes scuffed up (biting my tongue), fix your tire AFTER work; there is no need to fix it whilst you are still on the job. And what if you get a flat on the way to work? Still in your riding gear…fix it! For the record, fixing flats is my most hated, but I do it.

(And speaking of your job…80 hours? Really? Total sham(e) to be wasting your youth in an office. I work for the government and just barely crack 30 a week = more time for cycling. Life is good!)

As for winter riding — agreed. My last prairie winter bike was a $100 beach cruiser bought off a construction guy. As an ex-racer, I still love to put the hammer down, however not all bikes are created equally. Due to high stress loads and, as mentioned, salty conditions, I managed to sheer one crank arm and explode the coaster brake (that was a fun $100!). So, yes, regular winter maintenance is a must.

Don’t forget to price in the cost of crashing and/or getting hit by a car. If you ride enough, eventually both WILL happen.

Regardless of how much you save or don’t save, cycling is a good thing (see China et al). Perhaps once Mayor Ford is no longer mayor, TO will get more bike lanes. :)

I have been commuting to work every day for the last two years. I’m a middle aged somewhat overweight lady but I must admit that I love the slower pace.

Biking gives me time to decompress before heading home . I have a couple of good hills each way and the BC winter allows me to go almost throughout the winter. The money saved was a nice bonus but there is nothing better than feeling like a kid again going down some of those hills with the mountains and ocean in the background.

Hi Sean, great article. I also bike 9 months of the year, well maybe only 8 (Winnipeg is a bit colder than Toronto). I have some advice for you though, I think you need to invest in better quality tires. Four per year is way too many, I bought a set of high quality long distance tires (about $50-60each) and I have been riding for nearly 10,000km without a single flat. Winnipeg is not known for its smooth roads. Save yourself some time and money next time you get a flat.

Evan- If I commute via car it takes 30-40 minutes to get to work; same with public transportation. If I commute by biking it takes 10-15 minutes.

We were car-free until we had our son and even now, we only use it on weekends, travel, grocery shopping, or on heavy rainy days. Otherwise, we both have baskets, we have a child seat that we can switch between bikes and we’re set!

Hey you forgot one cost that applies to bicycle commuting. The price of food! If your commute is like mine (35 k round trip) and you do it year-round, you will find that eat a lot more, you have to. Luckily chances are you aren’t going to put on weight. I’m 46 and still weigh 15 pounds less that I did in Uni.