Why I bike to work (and you should too)

June 2011: I’ve updated the safety section in light of a study I recently learned about.


When I lived on the east coast of Canada, commuting options were quite limited: I drove year ’round to school or work due to an unfortunate combination of urban sprawl, nasty weather and poor infrastructure. Now that I live in Vancouver, I have many more options: bus, SkyTrain, bike, canoe, cartwheel, etc.

Vancouver from City Hall

For my daily commute to downtown Vancouver, here’s how the options stack up according to my criteria (more stars = better):

Speed Sustainability Safety Cost Productivity Fun
Walking ✩✩✩ ✭✭✭ ✩✩✩ ✭✭✭ ✭✩✩ ✭✭✩
Bus ✭✩✩ ✭✩✩ ✭✭✭ ✭✩✩ ✭✭✭ ✩✩✩
SkyTrain ✭✭✩ ✭✭✩ ✭✭✭ ✭✩✩ ✭✭✭ ✩✩✩
Biking ✭✭✭ ✭✭✭ ✭✩✩ ✭✭✩ ✭✭✩ ✭✭✭
Car ✭✭✭ ✩✩✩ ✭✭✩ ✩✩✩ ✩✩✩ ✭✩✩

Speed

Let’s start with everyone’s primary concern: how long does it take? For my current (short) commute, driving would be the hands-down winner except for traffic and the need to find parking. As it turns out, biking is just as fast. The SkyTrain (Canada Line, actually) is almost as quick, but requires hoofing it to/from the stations. Catching a bus is slower because of all the stops along the way; studies show that buses in Vancouver average about 20 km/h.

If you doubt that biking is as fast as driving, consider just how much traffic impacts average car commutes. London drivers, for example, average only 7 mph in the city. Here in Vancouver, the Share the Road Challenge demonstrated that cycling is often faster than driving during rush hour. Congestion is a non-issue on a bike thanks to dedicated bike routes (eg, separated bike lanes).

Surely this is only true for short commutes, you might argue. Well, I used to commute 13 km each way to West Vancouver. When I took my car, I got so frustrated sitting in traffic on either side of the Lion’s Gate Bridge that I started keeping track of my travel times:

Bike Car
Avg 38:18 39:06
SD 2:06 14:27
Max 44:29 1:24:53

I think the numbers speak for themselves. Biking was generally faster and certainly much more consistent. One big factor is that my bike route included only two sets of lights; in the car, I had to deal with over a dozen.

Sustainability

Pretty self-explanatory. Relying on fossil fuels is bad. Self-propelled commuting is the most sustainable.

Safety

Safety is somewhat difficult to gauge. According to a Danish study, it really depends how you look at the data, but walking is actually the most risky:

… only when kilometres is used as a measure, significant risk differences between the three modes [walking, bicycle car] appear. Cycling in this case turns out to be 4-5 times as risky as car use, and walking more than 10 times as risky. For risk measured per trip or per time spent in transport the three modes walking, cycling and car driving are not differing significantly.

As it so happens, Vancouver is Canada’s deadliest city for pedestrians. So, contrary to the perception that cyclists are most vulnerable, it’s really pedestrians that should be wearing helmets.

Canada Line in legoFor my commute, I’m tempted to rate biking as safer than driving for a few reasons:

  1. there’s much less risk of me killing someone else while commuting on my bike
  2. the health benefits of regular cycling more than outweigh the risks of injury
  3. most of my route consists of separated bike lanes

Nevertheless, I’ll give the car the benefit of the doubt on this one and rank it as safer than biking.

Overall, the safest option is definitely public transportation. Translink reports that were were approximately 4 injuries per 1 million boarded passengers in 2009. Sounds quite safe to me. The Denmark study also support this.

Cost

Walking is definitely the least expensive method of commuting to work. Equally clear is that cars are the most expensive, costing drivers an average of $8,000 per year in operating and ownerships costs. Bus and SkyTrain passes work out to almost $1,000 per year. Bikes are an up front investment but incur minimal ongoing costs. It also doesn’t hurt that my employer, Pulse Energy, offers great biking incentives.

Productivity

In terms of productive commuting, bus and SkyTrain are king because you can divert your full attention to something else (email, reading a book, taking a nap). Your options while driving or walking are essentially restricted to phone calls. Walking and biking get bonus points because they are forms of exercise and transportation. If you’re driving all the time and care about your health (as I do), you’re probably doing something else to get your exercise which cuts into your free time.

Fun

Fun is subjective, but I doubt many people derive pleasure from taking public transit (especially during crowded peak times). With driving, at least you’re in control and have some personal space. But then there’s traffic; I don’t know about you, but that tends to lead to road rage pretty quickly. Walking and biking both afford lots of freedom, awareness of surroundings and, of course, fresh air. Weather is really only an issue if you’re not prepared.

Overall

  1. Biking (14✭)
  2. SkyTrain (11✭)
  3. Walking/Bus (9✭)
  4. Car (6✭)

The overall winner for me, as you can see, is biking. I wish it were safer, but you can help me with that: there’s safety in numbers.

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5 thoughts on “Why I bike to work (and you should too)

  1. Love the analysis. The side benefits of biking (exercise) and public transit (reading) are big reasons to leave the car at home, which a lot of people don’t take into account.

    For commuting, I think biking is the best choice because it offers consistent travel times. When we were working in West Vancouver, the bus was about the same time as cycling, on average, but the bus travel time varied widely if you just missed a bus, or traffic was bad on the Lions Gate Bridge. On the other hand, there isn’t much that slows down a cyclist. SkyTrain is better for consistent timing, but during rush hour there isn’t any opportunity to sit and read.

    Biking also seems cheaper to me, but maybe that’s because I’ve already paid the sunken costs associated with buying a bike and bike gear, and I ignore the extra calories I need to eat.

    1. Good point about consistent travel times. There’s really only the occasional flat to worry about.

      Thanks for the pointer to the safety studies today. I updated the safety section, but the overall results are essentially the same.

  2. Secret Guy

    I don’t believe that stat about walking being less safe than the other options. Who do you know who has ever been injured walking to work? Me, zero. How many cyclist do you know who have been hit, taken a trip through glass, etc…. Me, dozens. And cars? Death machines I say! (to pedestrians)

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