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I bought my first and only car 12 years ago after finishing upper secondary school (Gymnasium, lycée) in Denmark. Growing up in a small village in the country side, I believed a car presented the only true option to move around freely, as our alternative lifeline to the world took the shape of a run-down bus stop.
Now I’ve always lived a relatively frugal lifestyle, but a few weeks after getting my driving license, there was no doubt in my mind. I made the largest purchase I had ever made up until that point and did so without hesitation: A used three-door green Hyundai. I loved that car despite its capricious nature. It gave me complete freedom as a young adult to set my own schedule, meet up with friends spontaneously, and do whatever wasteful things it is you do at that age.
About one year later, I returned to the dealership and sold back the car at loss of nearly 30%. I moved to the city to start university before I had planned to and could not bear the financial burden of owning a car. In hindsight, this was one of the worst investments of my life. But now when I think more about it, it was also one of the smartest lessons I’ve learned.
In one year, the Hyundai had cost me a small fortune in repairs, taxes, insurance, petrol, fees, not to mention those devilish parking fines of close to €100 per ticket (the minimum rate here). Money aside, driving had a clear negative impact on my health: I became lazy, gained about 10 kg in weight (despite exercising regularly), and the traffic alone propelled my before low stress levels to new heights.
I decided to once again cycle everywhere and haven’t regretted that decision for a second.
The urban car paradox
In less than 50 years, cars have become a natural part of daily life for most people in the developed world. The European Union today counts on average 531 cars per 1,000 inhabitants. The commuter-nation Luxembourg boasts the highest car density (690 per 1,000 people), closely followed by Italy (645) and Poland (617). All together, the EU passenger car fleet grew by an incredible 8% from 248 million in 2014 to 268 million in 2018. In all countries, motorisation travel has increased over past 20 years.
The data speaks for itself: More and more petrol-fueled rubber tires enter the roads every single day. Most of them carrying only one person: the driver. The hike in car ownership confuses me, as we also see more people moving to the cities where great alternatives are abundant. Around 72% of the EU 27 population lives in urban areas, and Europe’s level of urbanisation is projected to increase to 84% in 2050. Put differently, the majority of people live in places with well-developed mass transit system, car- and bike-sharing services, but still choose to own cars personally.
The table shows how people in metropolitan areas made fewer car trips in the period 1993 – 2013. Counterintuitive, when compared with the increase in private vehicle ownership during the same period. So why do people continue buying cars?
- SUV and compacts are affordable because of cheap loans and rising salaries
- Cars are more convenient. Kids, dogs, groceries, IKEA furniture are easily transported from A to B
- Public transport tend to increase travel time, often significantly outside urban areas
- It’s difficult to ditch the car once you’ve got used to it
- Many long-distance commuters have no choice
- Terrain is an important factor
- Cars symbolise wealth in many societies, while bicycles are perceived as a sports activity, and mass transit represent the poor man’s choice
- Privacy concerns
- Perceived safety
Is cycling a real alternative?
Cycling is my favourite way to travel short and medium distances. Of course, there are other modes of transport in the city — metros, S-trains, trams, and of course our two feet — yet I find cycling provides the best combination of flexibility, autonomy, speed, and relaxation. It’s a much more sensory experience because you become part of your surroundings in a completely different way.
In countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, the infrastructure for cycling is extremely well developed. In my opinion, Dutch city planners are doing a much better job at isolating cyclists from motorised traffic than their Danish counterparts. But for a large percentage of residents in both Amsterdam and Copenhagen, the bike is the default way of getting around. People of all ages cycle every day, and are mostly not concerned about clothing and bike performance.
These true cycling cultures have solutions for moving just about anything without the need of a car. It’s common to see moms and dads carry two children and groceries on their bikes. I’ve transported furniture, a tree, a printer, and other “oddities” without anybody really caring. A more sensible solution for families is the cargo bike. These used to be very unaesthetic but now come in a host of different varieties, both manual and electric.
