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Cut Commuting Costs by Biking to Work

The number of Americans who bike as their primary means of transportation to work has increased almost 40 percent in the past decade -- and with good reason.

Stacy Bisker and her family of six didn’t spend a single dollar filling up the family’s minivan in April.

How is that possible when her husband commutes four miles to and from work every day, and her 2-, 5-, 8- and 10-year-olds have to be shuttled to school, doctors’ appointments and other activities in Huntington, W.Va.? The answer lies in Bisker’s garage, where you will find seven bicycles, plus a new Yuba Mundo cargo bike that can carry up to 440 pounds.

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CALCULATOR: How Much Can You Save Bicycling to Work?

Bisker, 32, estimates that her family spent $200 to $250 per month on gas, for an annual total of about $3,000, before going “car-lite.” Now that they ride their bikes, take the bus, walk or carpool whenever possible, they only spend an average of $45 per month on fuel. (Bisker footed the $1,700 bill for the cargo bike and accessories with accumulated savings on gas from riding the other bikes.)

The savings don’t stop there. After purchasing the Yuba, Bisker gave away the family’s second car, which, along with the reduction in mileage on the minivan, dropped their monthly insurance premiums from about $115 to less than $40. They’ve used those savings to pay off the loan on the minivan, which had been costing them about $3,900 a year.

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“For the first time ever, we’re living within our means,” says Bisker. “Going car-lite has really lightened the financial stress.”

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Bisker is not alone. The number of Americans who bike as their primary means of transportation to work has increased almost 40 percent in the past decade, with large metro areas such as Portland, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., leading the way. And in New York City, despite some pushback when Mayor Bloomberg recently started converting parking spaces to bike lanes, the bike commuter population has nearly quadrupled from 2001 to 2011. Smaller cities, such as Davis, Cal., and Boulder, Colo., boast bike commuting rates that are at least 20 times the national average of 0.5 percent.

In New Haven, Conn., where her commute to her job at a local school is just two miles, Sara Armstrong, 42, can’t justify the purchase of a second family car. So Armstrong rides a cargo bike – with her 6-year-old son in tow. “I’m definitely not your typical cyclist,” she jokes. “I’m an overweight mother of three who happens to get around by bike.”

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For many urban commuters, biking can save both money and time. Half of the working population in the U.S. commutes five miles or less to work, with bike trips of three to five miles taking less time or the same amount of time as commuting by car.

Part of the “biking boom” can be attributed to local and state governments’ investments in programs that encourage nonmotorized forms of transportation. For example, Washington state (ranked as the most “bike-friendly” state by the League of American Bicyclists) and its Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) Law has cut overall vehicle mileage by 154 million miles since 2007. Among other things, the law requires large employers in congested areas to create programs and incentives that encourage their workers to drive alone less often. For every taxpayer dollar that goes into the program, businesses invest $18.

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Deborah Frost, 44, of Bellingham, Wash., for instance, bikes about 2.5 miles to and from her job at the Western Washington University. She participates in the city’s Smart Trips program, which rewards those who replace drive-alone trips with walking or cycling with discounts at local businesses and quarterly cash prizes.

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The state isn’t the only Washington that has become more bike-friendly. In 2000, our nation’s capital only had three miles of bike lanes, a number that has grown to more than 50 today. During that same period, the percentage of people who bike to work has more than doubled, giving the District the fifth-largest share of bike commuters among the 70 largest U.S. cities, according to the latest census estimates.

“How many people do you know who look forward to their daily commute?” asks Pete Beers, 47, a software engineer from Falls Church, Va., who bikes 14 miles to his job in D.C. every day. “I love mine.”

Cyclists with shorter commutes benefit from Capital Bikeshare, a bicycle sharing system started by the District and neighboring Arlington County (Va.) in September 2010. For $75 a year, members get a bike helmet ($16 extra) and can ride any of the more than 1,500 bikes located at more than 150 docking stations across the region, for 30 minutes at a time. (Longer trips cost extra -- $1.50 for the next 30 minutes, $3 for another 30 minutes.) “It’s helped make biking in D.C. less of a fringe activity,” says Greg Billing, outreach and advocacy coordinator of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “Now I see people riding in their suits and heels.”

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Similar programs exist in Boston, Denver and Miami. New York City, Chicago and San Francisco are expected to launch their own versions soon.

“Bikeshare is engaging populations that would not have been cyclists before,” says Carolyn Szczepanski, director of communications for the League of American Bicyclists.

At the federal level, commuters got another incentive in 2009 to trade four wheels for two – tax-free reimbursement for up to $20 per month in qualifying bike transportation costs (such as accessories, replacement parts and maintenance). To qualify for the benefit, employees must ride their bicycles for a substantial portion of their commute at least three days a week. The money is added to your income or distributed as a separate check, and you don’t have to pay federal or state taxes on it.

CALCULATOR: How Much Can You Save Bicycling to Work?

Gear for Bike Commuters

Riding your bike to and from work may require additional accessories not necessary for more leisurely rides in your neighborhood on the weekend. Consider:

* A helmet ($30-$60) to keep you safe. Some states (and common sense) mandate helmets. It’s an especially important safeguard when riding in congested rush-hour traffic.

* Lights ($35) to make sure you will always be seen, even if it’s early in the morning or late at night. Get a white LED light to attach to the front of your bike, and a red, blinking light to attach to your seat post or helmet.

* A rack or panniers ($40-$80), either of which can attach to the back of your bike to carry files, a change of clothes or other personal items to and from the office.

* A lock ($15 to $30) for your ride’s safekeeping. Thieves can easily cut through a coil or chain lock, so we recommend buying a steel U-lock.

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