The modal math: Crunching costs of Biketown vs TriMet vs driving a car

Choices. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The average gas price in the Portland region right now is about $4.70, and that number isn’t likely to come down anytime soon. That means we’re in a new reality when it comes to transportation choices if we assume that cost is a big factor in the daily decision of how we get around.

“Historically we have seen a rise in cycling and transit ridership when gas prices have gone up.”
— Hannah Schafer, PBOT

According to Hannah Schafer, interim communications director for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the gas price spike will result in more people contemplating a low-car lifestyle.

“Historically we have seen a rise in cycling and transit ridership when gas prices have gone up (a recent example would be the worldwide economic collapse in 2008-9), but not since we’ve had bike share in Portland,” she told me in an email this week. “It’s too soon to say with the data we have currently, but it is probably safe to assume that some people will switch to bike share, e-scooters, or transit while gas prices are up.”

PBOT data shows that Biketown and e-scooter rentals have already both more than doubled from this time last year. From January 1 – February 28, 2021, there were 21,032 rides on the Biketown system. During the same period this year, there were 44,578 rides — a 112% increase! E-scooters were rented 42,739 times last year from January 1 – February 28, and this year that number has jumped to almost 90,000.

Schafer points out it’s unclear if that data was influenced by increased gas prices, but it’s not a far-fetched idea.

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Biketown bikes parked along SE Hawthorne.
(Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

If we assume cost is one of the main drivers of mode choice, let’s do the math to see how bike share and transit stack up against driving.

Someone who takes a seven-mile (each way), 30-minute ride once per day could expect to pay about $33 a week if they bought a Biketown membership.

A TriMet monthly pass for an adult is $100, or $91 if you buy an annual pass. If you took TriMet twice daily you’d spend $25 a week.

What about driving a car? (I was very generous with the miles per gallon averages. It’s also difficult to include how much extra gas you’d waste idling in traffic, so keep in mind these are low-range estimates.)

— If you drive a Prius, which averages about 55 mpg, a 14-mile trip probably costs you about $6 a week. This is substantially less than both the Biketown and TriMet fees – but I’ll get to some other thoughts on that below.

— If you drive a Kia Sportage that got 25 mpg, you could expect to pay about $13 a week for a 14-mile trip.

— And on the very low end of the spectrum, let’s say you drove a Ram 1500 TRX, which gets – at most – 12 miles per gallon. If you were using this for a 14-mile trip, you could expect to pay about $27 a week, so a Biketown membership would be about even.

To summarize, unless you’re driving the least fuel efficient car on the market, gas prices still haven’t gotten high enough to make it cheaper to commute solely by Biketown e-bike. (This is why we should consider more subsidies.)

However, let’s take a look at the savings you’d have if you used TriMet. This is a more feasible option for someone living in the suburbs and commuting to Portland every day, because Biketown doesn’t extend past the city limits. If you live in Hillsboro and work at OHSU, you have a 40-mile commute every day. In a car that gets 25 mpg, you’re spending $38 a week, as opposed to the $25 taking the MAX would cost. And if you travel during rush-hour, transit times might be comparable to driving.

More dramatically, let’s say you have a 30-mile commute each way, from Hillsboro to Portland International Airport. At 25 mpg, you’ll be spending about $57 a week. During a low traffic period, you could anticipate being on public transit for about a half hour longer than you’d be in a car.

(Keep in mind in these situations, your after-work public transit use would be free. So if you like to hang out in Portland on the weekends, you wouldn’t have to pay an extra dime to get there from the suburbs.)

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Now, what if you work from home and just use your car for errands? I’ll use myself as an example. I don’t have a Biketown membership, and I often get charged the extra $1 if I don’t find a designated bike parking spot (sorry, Biketown people), so there are definitely ways I could be saving money.

For the past month, I’ve been completely carfree. I’ve traveled about 25 miles on Biketown and paid $40. It was helpful to use alongside TriMet, which I spent $10 on last month. The rest of the time I rode my own (non-electric) bike or walked. At the time I drove the absolute most, let’s say I was taking my car out for 15 miles a day at 25 mpg, that would have been $80 a month compared to the $50 I spent this month.

