FEATURE: THE COMMUTING CHALLENGE
E-bike versus a car—who wins? By Sam Bernard
Married couple Adam Webber and Irene Bixby say goodbye, leaving simultaneously to head to the same place downtown one morning.
Without a doubt, one factor that causes some resistance to buying an electric bike is the price. There is no denying that an entry-level e-bike is more expensive than a traditional, entry-level pedal bike. However, a closer look will reveal good reasons why your money is well spent on an electric bike, especially if it is used for commuting. If you use an e-bike to replace a car for just one or two days per week, the savings will quickly become apparent, making an electric bike a purchase of terrific value. We set out to illustrate this point by doing a real-time cost comparison of a car versus an electric bike across one of the busiest commutes in one of the most population-dense cities in the world. The results proved pleasantly surprising.
BIG CITY LIFE
There are many great things about living in Los Angeles. It has a widely diverse population, yet one aspect that most agree on is that the worst thing about living in the City of Angels is traffic.
Designed decades ago for automobiles as the main mode of transportation, the city’s once-vaunted freeway system is now severely strained if not outdated. Urban L.A. sprawls from the ocean to the mountains, and for many people the distance between home and workplace can be miles apart. This necessitates commuters having to endure gruelingly slow drives during gridlocked rush hour, not to mention rude motorists, nasty plumes of diesel emissions and constant construction delays. So, there’s no surprise that driving to work frequently causes stress even before hitting the office.
Of course, we know electric bicycles are a viable travel alternative. Fortunately, some great bike infrastructure has been integrated into scores of Los Angeles neighborhoods. Many of the major boulevards that stretch across the concrete landscape include bike lanes. There is even a dedicated bike path that runs parallel to a major commuter rail line that chugs from the beach to the heart of downtown L.A.
Being well aware of how attached Angelenos are to their cars, we wanted to demonstrate the benefits of e-bikes to curious cyclists and potential converts. Choosing one of the busiest commutes in a city notorious for heavy traffic, we clocked an electric bike and an automobile traveling simultaneously from the same departure point to the same destination to show the similarities, differences and potential monetary savings. This same advantage would be realized in nearly any locale if your commute or travel is within 20 miles or less. We are looking at the benefits to the health of your wallet and your body.
Irene and Adam are a married professional couple living in Santa Monica. They work regular business hours in the same office in downtown L.A. Being active people, though, their schedules sometimes conflict and they can’t always travel together. So, we picked 8 am as the start time, smack in the middle of the 7–9:30 a.m. rush hour.
Adam hit the gas of a popular economy car, driving off from their condo at the same moment Irene took to the streets on a pedelec bike. Adam drove the most direct route from home to office, which is mostly on the freeway. In light traffic the 15.5-mile drive takes about 20 minutes. On a weekday at 8 a.m., however, average drive time is between 1 hour and 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Though a mile longer in length, Irene’s route was chosen for both safety and efficiency. She avoided intersection crossings with no traffic lights and took advantage of the aforementioned roads that accommodate cyclists.
While Adam was inching along the typically jammed interstate at an average of 15 to 17 mph, Irene hammered the bike lanes on continual high levels of electric assist, keeping pedaling at a minimum to avoid arriving at the office sweaty. She kept it at a steady 25 mph, smoothly passing the bumper-to-bumper line of cars backed up waiting for stoplights.
An hour and five minutes later, a traffic-tense Adam exited the freeway where four major freeways converge with exiting vehicles, all joining the morning downtown snarl. Though only two and a half blocks away, it took another nine minutes for Adam to crawl to his place of business. Add another seven minutes to snail his way up several levels of the office building’s parking structure and into his assigned parking space.
Adam’s drive took a total of 1 hour and 28 minutes (including parking), spent about 1 gallon (1.202 gallons to be exact) of gas for $2.28 (average national price that day) and got him a case of the grumps.
Irene glided up to the building literally minutes later and quickly and easily stowed her bike in a secure, dedicated area meant for two-wheelers. She looked fresh and was feeling invigorated. Her trek took a total of 1 hour and 32 minutes (including traffic stops), or 1 hour and 8 minutes of actual moving time. Based on the national average price of 13.1 cents per kilowatt-hour, she used .33 kilowatts of power. Plus, Irene burned 684 calories getting there.
BREAKING IT DOWN
Total electricity used was .5 kilowatt-hour, measured after the return trip. The trip home was less in part because the commute back is slightly downhill, but also because time is less sensitive and there’s less concern with sweating on the way home. Effectively, a rider can arrive at work quickly without sweating in the morning, then get in some exercise on the way home. Not only is that healthier than sitting in the car and stressing about traffic, but it’s an opportunity for a real workout.
The cost of driving the car in fuel alone is around $3 per day. The cost of riding the bike in these heavy-distance circumstances is around $0.0655, or just about 7 cents per day (based on the national average price of electricity at 13.1 cents per kilowatt-hour). Adjusted for Los Angeles prices (19.1 cents per kilowatt-hour), it’s still less than 10 cents per day.
It gets more interesting when you figure in the annual cost of maintenance on a motor vehicle ($913.50) versus a tune-up/maintenance on an electric bicycle (about $250 per year). By taking an e-bike to work, you’re saving some part of $650 per year by driving your car less on maintenance alone.
Assuming our commute, if you rode one day per week, 50 weeks per year, you’d save $150 in gas per year. Add more days, you gain more benefits. If you rode two days per week, that’s $300 in savings on gas. Three days, you save $450. And, if you left your car at home every day, you’d save $750 a year in fuel costs.
Some companies offer incentives for employees who commute by bicycle or engage in other healthy activities, because it saves them money on health insurance. You can check with your health insurance and car insurance companies for other benefits, because many offer discounts for this. You’re driving your car fewer miles, so insurance rates may drop and you’ll need to buy a new car less often.
It’s worth the money to invest in a quality bicycle sold by a good shop that can properly fit you to a bike, as well as accessorize it with products to make the ride more comfortable, safe and enjoyable, such as racks and saddlebags to lights and maybe a suspension seatpost.
If you do commute by e-bike a lot, you’ll charge your battery a lot. E-bike batteries are good for 500 to 2000 full charge cycles. If you use 50 percent of the battery then recharge it back up, that counts as half of a charge cycle. You can buy replacement batteries for a few hundred dollars, and there are companies that can replace the cells in the battery for less than the cost of a new one. Also, consider having a second charger at work to top it off before the commute home. But, at worst, if your battery runs out of juice on the way home, you still have a regular bicycle to get you home.
The other great thing about owning a good electric bike is that it’s great for fun weekend rides as well. Pick up some fresh food from the farmers’ market, travel to see friends—whatever strikes your fancy. Our advice? Save the car for long trips and rainy days.