One hour vs four minutes

Work to drive, drive to work.

The average American works at least an hour per day to pay for costs related to owning and driving a car. The purchase and care of a mid priced commuter bike costs about 4 minutes of labor a day.

James Schwartz at the Urban Country figures car ownership costs the average American about two hours a day — that works out to about 500 hours each year to buy, insure, and maintain a car. Compare with the 20% recommended for transportation costs by financial planners and the 13% the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says Americans spend on transportation (2009 numbers).

Join Zipcar and get $25 in free driving!

The difference between an hour and two hours might seem like a lot — but compare that against the four minutes Schwartz figures we spend to buy and care for a $1500 commuter bicycle.

I take public transportation everyday. Today was an exception — my wife has some business to take care of, so we took a car from ZipCar in Santa Cruz and carpooled together to my office. The trip in the car (a brand new Honda Insight hybrid) was about a half hour shorter than my usual bike + bus + train + bike commute and I enjoyed the time with my wife, but I missed two meetings that I usually do on the phone during the commute, and I also skipped my usual morning workday preparation.

Still, for those days when we need an extra car, ZipCar is super handy. In the SF Bay Area, ZipCar has cars at several locations throughout San Francisco, at various East Bay neighborhoods from Berkeley to Oakland, in Hayward at CSU East Bay, several locations in and around Stanford University and Palo Alto, and at Santa Clara University. Besides the several ZipCar locations on the UC-Santa Cruz campus, ZipCar now has several ZipCar locations in the city of Santa Cruz.

ZipCar claims that each of their cars takes about 15 privately owned vehicles off of the road, and ZipCar drivers tend to drive much less. They make a lot of sense if you occasionally need a car for a few hours out of a day. After the membership application (all they need is a credit card and clean driving record), there’s absolutely no membership hassle. You reserve a car online via ZipCar’s website or their iPhone app or Android app, then show up with your ZipCar smart card to electronically unlock your vehicle. You get 180 miles each time you use a ZipCar, and ZipCar pays for the gas and the insurance.

If you click here to join ZipCar I get some driving credit added to my account. I think I’d still be enthusiastic about ZipCar even without the promotional credit, but still, I need to let you know about it.


  1. There’s also many locally run non-profit (and some co-op or for-profit) community run carsharing organizations. In the SF bay area, you’ve got City Carshare. The CarSharing Association (carshare dot org) is comprised of member organizations that adhere to a code of ethics as well, which the big players such as ZipCar and UCarshare are not members of.

  2. That’s a good point to counter the ‘biking (public transit) takes too long” argument.  Unfortunately, most people can’t really just choose to work less and bike more. Either way you are still trading time for money.

  3. I like you’re good feed back. Thanks share this good post.
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  4. I wonder how much of my (or a statistically average peron’s) workday it takes to own a car even though I bike & take the train to work?

    Worth knowing since there’s a lot more of us living car-lite than car-free.

  5. The numbers vary wildly, mostly depending on what kind of car you have, what kind of insurance, how you repair it, etc. We’re car-lite here, just using one 2008 sedan and not commuting with it, and the costs are very minimal. A few hundred each for insurance, repairs and maintenance, and gas over the year. I did the math from all the expenses and it comes to about 30-35 cents per mile for me. Cycling was actually almost equivalent, but I also have a small fleet of bikes, and ride through the winter, and put on 5,000 miles a year between the bikes.

    Certainly, someone buying a new Lexus every few years would have a much different cost to owning a car though.

  6. I have a paid for car. I pay insurance, registration fees, maintenance is currently running a few hundred dollars per year, and of course I need to feed that beast.

  7.  don’t forget that depreciation is one of the larger costs of owning a car, but easy to overlook.

  8. I used to use FlexCar before they were bought by ZipCar. It was like a
    safety blanket while I was getting used to not having a car. I gradually
    began to think about my time in a different way, and began to think of a
    car as the transportation of last resort–when the speed of the vehicle
    trumped all other considerations.

  9. Amazing that you only pay a few hundred dollars a year for insurance. Before I ditched my ’98 Acura last October, I was paying just over $2,000 a year for insurance. I guess living right in the city (and being Canadian) makes the difference. When I lived an hour outside of Toronto I paid about half of what I paid in the city, even though I drove a lot more than when I moved to Toronto.

  10. James, I think it has to do with what I chose for insurance. It’s just two adults with good histories, I put the deductibles higher than average, it’s not a fancy car, and I pay one lump sum yearly which eliminated the extra service fees they would add for monthly invoices. They dropped the rates a lot when I told them we don’t use the car to commute too (she walks 5 mins, I bike 20 mins). In a small city, we pay about $10 in parking fees over the year, but I know big cities and college areas charge upwards of $2k for that!

  11. True. I did factor that into my mileage charge but forgot to mention it. It’s much less of a factor when you buy at $10k and run it (close) to the ground than buying new $25k cars every few years which sell for much less if you sell them a few years later.

  12. You’re totally right that owning a car costs more, and the commute is overall less productive for many of us. I used to bike – BART – bike, which took 45 min. to an hour each way, and now drive to work, which takes about 15 minutes. As much as I liked not owning a car, and the lower cost, I like even more having an extra hour to hour and a half in my day. It makes the difference between staying a little later at work to finish up a project, going to the gym/squeezing in a workout at night, or enjoying an extra hour of time with friends post-work. I still use my bike to get around town after work/on the weekends, but I love my new commute much more.To me, the quality of life improvement has been well worth the cost.

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