The “Life-Changing Magic” Of Cycling (Almost) Everywhere

If tidying up has “life-changing magic”–and it does–then the practical side of cycling is a close second in lifestyle impact.

Practical cycling (things like local trips and bike commuting) has all sorts of benefits. Some are more obvious than others, but they may include:

  • Sustainable fitness
  • Easy savings
  • A stronger “frugality reflex”
  • Increased mindfulness and appreciation
  • A keener sense of place and space

Any one of those is a nice enhancement to life. Together, they really do start to feel magical.

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It makes fitness natural

Few of us suffer from too much movement. By and large, we need more movement and more fitness, and we need them badly.

With utilitarian cycling, that plays out in an interesting way. Here’s a personal example to elaborate.

All my writing about cycling makes it embarrassing to admit that suburban teenage me would drive to the gym to ride a stationary bike.

Yes, I really did pump out exhaust and pay a gym membership fee in order to do exactly what any bicycle in the garage could have accomplished. 

Once there, I’d ride until the screen showed some number of calories burned, hop off, do some exercise I could just as easily have done at home, then get right back in the car.

It’s hard to make fitness a lifelong habit when it’s a matter of crossing town for a scheduled exception to a sedentary life.

That’s unnatural, unsustainable on every level, and reinforces the wildly unnatural perception that a sedentary life is a normal one.

The solution? 

Bike to the grocery store. Bike to the office. Or even bike to the gym if there’s some machine or class you just can’t do without!

Sure, it brought practical challenges, but overcoming them brought ingenuity–and practically effortless fitness.

(Much of what I write here is to share answers I’ve found to those challenges. Even things like how to choose a city bike are surprisingly uncommon knowledge in our sport-driven “bike culture.”)

It also makes savings natural

According to the American Automobile Association’s latest research, each mile in a small sedan costs you just under $0.61.

(You can review the details here, since it’s a fairly complex estimate. In brief, they included everything from depreciation to repair to insurance, with utilization of 10,000 miles/year.)

Around $1,000 should cover a reasonable city bike, some necessary apparel (which isn’t much besides a cycling-friendly raincoat), and some useful racks and bags. With a little guidance, it’s quite easy to spend half that amount. But start there, then run your own numbers against per-mile driving costs, and you’ll very quickly see very large numbers!

Granted, it’s not always practical to have no car at all. That’s the case for my own family, as mentioned above. But it’s quite often possible to stick to just one car rather than purchasing a second.

Of course, the most exciting part is the health benefits of human-powered transportation. That’s hard to put a price on, but suffice it to say that poor health in middle age is not just unpleasant, but very expensive.

I’ll leave this point to the words of the venerable Mr. Money Mustache:

It is efficient in many ways: bikes weigh only 20-30 pounds but they can carry ten times their weight in rider and cargo. They convert a slow human with a walking speed of 3.5MPH into one of the fastest creatures on land[…] And the side effects are incredible.. vigorous biking can consume 1000 calories per hour, meaning you can burn off an entire pound of fat in one big 3 hour ride. This kind of exertion pretty much fixes up all the rest of your body for free too, clearing your arteries, polishing your kidneys and teeth, and giving you clean stylish hair and a better sense of humour, all after the first ride.

But another side effect is that bikes are good for your wealth. Let’s start with the bare minimum: any mileage you put on your bike instead of your car saves you about 50 cents per mile in gas, depreciation, and wear and maintenance. From this savings alone, doing a couple of bike errands per day (4 miles) in place of car errands will add up to $10,752 over ten years.

That’s a level of bang for your buck that nothing else in the world can achieve.

Its energy efficiency is incredible

Human ingenuity has yielded some impressive modes of transportation. From spacecraft to long-range electric cars to submarines, there’s practically no territory we can’t cover.

But of all these innovations, the humble bicycle is the most energy-efficient, estimated to use just 25 Wh (0.025 kWh) per kilometer.

Indulge me in just a little math. I promise it’ll be worth it.

If your ride across town is 5km, then making the trip on a bicycle would use:

5 km * 25 Wh/km * 0.86 kcal/Wh = 108 kcal of food energy

What in the world does that mean?

Well, in very practical terms, you can cross town on roughly one tablespoon of peanut butter. (Or any excess fat you just might have…)

Even my subcompact Honda Fit (yes, alas, I own a car) uses about thirty times as much energy for city driving. In peanut butter units, that’s roughly 34 tablespoon–pretty much the whole jar.

Sadly, my car’s fuel of choice is nowhere near as environmentally friendly as peanut butter.

(A reasonably full bus is better, with about ⅓ the energy use per passenger of a subcompact car. That’s still about 10 times as energy-intensive as the good old bicycle…and far worse if there are few passengers.)

It makes frugal, practical choices easier

The financial benefits of cycling go far beyond car costs.

You may have gone shopping unexpectedly or blown cash on unplanned outings simply because the 10- or 20- or 30-mile car trip was no big deal. 

Unfortunately for your bank account (never mind overall consumption), these impulses add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars per year, and well into five figures each decade. 

Automobile convenience encourages us to nickel-and-dime our way out of frugality. Then, lo and behold, those dollars seem to leak right out of our bank accounts.

On a bicycle, your quadriceps replace your gas tank as the arbiter of a “reasonable” trip, so the range shrinks by an order of magnitude. That sounds like a headache, but it’s actually a great thing for your finances.

When you cut back on pleasurable but unnecessary convenience, you’ll find that your definitions of “necessary” or “worth it” change accordingly. 

It’s like a personal-scale example of the road diets that reverse induced demand from overbuilt lanes.

Suddenly, there’s no more dashing to the outlet stores, or splurging on takeout because you didn’t think ahead about dinner, or cruising for a change of scenery when your own human power would suffice. I can’t speak for everyone, but our house, the spending cuts came quickly and permanently.

It helps you see & appreciate the beauty around you

I know, it’s a little corny, but we too often rob ourselves of life’s richness by blasting right through it.

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.”

Mahatma Gandhi

When you slow your roll, you’ll find that genuinely beautiful details stand out from previously blurry surroundings. Light catches things in interesting ways, vividly colored flowers stand out, storefronts become interesting and nuanced, and passersby emerge as people rather than shapes or–heaven forbid–obstacles through a car window.

In other words, a slow pace permits a sense of place. It creates and rewards gratitude and mindfulness as we go about our day, deliberately rejecting the self-imposed and self-defeating need for speed.

It’s perfectly fair to bemoan the generic, place-less feel of most North American towns, but if we want something more, then we must choose to slow down. 


It so happens that bicycles strike the balance between incredible energy-efficiency and reasonable speed, all at an appreciably human scale.

But this goes much deeper than any one mode of transportation. It’s about relying on our strength where possible, about grasping the invisible costs of our consumption, and pausing to relish the little things we’d otherwise whizz on by.

Until next time, stay safe and stay healthy.