I’m talking about my bicycle. It’s a simple technology that deserves much more attention than it gets in North America. Anywhere else in the world, bicycles are a major form of transportation. Our cities were built at the height of the car manufacturers’ political power, however, and so are car-dependent in many ways. Still, there are wonderful reasons to use a bike:

1. It’s cheap

My transportation budget is $300 a year, and that includes $150 in bus tickets for days when I don’t want to or can’t bike. Theoretically, I even have a few taxi rides accounted for in case I need them. The remainder I use to accumulate bicycle gear that makes riding more comfortable each year. Often, though, I don’t even use my full budget amount. Compare that $25 per month with $100 for transit and $300 for a car.

2. Pollution free.

Not only is there no tail pipe emissions, it takes up very little steel to manufacture a bicycle and they can last for decades. Bikes also take up less space on the road and don’t require highways to be built and farmland to be paved over. Bikes reduce traffic congestion too, so you not only save on the emissions that you’d produce, you help reduce the pollution generated from other people too. By burning calories instead of oil, you will become the most efficient transportation machine ever invented – even more efficient than walking!

3. Get fit

I often stop riding for a few weeks in winter when snow is on the ground. When I start again, I can feel the drag in my legs, my lungs and heart rate. Biking as a form of transportation keeps you fit in a very fundamental way. If you bike 20 minutes to work each way, every day, you are probably burning an extra 300 calories each workday. That will trim off 15 pounds a year, and/or allow a lot more room for cupcakes and chips that your current level of activity will sustain. Have you ever read those studies about people who stay fit throughout their lives and they always say they exercise 40 minutes a day – and you’re left wondering “how on earth do they DO that?” This is how. Integrating activity into your daily routine is how you keep fit year after year. Even if it takes you an extra 10 minutes to bike to work instead of driving or transit, you’ve inserted a full cardiovascular workout into your daily life for an extra 20 minutes a day. Trust me, you will see the results.

Overcoming the barriers

1. Traffic skills

Your driver’s license is a North American rite of passage, but you probably learned to ride a bike on training wheels in a driveway. I’ve taught many courses with new Canadians who never learned to ride. If you have a teacher who knows what they’re doing, you can learn basic skills in a single afternoon (the secret is really just about lowering the seat to start, and raising it slowly to the correct height as you get more confident). If you want to commute by bike, I’d highly recommend a course that will give you the safety knowledge and traffic skills needed to feel confident. If taking out your bike in traffic scares you, just think of the knowledge gap you’re facing! Is your bike the right size for you? How do you signal in traffic? I’ve even seen cyclists riding the wrong way down the street! Find a course in your area – it’s usually inexpensive and an excellent investment in figuring out the practicalities of commuter or recreational cycling.

In terms of what equipment to buy, there’s nothing like befriending another cyclist. Like any neglected minority, they will talk you head off about the secrets they’ve amassed to surviving. Do you live in a city with many hills? – you need lots of gears. Want to bring your bike on the subway? – you can get a folding bike that’s about the size of a suitcase. Can’t figure out how to wear a skirt on your bike? – observe the tuck and fold process of other cyclists and invest in a set of fenders. Which streets are safer and at what times of day? – ask around. There are lots of questions you’ll have about biking, and a whole community to help you. They’ve overcome many of the same challenges you face. Look for bicycle user groups, cycling clubs and commuter cycling advocacy groups in your city.

2. Mechanical skills

Another element of bike riding is knowing basic bicycle maintenance. You can learn almost everything there is to know in 10 evening sessions – I’ve taught through a community college and also in workshops run by the Community Bicycle Network.  A weekend workshop is enough to learn basic and emergency repairs and give you enough confidence to tune up your own bike. That training will save about $70 a year to keep your bike in top shape.

3. Location

Our cities are often not bike-friendly. They are car dependent and it’s very easy to get locked into a suburb where biking to work or recreation is challenging. I’d suggest a few compromises if you’re facing this challenge.

a. Mixing modes of travel. Sometimes it’s much easier to bike to a subway than get a bus. Buy a beater and use it to hook up your transportation route. Just get something that won’t attract much attention while it’s locked up during the day. You won’t save money on the bus, but you will still save money on your gym fees.

b. Get the bike accessories that help you carry things. A bike rack, pannier bags, a basket or trailer can be helpful in carrying groceries, equipment and children. Even if biking to work is too much, you can bike to the grocery store and carry back quite a bit of food. Get out a map and look at the possibilities. Start small and work your way up.

c. Move. Seriously, I calculated my bike into my mortgage. By not owning a car for most of my life, I saved $300 a month. That money was put into my mortgage and influenced where I live now. Just like people chose a home based on transit routes and schools, I chose my neighbourhood for its bike-ability.

d. Give yourself options. Sometimes people have a car they don’t use that often. Consider switching to a car sharing arrangement. You can do this with friends, or you can have a membership in one of many auto share communities. That way, you can bike a little, take transit and still have access to a car when you need it.