Other cities like Brussels, Berlin, and Paris seem to be making good progress in inviting cyclists (back) into the streets. But I fear the revolution will take several decades, as adaption is driven by younger generations like with all other forms of change. Another determining factor why governments are not pushing bicycling more aggressively may come down to the staggering amounts of billions harvested in tax every year from cars. Why kill a guaranteed cash cow?
How much does it cost to own a bike?
I own a light-weight roadster, a classic city bike, equipped with a cargo racks in the front and back. It cost me €511, placing it in the medium price range. It’s a very economical model that’s so far been requiring little maintenance.
I don’t use any other special equipment, bags, gear, or clothing, something which I noticed is quite common among cyclists in Germany and the US. I’ve put in a layer of puncture protection tape to prevent flat tyres, but that’s about it. The tape or liner seems to be doing a great job at blocking sharp objects. Highly recommendable.
In terms of smaller repairs and adjustments, it’s something I like to do myself, but let a mechanic take care of larger operations. Fixing everything myself would of course be much cheaper, instructive, and perhaps also more fun (or frustrating!), but it’s a convenience I’m willing to pay for.
Below I’ve tried breaking down the cost of owning a bike over 10 years. It’s been difficult to reconstruct my actual expenses from the past decade, so I decided to combine real costs with estimated ones.
This is roughly €185 per year, presuming you cycle on a regular basis. I found this report (in Dutch) coming to a similar conclusion (€ 175 per year), but with an estimated a lifespan of eight years.
- Acquisition cost: The price of buying a new bike seems more or less to be same everywhere. Prices on Amazon’s German webstore show a manual bike in good quality costs around €400 to €650. Caveat emptor, never buy the cheapest model. A proper folding bike is around €300, while pricing for e-bikes/pedelecs vary greatly, ranging from €800 (too cheap, in my opinion) to €3,000. For the purpose of this example, I’ve assumed €525 with a lifespan of 7 years, although owning a bike for 10+ years is very common.
- Insurance: Normally no additional insurance is required unless you’re professional. Theft and vandalism is usually covered under the home contents policy.
- Taxes: To my knowledge no country taxes bike ownership. In fact, you might entitled to a deduction for transport.
- Fees: There are few. Parking is free almost everywhere. Bringing your bike on the train may require you to purchase an additional ticket, but it’s usually free on commuter trains outside peak hours.
- Fines: Breaking traffic law can happen to even the best. I’ve never received a fine, but most of my friends have. These vary greatly between countries. In Germany, the standard fine is around €20, while the minimum penalty in Denmark amounts to €80. I’ve assumed 1 x €65, but the number could easily be higher.
- Lights: Mandatory almost everywhere. My bike has magnetic lights permanently attached to the front and back wheels in case I forget to bring my other pair, a USB rechargeable set I bought of Amazon. Quality lights are inexpensive and will last about five years in my experience.
- Helmet: Bad for your hair, but great for your brain. It’s mostly only the law for minors around Europe, but rules differ. I only recently started wearing one out of safety concerns, but the science on the subject is ambiguous. I paid €53 for my helmet and will swap for a new one every five years.
- Lock: Buy a decent one, but don’t believe an expensive carbon-whatever will protect you from theft. My lock cost € 40. A high quality lock will last a lifetime if you take good care of it.
- Repairs: Maintenance and small repairs, like changing tyres, break pads, or chain, is relatively easy to do yourself with a bit of practice or with the help of YouTube. A good tyre is around €22, a tube €6,5, a repair kit with patches etc. €10.
- Servicing: We’ll make a rough estimate that our bike requires professional servicing worth €75 every second year. This will be higher for people who bring their bike to the shop for small stuff.
- Public transport: This is the real joker. Living car-free means you’ll rely on busses and trains for some things. Also, a lot of commuter bring their bikes on the train. Since prices for public transport differ enormously within Europe, I’ve assumed zero cost because you really need to determine this number yourself.
What do you think? Would you consider ditching the car and drive a bike every day? Or is it completely insane?