Would getting an ebike make financial sense?
December 12, 2019 6:19 AM   Subscribe

Would getting an ebike make financial sense for me? I have a 2017 Subaru Outback that I won't be able to replace for at least 13 more years. My commute is 3 miles each way and that's the main use. Say I spend $3,000 on an ebike and use it for 8 months of the year. Obviously I would save some on gas and I can figure that part out myself, but how much would it extend the life of the car? It seems like a good move but I'm afraid I'm just looking for excuses to buy an expensive toy I can't otherwise justify.
posted by HotToddy to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Short-haul trips are hard on cars, but that probably only matters if you intend to drive a vehicle until it’s no longer economic to keep it. If you otherwise mostly drive it longer distances then you might be able to shift from heavy duty oil change intervals to "normal" oil change intervals (10k miles usually) which would save a fair bit over the lifetime of the vehicle.

Three miles is a short commute. You could buy an ordinary bicycle for $500 and see it as an opportunity to get some automatic exercise into your day?

Or: buy an e-bike for the same reason. Daily exercise that just happens every day regardless of whatever else you do is fantastic for your health, to the extent that the last study I saw suggested that commute time on a bike was effectively "free" - riders gained an extra hour of average lifetime for every hour of commute time.
posted by pharm at 6:29 AM on December 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

Do it. More time outside and in motion extends your health and happiness considerably which is priceless. This is true even for mild short exercise but you also don't have to use in pedal assist mode all the time.

Also, apart from the car-specific benefits pharm mentions you'll get lower insurance rates if you drive less.
posted by veery at 6:47 AM on December 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

There’s no telling how much it would extend the life of the car, if at all. Cars don’t last longer when they’re not driven—lubricants and gas deterioriate. You could get rear-ended or t-boned tomorrow and it might bend the frame to the point of legally totalling the car. An expensive part might shit the bed unexpectedly early.

A 3-mile commute is a 15-minute ride at a moderate pace. I agree with pharm that an inexpensive but decent regular bicycle would be just as effective. I’m not asking for an explanation of why you can spend $3K on an e-bike but not afford to replace a car for over a decade, but you should think about why you believe that is so, and come up with a better middle way. At the very least, maybe consider renting or borrowing a bike, and doing the commute for a month to see if it’s a feasible long-term option for you. Otherwise, I don’t see how you will not be digging the hypothetical hole deeper by having an e-bike AND a car that you supposedly can’t afford to replace.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:48 AM on December 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Uh, I was kind of a downer there, but let me just add that as long as you keep up the maintenance schedule, it would be completely reasonable to expect that your car will last 13 years, even if you drive it all the time and have a fender-bender or two. You just don’t want to let the car sit for days/weeks at a time.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:51 AM on December 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

You are talking about a 1000 miles a year or 13,000 miles over the projected lifetime of the car. Depending on your other usage that might mean the difference between 12 and 13 years of use. You are going to save somewhere around $1000 in gas annually though which is not insignificant.

However I find that I drive more when I take my car rather than bike when commuting because it is so easy to swing by someplace after work. So if you are like me the savings could be more significant.

And once you have the e-bike you may find yourself using it for short trips on the weekend.
posted by Mitheral at 6:59 AM on December 12, 2019

That’s a good point, and to present another example of the “driving a lot” variety, I have a 75-mile round-trip commute (nearly all by highway, thankfully) so in order to try to economize where I may, I try to take care of all my errands during the week, on the way home, so that I’m not making extra trips on the weekend. It’s easier to go 3 miles out of my way than to drive 7 miles there and 7 miles back from my house.

It wouldn’t hurt to noodle on how your average day and week of transportation would look if you commuted by bike. Maybe plan for Saturday mornings to be the day where you take the car and make one big haul for the week, or conversely, put some carrying capacity on the bike and plan to pick up this or that every few days. Just think about your hauling requirements and how you could optimize it to save mileage.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:15 AM on December 12, 2019

Seconding do it.

Although as mentioned, if money is that big an issue, $2k can get a nice road bike, or a not-particularly-nice e-bike. A real road bike is about the most efficient/environmentally-friendly form of transportation that exists, and will contain far fewer conflict minerals than an e-bike in that range (I can dig up a citation if you want, but the more efficient batteries enabling the current proliferation of cheap electric vehicles come with a significant human/environmental cost). Plus road bikes are a lot easier to self-service.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:28 AM on December 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

It seems like a good move but I'm afraid I'm just looking for excuses to buy an expensive toy I can't otherwise justify.

As someone who went through the same mental gymnastics for an expensive ebike for a 3 mile commute, I decided in the end that I was trying to justify an expensive toy, that I wasn't even sure I would use as much as I was trying to justify.

