For all the benefits of bike commuting, it has some notable disadvantages. And it’s certainly not the typical way of life here in North America–or, really, most other places.
So, if you’re contemplating taking up a two-wheeled commute, it’s perfectly reasonable to question whether it’s worth it.
And that’s exactly the question we’re going to tackle here.
When it is (and isn’t) worth commuting by bike
Bike commuting is worth it if you have access to safe routes and can afford a modest but reliable bicycle. It’s also more cost-effective than driving alone or paying for most transit systems. Biking to work may be too slow for very long commutes, but it can also replace exercise you’d otherwise need to allocate time for. Electric and/or cargo bikes can address other common challenges.
Nearly all concerns about bike commuting have surprisingly simple solutions. They’re just not common knowledge, since utilitarian cycling isn’t the norm.
There may be a few truly insurmountable obstacles, however. I’ll address them below, suggesting alternatives wherever possible.
It’s cost-effective, but (usually) not free
On balance, bike commuting saves money if it replaces solo driving and/or out-of-pocket transit costs.
In other words, savings comes from two things:
- The cost of a bike and minimal accessories to get started
- The cost saved of however else you’d get to work
The first point is usually less obvious to a new cyclist, so we’ll start there.
What you’ll spend to start bike commuting
I love to geek out on bikes. That’s basically how this site came to be.
But for all practical purposes, you can commute on any bike that is comfortable enough and carries your things.
If your current bike checks both those boxes, then congrats! You’ll only need to spend a couple hundred bucks at most for some absolutely critical accessories. These are:
- Lights, for daytime visibility as well as nighttime vision
- A rack and basket or pannier for holding work equipment, groceries, and miscellaneous small-ish things
- Fenders, unless you live in an arid climate
Check out this detailed guide for more information and a few related recommendations.
If comfort is questionable, then it may be as simple as swapping the handlebars for more upright ones. The cost and difficulty totally depends on your bike, so here’s an explanation you might wish to refer to.
But what if you don’t have a suitable bike at all?
Fortunately, the city/commuter bike market has been growing rapidly over the last several years, so there has never been a wider range of well-designed bikes at accessible prices.
On the lower end, roughly $400-$600 will buy a brand-new bike that will serve you for years. It will not be fancy or remotely high-tech, but that’s actually a good thing. We’re simply trying to get from A to B reliably, affordably, and with minimal fussing and fiddling.
Can you spend even less? Sure, but it’s rarely prudent. It gets increasingly difficult to find models with subtle but important details like sealed bearings and evenly-tensioned wheels.
There are terrific values at several price points, including the ones featured here. It may help to read this for a more nuanced look at city bike costs, or to check out my budget hybrids guide for more examples.
Whatever commuter bike you settle on, remember to budget $100-$200 for the accessories mentioned above. Unless, of course, the bike already includes them off the rack.
Don’t I need to buy cycling clothing?
The short answer is “no!”
Riding in everyday clothing is a great way to integrate cycling into daily life.
Many people do choose to bike to work in their Lycra on a racing-style bike. That’s perfectly fine, but for most of us, it’s an expensive and inconvenient approach that isn’t really worth it.
Plain old jeans will suffice for short rides in dry weather, as discussed here. Plenty of everyday alternatives, from these “cycling jeans” to all sorts of athleisure attire, can do double-duty for cycling and working.
For most of us, rain gear is the only thing worth opening our wallets for. As this guide recommends, an inexpensive poncho will keep you dry yet fresh in a drizzle, and your everyday rain coat (perhaps paired with rain over-pants) are ideal for downpours.
In a nutshell, just bike to work in whatever you’d wear for a brisk walk in the same weather. It’s affordable, it ensures versatile clothing (not just single-purpose cycling attire), and ensures any new purchases solve an actual problem.
Pro tip: when you limit yourself to the same exertion as a brisk walk, you’ll also minimize sweating on the bike. That obviously lengthens the trip, but it saves time when you don’t need to change upon arrival.
So, how much money can I expect to save?
Having spent somewhere between a couple hundred and a thousand-ish dollars to get started, you’ll likely break even in the following weeks or months. Naturally, it depends on what you current commute costs.
The biggest savings are for solo drivers. At AAA’s 2019 average in $0.61/mile all in, you’d have racked up a $1,000 car expense after about 1,640 miles of driving. If your commute is 4 miles each way–a very reasonable cycling distance–then that’s the equivalent of 205 round trips, or about one year’s worth of commutes. And after that, it’s pure savings.
That assumes you have free parking at work and completely avoid tolls, tickets, and collisions on the way. These things can easily double your cost of driving and therefore halve the break-even time for cycling.
(Granted, bikes need maintenance, which we’ll cover later. In brief, upkeep for a decent bike is barely even a rounding error in most folks’ budgets.)
This is easier to calculate for transit, since the fares are simple and rather consistent. At $3 each way, let’s say, you’re looking at 167 round-trips to break even with a $1,000 upfront cost.
