Active Travel Savings

Active Travel Savings

After tax a car is going to cost, on average, 20% of someone's monthly income, compared to just 0.6% if opting to bike or walk.


I think most people, at some point, have an appreciation of just how lousy exhaust fumes are for our health and indeed for the planet. That appreciation might be fleeting, gone as quickly as a speeding white van with a dodgy exhaust spluttering fumes that choke your lungs as it passes you on the street. Or it might be omnipresent because you or someone you know has developed a health condition that is directly linked to air pollution. Pollution in Scotland is terrible. When I was researching some of the content for this article, Fife's Mossmorran Gas Works was flaring. Burning a flame so bright I could see it 10 miles away from my flat in Leith, this can only be a bad thing. Of Scotland's 10 most polluted streets, Edinburgh is home to 4 of them [1] , with Queensferry Road recorded to be nearly 30% over the legal limit of nitrogen dioxide [2] . I bring this up because in spite of all the evidence, all the indicators that it's terrible for our health and poses considerable risk to the environment, people still opt to commute by car. Thanks to the convenience afforded to us by the industrial revolution, once a journey is more than a mile in length the status quo dictates that this journey must happen by car. The car is king for all travel according to the 2016 National Travel Survey, and its power isn't even remotely challenged until journeys start reaching the 250+ mile mark (and even then it still holds the majority). [3]

View from Oban, taken on a trip in Vandalf last Saturday.

View from Oban, taken on a trip in Vandalf last Saturday.

For transparency I want you to know that I too contribute to the polluting status quo. I own a 20-year-old Mazda Bongo campervan, it burns diesel and probably not all that effectively. I use it a few times a year for exploring Scotland, but mainly it's for visiting my inlaws who live in a part of Fife that's not easy to get to. The rest of the time, it sits unused, lying dormant until we decide we want to go see some country. We're looking to get rid of Vandalf - Vandalf the Blue, he arrives precisely when he means to - soon, as we can't justify the environmental cost any more, and with how infrequently it's used it's starting to become unjustifiable financially too. It's this latter point on finances that I want to focus on in this post. I firmly believe that the environmental cost of city car travel is too significant, but as that doesn't seem to be convincing the majority, I'm bringing a different argument to the table. The argument that city car travel is stupendously expensive and a waste of your money.

How much does City Travel Cost?

I'm going to examine the costs of four modes of transport for getting around within a city: car, bus, bike, and foot. I'll look at both the initial capital required and the ongoing monthly costs for a year. Before we get stuck in, I'd like to make it clear that these figures are based on a couple of assumptions:

  • people want to buy things new,
  • and people buy more than they need.

Initial Costs

Let us start with the amounts of money people will need to part with to get access to the 4 modes of transport readily available in a city like Edinburgh.

Car Costs

  • Provisional Licence, £32
  • Lessons, 45 hours at £20 a lesson, £900[4]
  • Test, £25 (theory) + £62 (practical), £87
  • Car, hire purchase deposit, £4097.10[5]
  • Insurance, £485[6]

Total to join the car owner club: £5,571.10

Bus Costs

  • Bus pass, £53 (monthly)[7]

Total to become a hop-on-hop-off bus passenger: £53

Bike Costs*

  • New bike, £500
  • Lock, £50
  • Helmet, £30
  • Lights, £90
  • Hi-viz, £60
  • Gloves, £30
  • Patch kit for repairs, £5
  • Cycling proficiency course, free

Total to become a cyclist: £765 (*Note: these prices vary a lot, and are based on what I would pay to get into cycling, I might do a 'my kit' post in the future).

Walking Cost

  • Compass, just kidding, we're focussed on city travelling.

Total to become a city wanderer: £0

So right off the bat, one thing is clear, becoming a member of the motorised vehicle gang is expensive. Before even considering a car and the associated costs with maintaining it a person will need to invest, on average ~£1,500. For that amount of money, you could get yourself a bike and all the associated gear (that I would buy) twice over. Unsurprisingly, getting around by foot is the most affordable, and bus travel isn't too bad either! Now for the ongoing costs.