The problem you have here is that ebikes range from $500 to $6000. From a utility standpoint (make bike riding easier and faster), there isn't a huge difference between the two ranges. All the inbetweens are things like it "makes it feel nicer," "has a nicer look," "has nicer accessories," "can carry more stuff," and "has longer range."

Those things could matter for a 3 mile commute, but it gets very expensive from a "utility gained, dollar spent per mile" perspective. Instead of the $5k bike I lusted after I ended up buying a $650 e-bike that did everything I needed it to and rode it for two years to learn what I liked and didn't like about it (hate riding in rain and cold, so my time estimates were off).
posted by Karaage at 7:36 AM on December 12, 2019

If your commute is relatively flat, I’d try the commute on a regular bike during nice days and see how that feels. If you haven’t been riding regularly, a short ride will be harder, but with conditioning and a slow pace, assuming there aren’t major hills, that should be short enough so you can arrive without being too sweaty. Plus it’s short enough that I’m not sure an ebike saves you that much time.

You could sell the regular bike for close to what you paid for it if it doesn’t work out.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:40 AM on December 12, 2019

If you are in the US, the IRS mileage rate of about 58 cents/mile is a decent rough approximation of the costs to drive including gas, maintenance, etc. (The real math gets more complicated, because some of your car costs are really per mile, like gas, and others are more fixed, like insurance which stays the same whether you drive to work today or not.)

If you used that estimate and reduced your driving by 6 miles/day for five days/week for 8 months/year, you might save in the range of $500-600 per year by bicycling. Again, the real math isn't so simple, and you need to factor in the cost of bicycling (eg maintenance, new clothes and accessories), but this at least suggests the order of magnitude of the money involved -- there are savings but not enormous. Also, if you have to pay for parking at work, the savings would be larger.

I doubt that this would make much difference in the lifespan of the car since we are talking about relatively few miles.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:54 AM on December 12, 2019

Team Go For It
To make a Subaru or any car last 20 years, wax it and wash the underside occasionally, keep an eye out for body rust. Along with other regular car maintenance, like oil changes every 4 - 5K miles (per Click&Clack), coolant vigilance. Check forums to see if using fancier synthetic oil will help.
It won't be an even, dollar for dollar trade-off, but fewer miles is better for the car, riding a bike is good for you. Allow any money guilt to motivate you to use the bike.
posted by theora55 at 7:56 AM on December 12, 2019

Another bit of math you might throw in: look into per-mile or other low-drive insurance. I work from home and drive maybe 50 miles a month, so I use Metromile. We've never needed to file a claim so I can't speak to whether that's any better or worse than the traditional insurers but they've been fine to deal with on minor billing issues or technical problems with the tracker dongle.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:00 AM on December 12, 2019

I think you should get a cheaper model e-bike and try it until the money you would spend on gas pays for the bike. If you love it, keep saving and get a fancier model. If you hate it, at least it paid for itself.

The little box you plug in your car that registers mileage and safe driving action might be worth it if you rarely drive, for the discount. My sister tried it and if she had reduced her driving on the order you're talking about, it would have been a significant savings.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:04 AM on December 12, 2019

Team Don't do it!

You somehow have $3k to blow on a toy to move your ass walking distance but can't afford to replace your 3-yr-old car for 13 years? I think you should put $2,600 in a Roth IRA and buy a nice human-powered commuter bicycle for $400 - you can probably get a sweet deal on a new one from a local bike shop with some inventory to move before the spring season. Or just stick that $2,400 in a savings account at Ally as a fix-it fund for the Subie, because you might need it earlier than you think you will.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 8:06 AM on December 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Cars don’t last longer when they’re not driven—lubricants and gas deterioriate.
Maybe in perfect condition they don't but if you aren't driving it everyday, then the expensive but minor maintenance you have to do for a daily driver you don't have to do. I have personal experience at this, I drive my car less than 1000 miles a year and other than 1 oil change in that period, I have done nothing to it other than put in gas for the last 3 years. It needs more work than that - an alignment and new engine mounts and other minor stuff that doesn't bother me when I drive it because I'm not using it everyday.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:10 AM on December 12, 2019

I was a year round cycle commuter in Boston - AND I owned a Subaru Imprezza Outback Sport...

With respect to savings on Gas, Parking, and TIME - cycle commuting was fantastic. Over 3 and a half years, I paid for the following:
Two bikes (one was cut off a porch and stolen) - $1500
Winter / Rain Gear ( Goretex pants, jacket, ski mask, gloves, booties) - $450
Being towed twice because I forgot to move my car for street cleaning - $300
Car insurance (I switched to the <7> Subway fare (I largely stopped using the subway, which means I actually saved more than what is posted) - $100
I did my own maintenance.