Granted, many employers subsidize or completely cover public transit passes, so this comparison might not make sense for you, personally. But frequent transit stops in crowded cities do incur a time cost, which cycling can minimize.
In any case, you’ll break even much sooner by spending as little as possible up front. It’s tempting to go all-in on bikes and gear, if your budget permits, but it takes some experience to know what’s really worth purchasing.
Does this apply if my commute’s really long?
Many people cycle upwards of 10 miles to work and back, and some ride twice that distance of more. It’s not for everyone, of course, and brings up unique challenges. Time can be an issue, and you’ll almost certainly work up a good sweat that you then have to deal with.
This is where electric bikes make sense. Cycling purists may sneer, but they’re a terrific option for some situations.
They cost roughly twice as much as a conventional bike of similar quality, but they can also get around the time and energy issues of long commutes.
Is the exercise worthwhile?
We all know we need daily cardio. Not necessarily a lot, nor so intensely, but some sort of brisk movement is essential.
No controversy there, I hope!
It’s just not easy to fit into life. We’re busy at work, then busy with friends and family, and finally carve out time to kick back. It’s nice when you inevitable commute is also your exercise.
And that raises an important question: is bike commuting worthwhile as exercise?
Yes, and in fact it’s about the same exertion as a gentle jog. A roughly average-weight adult of 155 lbs would burn just shy of 300 calories in 30 minutes of 12-14 mph cycling.
That’s a comfortable and modest pace on flat ground. What’s more, that’s exactly how many calories the same person would burn by jogging at 5 mph for the same time.
You can ride harder, obviously, but the trade-off for more intense cardio is more sweat. Whether that’s worth it depends on your exercise goals, not to mention your access to showers or a locker room at work.
Are the safety risks a good trade-off?
Cycling safety is more subjective than you might think. Data are uniquely hard to estimate, and they don’t account for route/infrastructure design, which varies wildly. I’ll elaborate on these factors below, but since they’re vague, it all comes down to a simple question: am I at ease cycling to work, or does my route require an exhausting level of vigilance?
It’s easy to look up fatality statistics and compare them to those of cars. Unfortunately, the results can be unsettling, with some estimates suggesting three to ten times as many cycling deaths per mile traveled.
Nonetheless, common sense says a) you’re not protected in a steel cage and b) most roads and road laws favor cars over everyone else. (If you’re fortunate enough to cycling in the Netherlands, parts of Scandinavia, and a few other European cities, then scratch that last statement!)
Before panicking, keep three things in mind:
- Car trips tend to be much longer, so the number of fatalities per overall trip will be a lot closer.
- It’s harder to estimate cycling mileage than driving mileage across a whole population. Cycling mileage is likely underestimated, which would make the rate artificially high.
- Miles traveled along the shoulder of a highway are very dangerous, I believe, whereas miles traveled along a multi-use path are as close to risk-free as you can get. The stats don’t account for this distinction, nor all the variations in between.
That’s not the whole picture, but the third point is the most important one to consider. It’s also something I can’t begin to answer for you.
Roads are built to similar and predictable standards, but bicycle routes go from world-class to non-existent, often in the course of a single commute.
If you can commute on multi-use paths and separated bike lanes, with well controlled intersections, then your risk level should be in keeping with the much more reassuring European statistics.
If your route requires traveling with or crossing significant traffic, then the odds aren’t so favorable. Sadly, this is the state of bicycle “infrastructure” in most of the world. It requires riding under the constant assumption that you are invisible, and that cars will proceed as if you weren’t there.
That’s the best way to avoid nasty surprises, but it’s stressful and mentally and emotionally draining. And if that’s necessary for your route, then you alone can decide whether the trade-off is reasonable.
It does bear mentioning that a sedentary life has major risks of its own. If bike commuting is your only opportunity to fit cardio into your day, then that’s a strong argument in its favor.
But health risks accrue slowly and come to a head later in life, whereas cycling risks are acute. That asymmetry makes a balanced decision difficult.
So, we’re back to where this section began: if you can maintain reasonable peace of mind while tracking your surroundings, then biking to work is probably plenty safe. If it takes a stressful level of awareness and instills a low-grade panic, then it’s quite likely not a safe choice.
If you do decide to cycle to work–or anywhere near traffic–then read this guide for more safety tips that I personally rely on every day.
How much of a hassle will it be?
If you’re on board with the cost savings, looking forward to the exercise, and have a safe route to ride, that leaves just one big question.
Just how big of a headache is it to bike-commute in a car-centric world?
The answer is usually less than you’d think, but it may depend on a few things outside your control.
For many prospective bike commuters, the idea of showing up sweaty and flushed is a non-starter. At the very least, it means packing another outfit, grabbing shower, and extending your work day that much more.
But in most cases, it’s actually possible to bike commute without getting heavily sweaty. Sure, warm weather and hills will always cause a bit of perspiration, but no more than a brisk walk in similar weather.