Just the act of not having a car as an option has limited the amount of traveling I do, and I plan out trips in advance to make sure I’m making the most out of my time. I would’ve been doing this regardless of how much gas costs, but it’s a nice bonus to be able to stand on the sidelines during all this fervor around fuel finances.

Of course there are many other reasons why someone might not choose Biketown or TriMet over driving. Personal security, poor bike infrastructure in some parts of town, and lack of transit access and service are among the barriers. And even if your Biketown commute would be more expensive than driving, there are other reasons to want to do it than to save money — the joy of getting outside, not having to sit in traffic and wanting to minimize your carbon output are just some examples.

This is not even to mention the other financial burdens that cars can saddle people with. The camel was already carrying the costs of parking, maintenance, insurance, registration and payments, but these gas prices could be the straw on its back.

Plus, there are ways to qualify for reduced fares on TriMet or Biketown that the gas station isn’t going to offer you.

What do you think? Are skyrocketing gas prices enough to get you to try a different form of transportation? How do you think the City of Portland and transportation reform activists can best seize this pivotal moment to try to shift our transportation landscape?

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Allan Rudwick
8 months ago

the cost of parking can really tip the scales

Chris I
Chris I
8 months ago

It’s a common mistake to only consider fuel when calculating the cost of driving a car. The reality is that you should at least double that number, mostly due to depreciation, but also due to maintenance and wear and tear.

https://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-is-how-much-it-now-costs-you-to-drive-a-car-11631809327

Maintenance and repair costs work out to 9.55 cents a mile. EV owners again pay less, averaging 7.77 cents a mile in maintenance and repairs. Medium sedans, somewhat surprisingly, have the highest average maintenance and repair costs, at 10.43 cents per mile.

And yes, if you drive a much older car, depreciation will be lower. The above costs are an average.

Mason
Mason
8 months ago

If you drive a Prius, which averages about 55 mpg, a 14-mile trip probably costs you about $6 a week.

Focusing on gas prices right now makes sense, but the problem is that this ^ just isn’t true. It costs $6 a week in gas. even if you don’t want to think in terms depreciation (which I think another commenter said) the fact is you had to buy a car, it cost a lot of money, and eventually you’ll need to buy another one. The more you drive it the sooner that’ll be. That makes driving much more expensive than just gas. And the fact that you’ll need to pay for maintenance contributes in the same way

I really like the idea behind the article, and I’m excited to see more people biking! I just don’t think that’s an accurate representation of the cost of driving ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
8 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

Then there are those of us that don’t think of our possessions in accounting terms.
Both our vehicles are close to 20 years old. I couldn’t give a hoot as to what their “depreciated” value is. They do the job they are asked to do and as long as they continue I’ll keep’em.

Joseph E
8 months ago
Reply to  SolarEclipse

But eventually the engine will stop working and it will not be cost-effective to replace, so you will have to buy a newer car. Or you will get in a crash and need to replace it. And tires, belts, oil etc always need replacing.

SERider
SERider
8 months ago
Reply to  SolarEclipse

I agree. “depreciation” is such a weird metric that gets used so often. Bike depreciate too.

Watts
Watts
8 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

Average costs are not meaningful to individuals; their specific costs are, and will likely diverge significantly from the mean.

Chris I
Chris I
8 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Actual vehicle costs are not meaningful to individuals, it seems. Ask 10 people how much it will cost them to drive to Seattle, and 9 will calculate the cost of gas. These same people will complain that they “have to replace their tires” or repair something on the vehicle when the time comes.

As I mentioned in my comment, if you drive some clapped out sedan, most of your costs are going to be lower, especially depreciation.

Trike Guy
Trike Guy
8 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

What are the maintenance costs on an old vehicle versus a new (under warranty) vehicle? Are the odds of a catastrophic failure (in this case something that renders the vehicle undriveable) much higher?