I biked absolutely everywhere - except for weekend out-of-city excursions and grocery store trips.

My subaru lasted 16 years and 329K miles, with only 10K miles being driven during those 3 years.
My current forrester is at 10 years and is at 120K miles. The current one is apparently slowly seeping oil and will likely not last me 200K miles.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:15 AM on December 12, 2019

I cycle to work almost every day. So I'm all in favor of riding a bike to work, but you need to be realistic about the benefits of riding an e-bike. The purported benefits would be some combination of shorter commute time and arriving at work fresher.

If you're riding in traffic with stoplights, your commute time won't really change. Stoplights impose a coarse granularity on your net speed. On my own 7-mile commute, the time difference between riding hard and riding leisurely is…4 minutes.

"Arriving at work fresher" is harder to quantify, but I don't think you will really work up that much of a sweat over that distance unless it's hot, in which case you will get sweaty no matter what.
posted by adamrice at 8:21 AM on December 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

As a point of info, I'm not sure Mitheral's gas savings calculation is correct. If your car gets 25 mpg and your commute is 6 miles * 22 working days a month, your total miles commuted is 22*6 = 132, which is about 5.4 gallons of gas a month. At $3.00/gallon, you're talking about ~$16.20 a month or ~$200/year. Maybe I'm missing something, though?

If you're talking purely in "saving the Subaru" terms, it's probably a wash. But others have pointed out, there are myriad benefits that might make biking worth it. I have a 7-mile commute in West Lafayette, Indiana; I ride a non-electric bike about 70% of the time and love it.
posted by griseus at 8:34 AM on December 12, 2019

Response by poster: Hi, sorry I haven’t been able to check back in until now. A regular bike is not workable because a) the commute is extremely hilly, like get-off-and-walk-the-bike hilly, and b) I need to be able to get home to walk my dog at lunch and a regular bike takes way too long. About the money—I’m not sure what’s confusing about this—I have a regular budget item for “new car” but the goal won’t be met for 13 years. Meanwhile I do have $3000 now and if it would make the car last longer then maybe it would make economic sense to use it to buy a bike.
posted by HotToddy at 8:58 AM on December 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: P.S. This is also why walking isn’t feasible—I have to get home and back over lunch.
posted by HotToddy at 9:02 AM on December 12, 2019

get-off-and-walk-the-bike hilly
There's no such thing! But are you sure an e-bike will do much better? I'm not.

For one thing, Class-1 ebikes don't go much faster than road bikes; they're usually governed to top out at 20mph assist. IME they don't do that much better on hills than traditional road bikes - during my (fairly hilly and heavily urbanized) six mile commute on my shitty Taiwanese fixed gear I average about 2mph slower than my neighbor's ebike, which . . . just doesn't add up to much time saved. I mean maybe he just goes slow, but I average about twelve miles an hour and he averages about fourteen.

If you're removing the governor or getting an ungoverned bike for higher speed, you might also consider a Vespa or motorcycle instead, my impression is that over about 25 mph you're throwing safety out the window anyway.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:43 AM on December 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I understand that your main thrust of this question is whether riding the e-bike will make your car last longer, but...

You should buy the e-bike regardless. A hilly 3 mile commute is a great use case for an e-bike. You'll get to work just as fast as driving, you won't get as sweaty as hitting those hills on a traditional bike, you'll still get some exercise on your commute which might save you time in your day in other ways. You also get the pleasure of riding a bike every day, which I promise you is substantial (as is the righteous pride of not contributing to car culture). I know many people in my hilly city with e-bikes and I've heard very few regrets.

Something that hasn't been mentioned is that a decent quality e-bike should hold its value reasonably well, so if it doesn't work out you're not out the whole $3000.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 9:56 AM on December 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another argument favoring the ebike is definitely wear-and-tear on your body - I'm pretty sure my hilly commute isn't great for my knees, long-term.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:00 AM on December 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think we should accept OPs answer that a regular bike won't cut it- everyone has different levels of ability
posted by Think_Long at 10:02 AM on December 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

I am long-time regular bike commuter and I have lived in a place that was hilly enough that it made riding unpleasant. An ebike wouldn't necessarily have been faster than a regular bike, if I could have stood to keep suffering on my regular bike. But I bet an ebike would have made the experience much more pleasant. If having an ebike will be the difference between choosing to bike and choosing to drive, then I think an ebike is worth a try.
posted by ewok_academy at 10:30 AM on December 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

O.P., get the e-bike. Don't even look back. From what you've described, it would exactly suit your needs; plus you won't be needlessly surrounded by hundreds of pounds of metal.
posted by BostonTerrier at 10:33 AM on December 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Can you rent an ebike for a week? Before you spend $3000, it would be a good idea to test if this is something you are comfortable doing every day for the next few years. You might even be able to find a dealer that will give you a deal on renting to buy. They apply the rental cost to the price if you decide to buy.
posted by JackFlash at 10:54 AM on December 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yes, get an e-bike. I love mine, bought for a 3 mile commute with 200m of climbing, and, despite being a regular cyclist before I moved to the top of that hill, my bike was out for every journey after that, and all the time. It's a huge game changer.

