Energy Claims of Biking to Work

Idris Ahmed
May 24, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2015


Fig. 1: A bike rental station that could make it easier for people to choose to bike to work on certain days. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

According to a report by Brian McKenzie of the US Census Bureau 86% of workers drove to work in the year 2008-2012. In the same year 0.6 % of workers biked to work. [1] If that percentage was raised to even 5% of workers biking to work it could potentially save 7 million gallons of gasoline a day. While this may be a tempting way to save on energy consumption it is important to consider whether a 5% figure is even possible.

Economic Problems

There are many factors that will prevent a worker from biking to work but the most glaring one is economic opportunity. In economics the opportunity cost of biking to work is the time lost if a worker had just driven to work. According to an American Community Survey in 2013 the average American spent 26 minutes commuting to work. [1] Biking may be economically attractive when the distance from work is less than five miles but with greater distances the time lost biking is equivalent to wasted earnings.

According to AAA the average cost of maintaining a car is $9,122. "The maintenance cost estimates are based on the cost to maintain a vehicle and perform needed repairs for five years and 75,000 miles, including labor expenses, replacement part prices and the purchase of an extended warranty. "[2] Depending on how much a worker gets paid, she may receive more economic benefit from biking as a result of decreased cost from car ownership. Some locations such as large cities tend to be more favorable to bikers. The decision to bike depends on the design of the city, weather, and the amount of bike roads allotted.

Health Benefits and Concerns

Another important factor to consider in biking to work is the health aspect. One claim that is made about the benefit of biking to work is the saving in health care expenses. A study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that "during the next 30 years, Portland's residents could save as much as $594 million in health care costs because of an investment into biking culture" and "fuel savings of $143 to $218 million." [3]

However, it is unclear what percentage of the population is physically capable of biking to work. For example, those with physical disabilities, heart problems, or even mental issues would be unable to bike. There is also the danger factor to consider when biking. While the streets of some areas are accessible for bike travel, there are other locations where it would be foolish to even consider biking to work. Furthermore it is unclear whether the same health benefits could be obtained from another physical workout (perhaps a yoga class) which is safer and more controlled then biking to work.


Biking to work may not be practical for all workers in the US but that does not mean it can't have an impact. In areas where biking is practical such as large cities, it may be advantageous for governments to incentivize biking to work. This would free up traffic, reduce gas consumption, and increase the wellness of the general population. Governments can encourage bike usage by investing in bike rentals such as in Fig. 1. However it is impractical for the majority of workers in the US and there is very little the government can do about that.


Driving to work is the most common form of transportation because it is seen as the most convenient method. Even if everyone were close enough to work where biking and driving would take the same amount of time there is still a significant amount of the population unable to bike for physical or environmental reasons. Biking may play an important role in cities with heavy traffic congestion if governments are able to increase the safety of bikers by creating bike only lanes and separating bikers from drivers.

© Idris Ahmed. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. McKenzie, "Modes Less Traveled - Bicycling And Walking To Work In The United States: 2008-2012," U.S. Census Bureau, ACS-25, May 2016.

[2] L. Copeland, "The Cost of Owning Your Car? $9,000 a Year," USA Today, 16 Apr 13.

[3] T. Gotschi, Costs And Benefits Of Bicycling Investments In Portland, Oregon," J. Physical Activity and Health 8 (Suppl. 1), S49 (2011).