One of the huge issues facing working class people in a car-dependent country is that, if their car dies they may not be able to afford to fix it, but if they don’t fix it they can’t get to work. Hence payday loans and the like, which just drives people living paycheck to paycheck further down.

I’ve seen the stress caused by this among a couple of my co-workers. One was lucky enough to be able to borrow a car from a friend for the 2 weeks it took to get his next paycheck and replace the failed part. The other spent 4+ weeks getting a ride from a co-worker who lived near him.

Fortunately our leadership were flexible on his work shift for those weeks.

Also, when it comes to TriMet – you can guarantee that your costs will be no higher than $5/day and $100/month with the Hop pass.

Also, all bike owners have to factor in the cost of maintenance on their rides – all weather commuting kills chains, cassettes & chainrings faster. Tires (even Gatorskins) need replacing, brake pads, the gear I wear for the winter that only lasts a season (I’m looking at you shoe covers), riding glasses (I replace the clear lenses on my riding glasses a couple of times a winter – road grit gets on them and scratches them).

When I rode 105 miles a week in all weather over the hill on my trike I went through 2 sets of Avid BB7 brake pads per year ($100), 1 chain (3 regular length chains – $100), 1 cassette – $30?, the 39t ring (the 30 & 50 lasted much longer) – $40, a full set of tires (2×406, 1x700c) – $100+, full set of cables (2 brake, 2 shifter) & housing ($50?) and I’m not sure what else. So, easily $10/week in parts.

maxD
maxD
8 months ago
Reply to  Trike Guy

Thanks for bringing up bike maintenance costs. I was burning through chains, brake pads and even rims by commuting yearround. A few years ago I bought a dedicated commuter- internal 8-speed, belt drive, disc brakes. I added a generator hub. I probably have not broken even yet, but this bike is remarkably low maintenance- just pads 1-2x/year. I did have to replace the stock rim after about 4 years, and I did break a belt once, but I think that was due to a bike shop mis-aligning the drivetrain after a flat repair. Now I patch the tubes w/out removing the wheel!

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
8 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

Don’t most car “owners” actually lease their vehicles, especially for newer models? So wouldn’t one need to factor in those leasing costs, on top of maintenance, repairs, etc?

Chris I
Chris I
8 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

Only about 1/4 of new cars are leased, but nearly all of the rest are financed. If you see a car newer than 2019, it’s almost guaranteed that the person driving it doesn’t actually own it. There are some pretty staggering figures on auto loan debt. Nearly $1.5 trillion in auto loan debt in this country. $1.5 trillion on depreciating assets…

https://www.lendingtree.com/auto/debt-statistics/

Alan 1.0
8 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

It gets even more through-the-looking-glass. Lots of those loans are at 0 percent. Some of them are not only at 0 percent but the negotiated sale price can be lowered by accepting the loan rather than paying the total in cash. The loan company (subsidiary of the car manufacturer) is able to leverage the long-term asset of the loan more than it can the cash, and the aggregate corporation is thereby able to secure cheaper financing for itself. (And I’m sure the corporation has considered the behavioral effects of conditioning buyers to make monthly payments.)

Evan Manvel
Evan Manvel
8 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

Fixed costs in cars are about 2/3rds of the costs.

Federal car reimbursement rate calculates the cost of driving at 58.5 cents per mile. The medical/moving rates is 18 cents/mile.

“The standard mileage rate for business use is based on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile. The rate for medical and moving purposes is based on the variable costs.”

Beyond gas, there are opportunity costs, insurance costs, maintenance costs, repairs, etc. For example, if you spent $35,000 on a car, you’re generally losing out $2000+/year that you’d earn in the stock market (or other investments) instead. (in 2021, that’s $6545, but that was a hot year in the stock market).

Watts
Watts
8 months ago
Reply to  Evan Manvel

The federal rate is a work of fiction. Useful for expense reports and tax returns, useless for anything grounded in reality.