Monthly Costs

According to Motoring Research, a car can cost a person ~£380[8] a month (assuming financing). This includes fuel, maintenance, parking charges, etc. A bus pass stays pretty consistent at £53 a month. A bike might need maintenance, and a Spring service is a good idea, £12.50 a month. Feet do need shoes, and if you walk a lot - like I hope this blog inspires you to - you'll walk shoes until they're in pieces. I recently retired a lovely pair of Scarpa walking shoes and bought a new pair of Merrel's for £120, so let us say £12 a month. To put these figures into perspective, the average salary in Edinburgh is ~£28,000[9]. After tax a car is going to cost, on average, 20% of someone's monthly income, compared to just 0.6% if opting to bike or walk! 20% is a painful amount to be spending on a car that spends most of its time as street furniture.

Year One and Beyond

The following chart illustrates how much each mode of transport costs: to start, their annual outgoings, cost of those combined, and the first 3 years.

Comic Sans for how laughably ridiculous car costs are.

Comic Sans for how laughably ridiculous car costs are.

In 3 years a person could spend almost £20,000 to operate a car. Let that number sink in. For £20,000 you could buy yourself and 10 of your mates bikes, form a bike gang, ride around singing Gary Glitter's 1974 hit 'Leader of the Gang (I Am)' collecting litter and still have £12,500 left over (who are we kidding, that £12,500 is going straight on Glam Rock attire to kit out the gang we're forming). Or, seeing as we're on the topic of finances, let's say we put all the money we could spend on a car into a balanced risk stocks and shares ISA, and we keep topping up that ISA with the savings from not having a car. In 20 years, you could be sitting on a nest egg of £170,000![10] I did the maths, your gang can be 85 strong and be fully kitted out in 70s Glam Rock garb. (Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor, any decision you take based on my numbers is at your own risk, but if you do start a glam rock bike gang, hit me up!)

I had no clue how much always commuting by car could cost. I've never been a car enthusiast. I've always been a bus user, and as you know, this year I've weighed in heavily on active travel. These numbers weren't challenging to figure out, it just took a bit of time and a spreadsheet. However, I am staggered to discover that so many people choose to spend their money this way! Imagine each month you filled the car up with £380 in cash and could see it combust in the engine. £380 a month is a lot of money, especially when that's on top of everything else people have to pay: rent/mortgage, utilities, food, care for dependants, leisure, the list goes on. Life is expensive. When just looking at the numbers, opting to travel by car when the journey is in town is a financially bad idea.

Is it more than just numbers?

Absolutely. I don't doubt that for some people living in Edinburgh, owning a car is critical for the way they live or work. But a significant portion of society, as far as I can tell, own a car because everyone else does. I'd argue that for most of that portion of society car ownership is an unnecessary expense. Cars are said to grant their owners freedom, but I think they entrap them financially. When I walk to work, steadily moving past single occupancy cars, I don't see drivers free to roam the world. I see people in a car they don't yet fully own, caught up in the stress of driving a car, on their way to their jobs where they work hard, to earn money to pay for the polluting box that got them there. I walk, I bike, and if the weather is making any of these options dangerous, I'll get a bus. For the cost of some calories and time, I get to save financially. It's a no brainer. If you're currently commuting by car anything less than 10 miles, run the numbers yourself, see how much you could be saving.

Next week is part 2 in my Just Eat Edinburgh Cycle Hire series, where I'll be exploring the area around the Castle Terrace station. In a fortnight I'll be posting a discussion on compromise, looking at how I've adapted other things in my life to adopt an active travel lifestyle.

Thanks for reading.


Castle Terrace Station

Castle Terrace Station

St Andrew's House Station (1/51*)

St Andrew's House Station (1/51*)