The only change of clothes I do for it (and I suspect you live somewhere with weather fairly similar to Britain's) is to make sure that I have some tight fitting slim leather gloves to hand whenever it's jacket weather.

In terms of budget, that $3000 seems reasonable for something solid and reliable. Something with a mid-motor and hub gears would be reliable. Looking at a decent (but UK-based*) review site, a model like this seems to fit the bill, and the bike maintenance would be cheap.

*actually run by a road cyclist who just happened to be my neighbour at the top of that steep hill.
posted by ambrosen at 10:54 AM on December 12, 2019

Get the e-bike because that sounds like a great use case for it. But in terms of cars, low mileage only gets you so far. I just got rid of a 14-year-old car with under 60k miles on it (I bike or take public transit to work; a car commute is not even a possibility) because the maintenance bills were coming due. After replacing a compressor one month and looking at needing a new fuel pump assembly the next, I decided it was no longer worth putting money into a 14-yr old car and traded it in for essentially scrap value.

Unfortunately, even with so few miles on it (but still driving at least 1-2x a week so it wasn't just sitting around) things just degraded over time. Doesn't help that the less you drive a car, the less frequently you get it washed and other maintenance things that can actually make a difference in longevity. I could have, if nothing else, gotten more for my trade-in if I got it washed more frequently (especially after the plastic cover that protected much of the bottom of the engine compartment from salt/dirt came off) and kept ahead of rust spots and life-in-the-city dings and dents. But when your car starts to feel less like a daily transportation lifeline and more of a once in a while thing, it's easier to put off or just not fix those kinds of things. [This time around I'm trying to commit to better care for the new car, but it's already proven harder than I expected to make time for car washes.]

Anyway, I say go ahead with the e-bike, but don't use any potential car savings to justify it, and maybe reconsider if using that $3k sets you back another year or two on the new car budgeting timeline, as you may not actually extend the life of the car all that much.
posted by misskaz at 11:42 AM on December 12, 2019

Speaking as someone who just sold a 16 year old car with under 140k miles on it, I agree with previous posters — not driving your car won’t do much for its lifespan. Rubber hoses and belts and gaskets, the battery, the electronics etc even the tires will all degrade whether you drive or not. Ebiking would have a number of benefits but reducing vehicle maintenance costs is not really a big one.
posted by phoenixy at 11:55 AM on December 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I would see if you can borrow or rent an e-bike and try your commute for a couple days or a week. You may find you actually hate doing that commute on a bike. If you would definitely use the e-bike, personally I think it seems worth the investment, but you'd need to be reallllly sure you'd actually use it as much as you hope.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:27 PM on December 12, 2019

I'm not sure Mitheral's gas savings calculation is correct. If your car gets 25 mpg and your commute is 6 miles * 22 working days a month, your total miles commuted is 22*6 = 132, which is about 5.4 gallons of gas a month. At $3.00/gallon, you're talking about ~$16.20 a month or ~$200/year. Maybe I'm missing something, though?

I probably slipped a divide for a multiple or vice versa; working with the American MPG vs. L/100 often bites me. On review your numbers seem right.
posted by Mitheral at 12:55 PM on December 12, 2019

Hills! Yeah, is there an ebike you can borrow or rent? Maybe your local ebike store can let you borrow one for a day or two? I'm thinking it would be good for you to do the loop to and from work on an ebike to see how long it takes first before you buy one. But, yeah, hills are an excellent use case for an ebike.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:12 PM on December 12, 2019

So it’s actually 12 miles a day, because you have to get back to walk the dog? On a v.hilly commute?

E-bike sounds perfectly reasonable to me. Why not?
posted by pharm at 2:16 PM on December 12, 2019

I have a 1996 turbo Subaru Legacy which I have owned for 8 years (why I bought it is too long a story to relate here), and because I commute by bike it only gets driven on the weekends. My mechanic is always commenting that it's still functioning -- most turbos would have given up the ghost long before. And the explanation is simply, it's not getting the mechanical wear and tear, but a weekly drive or two keeps the engine lubricated etc. I still get it serviced regularly.

I never pay for parking when I have a bike, and I don't waste time looking for a park.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:45 PM on December 12, 2019

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