Opportunity costs are an interesting one — you really need to factor in risk tolerance (somehow); if you’re indexing to the stock market, in bad years they’d be negative. If you index to safe investments, they’d be near zero at the moment. If you factor in inflation, opportunity costs will be somewhat reduced, or even negative if you are looking at safe investments, unless those investments are I-Bonds, which are indexed to inflation. If you buy your car on credit, they are greatly diminished since, presumably, you’d be spending that money on other forms of transport. But then you’re paying interest, but that might be good in an inflationary period. It’s a very wormy can to open.

(Note: If my boss is reading this, I was referring to my friend’s expense reports; mine ARE grounded in reality!)

dwk
dwk
8 months ago

I guess I missed where you can ride a regular old fashioned bicycle, it takes about 30 minutes to ride 7 miles.
You mentioned every form of transit except riding a bike. Is Bikeportland now just an E-bike site? I don’t get all the E-bike and bus talk, etc, on a cycling site.
Maybe since you wont address the homeless problem which is the biggest hinderance in cycling in the city right now, E-bikes is your go to…..

Trike Guy
Trike Guy
8 months ago
Reply to  dwk

While I agree with the first part (I don’t own any motorized vehicles of any sort) – BikePortland has traditionally had a broader scope than just cycling.

I’m also a huge proponent of people getting e-bikes. First because motorized or not, they are bikes and more bikes = more safety for all cyclists. Second because *nothing* makes this nearly 55 year old cyclist feel better than dusting someone with 500W or more of assist helping them 🙂

A bit ago going from Webster & 224 up Lake to International Way I beat a fat tire e-bike which had been at the light with me all the way to the intersection. The rider pulled up next to me and said “You were doing over 25 along there!” /big grin

(this is only on my faster bents obviously – my little town bike doesn’t offer the same advantages)

Rain Waters
Rain Waters
8 months ago
Reply to  dwk

nailed it.

Ricky
Ricky
8 months ago

I was considering buying my first car two years ago around the time covid arrived. I’ve only walked or used public transit, with the occasional bike ride as my means of transport. Since then, I’ve been working from home although I was not planning to use the car for my commute. I really just wanted it to take day trips on the weekends to enjoy the outdoor places that are too far to get to by other means.
Since then, the price of used cars has gone up around 40% on average and gas prices are at near all time highs. This has definitely delayed my decision to buy a car. I wouldn’t mind getting a cargo bike but it isn’t a feasible option without a place to store it safely. So for now, I’ll stick to Trimet and rent a car if I want to go to the coast or on a hike away from the metro area. My wife is due with our first child next month and we’ll be taking a taxi home from the hospital. I’m curious if any parents here used a bike to bring their newborn home.

Sigma
Sigma
8 months ago
Reply to  Ricky

When I was loading my first kid in the car on day 2 of his life, I remember thinking “I’m so freaking glad I have a car.” Putting a newborn in a Burley or similar conveyance and rolling through the rutted and potholed streets of Portland could be fatal. (Not hyperbole: look up shaken baby syndrome.) I wouldn’t even be surprised if some hospitals don’t allow it.

Joseph E
8 months ago
Reply to  Sigma

Nonsense. Babies don’t get injured from potholes. Billions of babies have survived riding on motorcycles and microbuses throughout developing countries in recent decades, and before that babies were routinely transported across rutted and cobbled roads in wooden-wheeled carriages with barely any suspension.

Shaken baby syndrome is caused by violently abusing a baby, it is not something that happens on accident.

PTB
PTB
8 months ago
Reply to  Sigma

Come on. This is absolutely hyperbole. Portland streets are *not* that bad. I’ve had friends that have plopped their kids in trailers, here in Portland!, and their kids are fine (I mean, as fine as can be, for now. Hit me up in 2050 and lets see how cool it was to make those kids given the state of the world).

Trike Guy
Trike Guy
8 months ago
Reply to  Ricky

Is car-share not an option for car lite? What is the one in PDX these days, Zip car?

