With gas prices seemingly permanently inflated and "economic malaise" looking more and more like our new reality, who wouldn't jump at the opportunity to save some dough while blasting through traffic on a two-wheeled adrenaline rush?
That's the pitch of many a motorcycle salesperson, but let's analyze it closely before getting our hands on the throttle.
Can a car commuter really save money by switching to a motorcycle?
The answer is Yes.... and No.
Each trip on a bike is certainly less expensive than on a car, but a few complications get in the way of penny-pinching nirvana.
First off, you may need to invest significant up-front costs before saving a dime.
Next, most bike commuters are unable to give up their car entirely, due to weather restrictions or luggage-carrying needs. This means that bike commuting leads to extra insurance and extra maintenance, negating some of the savings.
Finally, saving money on a motorcycle depends on a set of tradeoffs you may not be willing to make. Can you settle for the adrenaline rush of an underpowered scooter, or are you dead-set on the roar of a power-hungry beast? The answer to that question, among others, determine whether you can be one of the few that manage to save money while commuting by bike.
Check out our in-depth analysis below, and then try out our personalized calculator at right to see just how much you can save — or not.
New bike commuters often overlook expenses associated with taking up this hobby. And, while purchasing a bike is the most significant of upfront costs, it's only just one of many.
Obviously, the biggest up-front cost you'll face is the cost of the bike itself. And if you're committed to saving as much money as possible, this is the best place to start.
Buying a used bike is one of the best ways to save money but long-term maintenance costs must be considered as well. A savvy buyer will get the best of both worlds by buying used but demanding a thorough inspection from a trusted mechanic before committing. Keep in mind, however, that a used bike is likely to need immediate repairs in order to make it road-worthy.
Sacrificing power in the name of fuel-economy is probably the next most important factor in saving money up front. Bikes run the gamut from light, fuel-efficient models that skimp on power and comfort but enable you to recoup your investment as quickly as possible to fast, powerful gas-hogs that will make your heart race, but will probably never pay for themselves at the pump.
At the most cost-conscious end of the spectrum, gas-sipping scooters lack some zip, but their cost and fuel economy are hard to beat. A one-year old, lightly-used Yamaha Zuma, for example, with its tiny 49cc two-stroke engine, can be found for around $1,500. Gas mileage can easily reach triple digits. Speed tops out at around 30 mph.
A more powerful sport bike — built for speed at the expense of some fuel efficiency and comfort — offers the thrill of riding a "racing motorcycle" and can still be had inexpensively. The Kawasaki Ninja 250, for example, is widely recognized as an easy-to-handle, stylish bike that provides plenty of power without breaking the bank. A recent-year model can be had for under $3,000 and can get up to 70mpg. Sport bikes will raise your insurance premium, though, so be aware of this hidden cost before settling on one.
Larger cruiser bikes satisfy the most power-hungry rider, but should not be confused with the fuel-efficient bikes above. The Honda Shadow 750, for example, is reliable and regarded as a good bike for riders new to such power, but at a road-tested 40mpg, it's not necessarily a gas-saver. A two-year old Shadow sells for around $5,000.
Being seduced by high-end, snazzy gear is one of the quickest ways to chew up the cost savings of commuting by motorcycle. Of course you'll need a sturdy DOT-approved helmet and a tough, breathable jacket that will provide some measure of safety as well as protection from the elements. Gloves are a must-have as well.
But, beyond that it becomes a tradeoff between safety, style, and cost. Sturdy and comfortable riding boots can limit fatigue on a long journey, but can be quite expensive. Ditto for riding pants. An all-weather riding suit will enable you to commute during cold and rainy months, but can easily cost over $1,000.
A new rider interested in saving money should be able to shop around and find a jacket, gloves and helmet for under $300.
A new rider will want to take a safety course from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF). Learning effective safety techniques is the best reason to take one of these classes, but a nifty side benefit is that it enables you to lock in a significant discount on insurance. The cost of the course — up to $300 — will be more than offset by the insurance discount.
Most new riders hope to recoup their initial investment over the long-haul as they save tons of money on gas. Mileage is better on a bike, no doubt, but it's only part of the story.
This is where the big savings could come in. A scooter that gets 100mpg can save nearly $1000 per year on gas, assuming it's used in place of a 15mpg car for a thirty mile commute 200 days per year at $3 for a gallon of gas. But what happens when you change that to a 30mpg car, 100 days per year of motorcycle commuting, a 10 mile commute and gas at $2.60 per gallon? The savings disappear entirely.
Most motorcycle commuters are unable to rid themselves entirely of their cars. Which means that you'll need to pay for motorcycle insurance on top of your car insurance. That's a shame since motorcycle insurance is typically less expensive than car insurance.
Insurance can range from $50 to $300 per month based on a dizzying array of factors including the type of insurance purchased, the bike model, your driving record and age, and the deductible allowance.
Motorcycle maintenance tends to be less expensive than car maintenance. For one thing, many bikers do their own minor repairs, finding the best price on parts and saving all of the labor costs. If you're keeping your car, you'll need to maintain both, of course, but car maintenance costs can be greatly reduced by limiting mileage.
In particular, tire replacement is one of the most significant components of motorcycle maintenance. Many new riders don't realize how quickly tires will wear out on a bike versus a car. Tires can be found online at a discount, though they can be fairly tricky to install correctly.
The Cheboygan County Sheriff's Department pegs motorcycle maintenance at about 10% lower than car maintenance, but that can be further reduced by doing your own minor repairs. Figure on a savings of no more than $200 per year, depending on bike type, miles commuted and whether or not you're willing to do your own minor repairs.
The Bottom Line
Saving money while commuting by motorcycle sounds too good to be true. And, in most cases, it is. A few trial runs with our calculator will convince you that only the most cost-conscious can make it work.
Of course, the calculator doesn't figure in how much fun it is to ride to work everyday. And, for many bike commuters, that's the deciding factor.