A restrained pace–again, like a brisk walk–is the best strategy. Certain clothing choices are also cooler and more comfortable. What’s more, when you sweat so little, a baby wipe is sufficient to freshen up in seconds.
The only major issues are extremely long commutes, hot and humid weather, or other situations where lower exertion just isn’t possible. Here, too, e-bikes may make sense.
I’ve shared more tips on how to bike commute without sweating, so take a look before your first day of riding.
Most commuters only need to carry a backpack’s worth of items. And a backpack is a perfectly reasonable way to carry things when biking to work–especially if you’re on a budget.
They do have two issues, though:
- Backpacks trap moisture against your skin, so getting sweaty (when you normally wouldn’t) is inevitable
- For some people, they cause uncomfortable neck, shoulder, or upper back pain
That’s why most commuters prefer either a front basket for very light loads (5-10 lbs at most) or a rear rack and pannier combo for heavier ones. This does add some cost, but shouldn’t blow the accessories budget we established back up top.
Visit the commuting accessories guide for some more detailed information and a couple of suggested brands.
If you need to carry an extremely large load, like tools or equipment, then a cargo bike or bakfiets (box-bike) is the way to go. They’re more expensive than conventional bikes, but may rival the cargo capacity of a small car’s trunk. Electric versions are also widely available.
Parking and storing your bike
Bike storage is terribly unpredictable. Some buildings have solid racks behind locked gates, some have rickety posts that any ne’er-do-well could practically lift out of the ground, and some just don’t bother.
But if you don’t have trustworthy storage, then all is not lost. It’s more common than you might think for employers to allow indoor storage, perhaps in a supply closet or other seldom-used area. Others have even been known install a bike rack upon request. You own situation might allow for more creative options, too, so it can’t hurt to ask.
Another option is a folding, which can easily fit under a desk or, really, just about anywhere. Brompton makes the most refined and compact one on the market (reviewed here), but there are several more affordable options from companies like Tern and especially Dahon. These will cost more than a comparable non-folding bike, and the ride quality isn’t quite the same, but they’re also an invaluable solution if bike commuting is otherwise a good choice for you.
What about wet or harsh weather?
I’ve lost count of how many people expressed amazement that I’d biked to work in the rain. And each time, I was equally amazed that they wouldn’t.
It’s not because I’m a hardy outdoorsman or glutton for punishment.
Far from it.
It’s because it’s just not that big of a deal!
With adequate rain gear (as covered here) and fenders, rain barely rises to the level of nuisance.
It does demand a little caution to avoid skidding. It’s wise to brake a bit gradually, take corners a bit slowly, and avoid road paint and metal plates. They’re the same precautions you’d need to take in a car anyhow.
But beyond that, it’s more of a mindset question. A fundamental point of bike commuting is to sacrifice some comfort for myriad other benefits: fitness, savings, the simple pleasure of fresh air. Sometimes, reaping those rewards requires getting a bit cold or damp, but even those are minimal with proper equipment.
One nice part of cycling (versus driving) in the rain is how easily you can see your surroundings.
Water droplets make it dangerously difficult to see through car windows. It becomes hard to notice details in your surroundings. (I suspect that poor vision leads to almost as many wet-weather crashes as poor traction, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Bicycles have no such issue. Of course the lack of windows exposes you to rainfall, but it also lets you see clearly and easily. Unfortunately, you’ll have to keep in mind that drivers cannot.
Snow is trickier, but still surprisingly manageable.
If you’re lucky enough to have a route that gets plowed, then you probably need nothing beyond normal winter clothing. In fact, the exercise of pedaling is a fantastic way to keep warm.
If you live in a place where snow builds up frequently, then it’s worth installing studded tires, ideally on a dedicated winter bike. A single-speed drivetrain or an internally-geared hub will also make life easier, since snow (and mud) affects them less.
Given that gear solves rain and snow problem, are there any conditions where cycling is completely out of the question? Are there any weather risks or headaches that just aren’t worth it?
I’d argue that’s the case in white-out conditions, fierce winds with nearby trees/debris, or thunderstorms. These are circumstances where the weather crosses the line from unpleasant to dangerous, and drivers may struggle to see anything–let alone cyclists.
But for the vast majority of people in the vast majority of places, it’s worth biking to work despite some rain or snow. Again, however, buying the right gear does wonder to improve the experience.
Resource to help you get started
I’m an ardent fan and advocate of bike commuting, but it’s not for everyone. Route safety is a major and legitimate concern in many places, unfortunately, and some trips are simply too long even with the boost of an e-bike.
But it’s often a prudent choice on many levels.
The best way to know is simply to try, and the best way to try is to keep it simple.
As mentioned earlier, nearly any comfortable bike with these accessories will suffice to start with. Pick up cheap, multi-purpose rain gear if you haven’t already. Finally, read up on these urban cycling safety tips for your own well-being and peace of mind.
Stay active, stay safe, and have fun!