Caveat – I’ve never researched the costs of car-share. Back in my 20’s & 30’s if my GF and I wanted to go to the coast or what have you we’d rent. I stopped doing even that when my vision deteriorated – and that was before car share came to PDX.

D2
D2
8 months ago
Reply to  Trike Guy

Its generally better to do a traditional rental car if you’re going out of town. You could often get a car for $20 a day if you were willing to pick it somewhere that wasn’t the airport, though I say could as a lot of rental places sold huge parts of their fleets at the beginning of covid so things have changed. But still, the ShareNow or other shares we’re more in the ballpark of 60 or 70 a day, their models are just made for getting across town.

I do hope that more shares come back, I could easily see not getting another car when mine stops working if a car share was reliably within a 5 minute walk of my home.

Watts
Watts
8 months ago
Reply to  Ricky

Ricky: I’ve heard stories about hospitals being reluctant to release newborns if they do not have a “safe” ride home; it would probably be worthwhile to inquire about that before you do anything “unusual” like bike just to avoid the hassle.

Unless you got run over by a crazed New Portland driver, I can’t imagine you causing damage to your newborn by taking them on a bike, especially if they are in an anchored and secured car seat. The bigger issue may be your wife’s desire to ride at that point, but you won’t know until you know.

Good luck, and congratulations!

9watts
8 months ago
Reply to  Watts

our daughter was born at home. And no car either.

Shaken baby syndrome from potholes? Is this a Portlandia episode?!

Rain Waters
Rain Waters
8 months ago
Reply to  Ricky

Most of the actual cost of a car is is initial purchase, maintenance and storage especially in urban areas. Try parking without paying dwelling extortion fees known as rent or mortgage that (in sane communities) include a dedicated parking space.

In the long run exclusive car use that burns gas costing less than $8 a gallon always averages out to cost LESS than any snow balled alternatives. Most of that crap melts and runs away when exposed to the light of reason and heat of the moment.

twiddling fingers on tesla wheel at charging station. . . .

Above that oh so taboo price of EIGHT DOLLARS A GALLON things go south so fast in so many ways. . . grab the popcorn time.

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
8 months ago

Bottom line: Bikes and public transportation are fine if you never leave the city. If you go anywhere else you need a car or truck.

Fred
Fred
8 months ago
Reply to  Mike Quigley

I take it you are being a bit hyperbolic here, Mike, but I agree with you that Biketown is pretty useless to anyone who lives outside the downtown-SE Portland axis. I live in SW Portland and as far as Biketown is concerned, I may as well live in Salem.

Lazy Spinner
Lazy Spinner
8 months ago
Reply to  Fred

Yep! Downtown, SE, and Nike HQ in Beaverton are the only places where Biketown is convenient.

9watts
8 months ago
Reply to  Mike Quigley

weird!
There are tons of ways tog get out of town without a car: buses, bikes, roller blades, skateboard, the train. Obviously in an automobile-obsessed country the auto is always favored, ‘easiest’, subsidized, quickest, but the costs of that favoritism are shared very unequally as folks have been pointing out here. You be got to be a little creative, but if you’re not willing to do that, where is the fun?

Douglas Kelso
Douglas Kelso
8 months ago

Someone who takes a seven-mile (each way), 30-minute ride once per day could expect to pay about $33 a week if they bought a Biketown membership.

I doubt anyone would do that, though. If they try Biketown a few times and decide they’re going to commute that way regularly, they’ll buy an e-bike. Even a pricey one will pay for itself in under a year.

9watts
8 months ago

you wrote:
“But people who already own bikes probably don’t need to be told that it’s free to ride it. If they haven’t started replacing their car trips with a bike by now, there’s probably another reason for that.”

