Are we driving ourselves crazy?

At work right now, we’re in the middle of constructing a portion of the Flint River Trail through Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve on the north end of Burlington.

I’m pretty excited about this portion of trail because it’s going to be one of the most scenic portions of trail around with the towering bluffs above Flint Creek, the restored prairies on the back side of the park, and the mature woods through the middle.

I’m also excited about it because, once the highway 61 project is complete, this portion of trail will cross and then go under the highway, allowing me to ride my bike all the way into town.

Last month I had my second kid so I’ve been thinking a bit lately about finances and the future. That thinking overlapped with my work on this trail project and I’ve realized just what an opportunity we have to better utilize alternative modes of transportation such as bicycles. But even better, I’m beginning to see the financial benefits of those alternatives.

Allow me to explain.

I have a 2001 Ford F150 crew cab pickup truck. I call it Henry. It has over 280,000 miles and still runs like a champ. I don’t drive it a lot, mostly just down to my cabin or the occasional errand around town when the family SUV is unavailable or incapable of hauling the goods I need to transport (although I rarely haul so much that I actually need the pickup bed). I owe nothing on Henry, and aside from a few oil changes here and there, it doesn’t cost me much.

Except it does.

Around town, Henry gets about 14 miles per gallon. If Henry was my primary vehicle and I drove the national average of 15,000 miles per year, he would cost me over $2,900 annually, or more than $240 per month in fuel (at today’s fuel price of $2.73 per gallon).

Now let’s say that instead of buying fuel for such a vehicle, I instead invested that $240 at a mere 6.5 percent interest rate, compounded monthly over the 17 years that truck has been around. You know how much money that would amount to today?

According to my interest calculator app, roughly $89,000.

That’s crazy!

And that’s not even the entire picture. That $2,900 fuel cost multiplied by the 17 years the truck has been around (I’m ignoring fuel price fluctuations for ease of figuring here), adds up to a lifetime fuel cost of $49,300. Add that to the savings I miss out on by buying fuel instead and you could say Henry has cost over $138,000 just to fuel over its 17-year life span. And that doesn’t count repairs, insurance, upkeep, and all the other things that go into owning a vehicle.

I could cut this cost by driving less or getting a more efficient vehicle, but even at 30 miles per gallon, the annual fuel cost for the average driver at today’s gas prices is $1,365 or $113.75 per month. If instead I invested that amount monthly at 6.5 percent interest, I’d have more than $46,000 to help pay for my kid’s college when he graduates in 18 years. Total wealth difference between buying fuel for a 30-mpg car and investing that fuel money: over $70,000.

Put that way, maybe riding a bike doesn’t sound so crazy.

I’m not suggesting we all ditch our rides and start biking everywhere. That’s not practical. But I do think there could be some real benefits in seriously reconsidering the craziness of our driving habits.

What if, instead of commuting to work in fuel-inefficient vehicles, we rode bicycles instead? The core Burlington/West Burlington metro area is roughly three miles tall by four miles wide if you measure it in straight lines on Google Maps. If you live and work anywhere within those city limits, you are within biking distance of work.

Commuting by bike instead of car obviously saves money. According to AAA, it costs the average American 56 cents per mile to drive the way we do. If your daily commute was five miles one way, not driving would save $28 per week, or $112 per month.

Now add in the health benefits. We could all use more exercise, sure, but a study in the Netherlands found that every hour of biking increases life expectancy by the same amount. Countless other studies have shown other benefits of biking and exercise.

Then there’s the less quantifiable benefits. If more people rode bikes instead of cars, there’d be less traffic, less infrastructure cost, more investment in walkable and ridable communities (which is great for workforce recruitment these days), cleaner air and less traffic noise. How much is all that worth?

Is it crazy to think that it’d be worth riding a bike occasionally?

Every time I visit the city of Des Moines I see more bike lanes. Is it any wonder that city is attracting young workers better than many other places? 

This piece was originally published in The Hawk Eye as part of my monthly "Living Land" column.