4. The financial outlay

In Toronto, a car costs about $3000-$4000 a year to operate. My family has a car because my wife’s work requires it (she’s a midwife), and it’s expensive. It cost $16,000 to purchase and will last about 10 years, so that’s $1600 per year. Insurance is about $1400 a year, plus gas, repairs and parking run about another $1000.

By contrast, you can find a decent commuting bicycle for under $100. Bicycles last a long time since they have very few moving parts and are easy to repair. You can buy a new or used clunker that will be heavy to ride but impossible to kill for less than a night at the movies. A more decent ride runs in the $300 range.

There’s a significant price break at around $600 and up for a light bike with smooth gears and strong brakes. You get a really nice hybrid like my current ride, for $750 that will last… until it gets stolen (most likely). Since I park it inside every night I’m hoping it’s safe for another 10 years; so depreciation is about $75 per year. I also bought a $5 can of awful spray paint and $10 worth of huge bumper stickers to uglify it and reduce its resale value to thieves.

Parking – free and usually right in front of your destination. My one cost was a very nice Kryptonite lock for it (bike theft is a huge problem in Toronto, it may vary in your area) that was $60.

Lights, helmets etc – I use LED lights that cost $10 each, a $30 helmet and some reflective tape for safety. I also bought some pannier bags ($20) to carry stuff and a courier’s bag ($35).

Other accessories – this is where it’s possible to spend much more money. Why? The more gear you have, the more you can ride your bike in a variety of conditions. In Toronto, I find I can ride except for when snow is on the ground. I could ride then, but you never know if black ice is underneath your wheels until it’s too late. Still, the plowing is good enough that this only stops me a couple of weeks of the year, usually when it’s too cold to ride anyway.

Winter riding gear usually includes:

  • a neck warmer or face mask. (I find this to be most essential. I hate cold on my face.) ($3)
  • warm socks that will also keep moisture or sweat away from your skin ($20 for a couple of pairs)
  • warm shoes or boots ($40)
  • warm gloves (leather usually works) or mitts (a fleece mitten with a separate goretex cover is toasty) ($35)
  • fleece helmet liner to protect your ears ($5)
  • goggles if the wind or cold makes your eyes tear ($25)

Wet weather riding:

This is handy to have if you are commuting in a rainy climate. You need your bike to be reliable, and weather can’t stop you. You can get an inexpensive rainsuit for under $50, but it’ll get sweaty on longer rides. Once you’re a committed cyclist, put these items on your birthday wish list and you’ll enjoy protection that is rainproof and comfortable, even if it is geeky looking.

  • goretex jacket ($300) complete with nerdy reflective safety strips.
  • goretex pants ($200)
  • goretex boot covers ($50)

5. That thing called weather

People often think riding a bike in winter is very cold, but actually you can work up some body heat with a burst of speed. It’s actually warmer than walking or standing around for a bus. Yes, on bitterly cold days it’s wonderful to wear silk long underwear and warm sweaters, but you get hot quite quickly. Protecting your extremities is the most challenging and important task.

The most important part of riding in warm weather is going slowly. Your speed will create a steady breeze without getting you sweaty, and will actually be more comfortable than walking or standing in the same weather.

As a side note, riding your bike might require other, subtle changes in what you wear. Jeans often irritate your skin on a bike and don’t protect against cold or wet at all. Consequently, I have a variety of pants in my wardrobe. Similarly, shoes with closed toes are more practical and useful, although you will actually do better with high heels on a bike than with walking. Spandex shorts and shirts are really more useful for recreational biking where you will be getting sweaty and riding for long periods. Commuting by bike is much more leisurely and rarely involves breaking a sweat, although layering your clothes will help you respond to changes in the weather.

I hope I’ve convinced you to consider the benefits of cycling. The truth is that most of you probably have a bike collecting dust, don’t you? If you consider the benefits of using it, you will be more motivated to overcome whatever barriers are keeping you off the roads. It’s a frugal lifestyle change that will help keep you healthy and cut down on pollution in your city. How often does that happen? Good luck and feel free to ask me more questions about how to get started.