Taylor,
I appreciate your articles here and love that you are part of the Bikeportland team. Your energy and enthusiasm are an asset to the site and great. But—and I’m going to be frank—this casual approach to a calculation like this is not helpful. The BTA tried something similar here: https://bikeportland.org/2013/11/12/do-bikes-get-a-free-ride-advocates-infographic-shows-why-not-96950 and it blew up in their face. I encourage you to read the comments below that article.
It is important when tackling a subject like this to anticipate the silly (and the valid) criticisms folks might have of a comparison like this. The possibility that they know more than what your article suggests the questions are. Doing it sloppily may seem like fun and games, but it can do more harm than good. The costs associated with each transport mode can be captured, itemized, estimated, presented, whether in an infographic or an article such as yours. But the details matter. Getting it right matters. Sometimes a lot.
Bikes and feet and roller blades are, for all intents and purposes, free: no fuel, no taxes, no insurance. We can and should at some point parameterize the costs of replacing brake pads and chains, and if folks buy new $1,000 bikes every five years then of course those costs should be noted, but IT IS POSSIBLE to have biking and walking cost basically nothing. It does for me. My bikes are 35-yr old Craigslist finds and I bought my panniers, U-lock, fenders, etc. used fifteen or twenty years ago.
Your decision to omit these entirely from the calculus was not helpful, and fails to take your readership (who knows this fact) seriously.

D2
D2
8 months ago

My insurance costs are about equivalent to driving 500 miles a month and unfortunately they’re sunk costs that happen whether I drive or not. I still use my bikes as often as possible, but mostly because I like them.

A good first step in my mind would be offering a free trip on Biketown with a Trimet transfer or vice versa. There are lots of transit trips I might make, but then a suburban or other low frequency route leaves me with a 20 minute wait or a mile walk.

Evan Manvel
Evan Manvel
8 months ago
Reply to  D2

I highly suggest moving to a car insurance option you save when you don’t drive much. Most car insurance companies have this option (though sometimes they brand it something, like Drive Safe and Save for State Farm).

9watts
8 months ago
Reply to  Evan Manvel

That is a cute idea but when I inquired I learned that you have to have an OBDII car (1996 or newer) so they can track your driving. Older car, no dice.

soren
soren
8 months ago
Reply to  D2

I pay $32 a month to insure my re-used Nissan leaf via metromile. It’s pretty much my only expense for using this EV-cage to replace some of the gasoline-powered trips of family and friends.

1kw
1kw
8 months ago
Reply to  soren

The car needs to be ~< 10 years old for the sensor to be installed FYI.

Terry Jefferson
Terry Jefferson
8 months ago

You can also take Lime scooter! I qualify for their Lime Access program and get 5 free 30 minute ride per day

Charles Ross
Charles Ross
8 months ago

Also, costs should include the PTSD that result from the driving experience: Pedestrians in the cities core, stepping out in front of you, not a few of them attempting ‘suicide by car’ (SBC); having to carry a roll of plastic and tape with you so when you come back to your parked car you have something to cover the busted window with; cyclists, many of whom are apparently also attempting SBC; drivers, distracted, (and I’m speaking from personal experience here) by having to look at each bicycle for a match to the one they’ve had stolen (hence, the reason they are driving). These “costs” may not be measurable but they are real!!!

Skip
8 months ago

That bike-share still doesn’t “pay” except for guzzler drivers says a lot about the need for subsidized share programs. But what about including owned bikes (just like the cars are)? Otherwise, the comparisons are too generous to cars. It’s not just the conservative estimates, other costs, other savings, other benefits, etc. It’s that bikes, even e-bikes, are comparatively cheap, ranging $0 (already have one) to relatively affordable for many. So the cost of car transit can also be compared to close to $0/week (or $0 after acquisition costs are recouped), plus supplemental use of public transit for longer distances, hard weather and such. “Some people will switch to bike share, e-scooters, or transit while gas prices are up,” but–especially with numbers about savings from bike ownership–some people may switch all or in part to a regular ol’ bike.

raktajino
raktajino
8 months ago

Also relevant to the costs (though I understand why you sidestepped them): Biketown and Trimet both have subsidized access for lower incomes. If you’re on SNAP, under 16, in low-income housing, a PSU student, or in some other programs, you can get a reduced fare Biketown or Trimet pass. It’s been at least a year since I last used a gas station but didn’t see an “honored citizen” button there.