Commute Series: Unicorn Sighting

When I was in college, I was involved with a community bike project. I was one of a bunch of bike geeks who would get together and wrench on “Yellow Bikes,” which people could ride freely around campus and drop for the next person to use. There was no end to the one-upsmanship during those Saturdays trying to turn rusty piles of parts into working bikes.

One afternoon, there was a new guy working on an old heap, and he started talking about a mythical bike he saw once:

Yeah, man, it was amazing. It’s a reverse recumbent tricycle with a teardrop shell, and it can fly like the wind. You can get up to 30 mph on a flat straightaway pedaling that thing – but it totally dies when you try to climb with it. Still, it’s truly a magical machine.

The image caught my imagination. For a while I entertained the idea of building or buying such a bike, but that dream faded into momentary flights of fancy, and then dwindled into but a faint ember. Until last week. I spotted my unicorn.

If you watch the video above, you’ll see that this guy really flies! He even outpaced me with my electric assist bike – he was definitely doing 30 mph or even faster there for a minute.

Anyway, happy Bike Week! It’s a beautiful one, so don’t forget to hop on two (or three) wheels at least once while the sun is shining. You may even spot a most magical ride.

My Bike Week Post: Ken Jennings Is So Wrong

The other day I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and I saw this gem from Ken Jennings, the all-time undefeated Jeopardy champion:


How did such a smart guy tweet such a dumb comment? It was especially ironic that this was tweeted out on the opening weekend of National Bike Week, the one week out of the year that there is a special push to get people out and riding. Massachusetts celebrates by having a statewide series of events, Bay State Bike Week. Check out the calendar and pick up a free donut or watch a bike-related movie near you!

(As a side note, I’ll be pumping up tires and lubing chains near C-Town in Holyoke on Saturday, 5/21 from 10 to noon. Swing by and say hi!)

Since I couldn’t put together a sufficient response to Ken Jennings in under 140 characters, I present to you this blog post on why I choose biking.

Do the M.A.T.H.

Way back when I was the Northampton Bike Week Coordinator for the Pioneer Valley Chapter of MassBike, then-President James Lowenthal cited a cool mnemonic: Do the M.A.T.H.

  • Money
  • Air
  • Traffic
  • Health


I save a ton of money by biking instead of driving. How much money? Let’s take a look. First, calculating the cost of biking.

There are the fixed costs of the bicycle, the helmet, lights, gloves, shorts, etc. I also threw in the purchase of a “beater” winter bike with mountain bike tires that I ride when there is snow and salt on the roads. To make things easier, I’ve pretended that I bought all those things with a 5-year loan at a 5% interest rate. This works pretty well, because most of those items I keep for at least five years (in fact, my commuter bike is now almost exactly nine years old).

Then there are the “operating” costs of a bike – the ongoing annual costs. That includes tires, tubes, chains, etc., in addition to the periodic bus fares I have to pay when something like weather precludes biking (I estimated on the high end at 75 bus trips per year; I probably take more like 40 or 50).

Bike Expenses
Estimated annual expenses for bike commuting. Interest rate is 5% annual divided by 12 months.

So I’m guessing that I spend about $700 per year by doing a mix of biking and riding the bus. I might have omitted some things, but it’s a good rough estimate.

bike expenses pie chart
Pie chart of bike-related expenses.

Now on to the calculation should I choose to drive.

There are a couple of ways I can calculate this. One is by taking the average cost per mile as calculated by AAA. In 2015, they calculated a small sedan going 10,000 miles per year costs about $0.582/mile to operate, or $5,820 per year. It should be noted that AAA’s methodology does not include the cost of parking, which ranges from “free” to “very expensive.” Using their estimates, biking saves me about $5,000 per year.

Using the same methodology I used to calculate my bike costs, I get about the same number as the AAA estimate. I imagined that I purchased a Honda Civic Hybrid, which is probably the kind of car I would be interested in buying. I then threw in the driving costs I could think of, though I’m sure I missed some.

car expenses
Estimated annual expense of car ownership. Interest rate is 3% divided into 12 monthly payments.

As you can see in the above calculations, by far the biggest expense in both examples is the cost of the car or bike. The rest of the stuff is pretty inexpensive in comparison.

car expenses pie chart
Pie chart of car-related expenses

It looks like by not buying a car, I’m saving roughly $5,000 per year. That’s a lot of Bueno y Sano burritos!


Going by bike also helps to cut down on air pollution, both in terms of local air quality and global climate change. Focusing on climate change, the most likely impact in the Pioneer Valley is going to be the increasing frequency of extreme weather events like the tornado that cut through downtown Springfield in 2011.

More generally, though, Massachusetts is just going to get a lot hotter. And with that comes changes in trees (e.g. sugar maples dying out) and pests. By 2050, we could have the climate of present-day South Carolina.

climate change
Source: PVPC Climate Action and Clean Energy Plan

The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the Pioneer Valley is from transportation; riding a bike is basically carbon-neutral, and can reduce the size of that slice. I like maple syrup, which is reason enough to convince me to keep riding my bike.


Bicycling is also a much more efficient means of transportation than driving a car (though, honestly, driving a car is tremendously inefficient, so that’s not saying much). Car travel demands lots of space – wide roads with few curves to maintain high speeds, and on-street parking or large parking lots to provide a place to put your vehicle once you arrive. This hunger for space is fundamentally incompatible with city life, where lots of people exist in close proximity to one another. Jarrett Walker refers to this as a “fact of geometry.”

Marginally reducing the number of cars on the streets can have positive impacts on the overall traffic network. Even if you have antipathy toward cars and like seeing them sitting in traffic, you probably don’t like the busloads of people on transit stuck with them. Bike lanes are an easy way to add capacity to a street and provide for more efficient transportation.

Showing required street space for 60 people going by bus, by bike, and by car. Source: The Human Transit


Finally, biking to work is the surest way that I can fit exercise into my daily schedule. I know that in the morning I am going to have to spend 45 minutes on my bike, and in the afternoon about the same – that’s an hour and a half of exercise, 5 days per week. This is even better than the CDC recommendation of half an hour of aerobic exercise, five days per week. I joke that my bike is my gym membership (which saves me another $300 annually).

The importance of exercise can’t be overstated. There is a lot of evidence correlating inactive lifestyles with obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and a host of other health issues. Together, the cost of our inactive, high-calorie lifestyles is estimated to be $190 billion per year. Now that’s a lot of Bueno y Sano burritos.

Inactivity Map by county. Source: Centers for Disease Control

The physical activity and health aspect of biking in particular hits close to home for me. I was very overweight in my younger years, and so today diet and exercise is a focus of mine. All of my grandparents died from heart or circulatory problems, and so strong heart health  is literally a matter of life or death. Today, I still struggle to maintain a healthy weight, but am certainly leading a much healthier lifestyle thanks in no small part to my daily bike ritual.

Left: Me age 9 or 10. Right: Me age 30 giving a weird thumbs up, I think.

Ken Jennings Got It So Wrong

While I may not have it totally “together,” Mr. Jennings, I do think that my decision to go by bike (most of the time) is a pretty good one. I’m satisfied with my transportation habits, and think the Pioneer Valley would be better off if more people did the same. So give it a try! Here are some fun pictures of bikes to inspire you:


And also the Ballerina on a Bicycle, Lilly Yokoi:

Happy Bike Week!