If you can't afford a car, or want to use it less to conserve expensive gas and reduce wear on your engine, find yourself a used bicycle for running errands around town. With a little bit of work, you can create a bunch of cargo space on a tiny budget. You will have very little upkeep expenses and get in a little fitness on the side.
First, Get a Used Bicycle
Used bicycles can be found everywhere in paper or internet classifieds, for sale in thrift stores, and listed on index cards at your neighborhood bulletin boards. You can often find a used bike for free from friends, family, neighbors or on Freecycle.org.
With most used bicycle purchases, you will need a bike mechanic to do a little maintenance: you could also learn how to do your own with a bicycle repair book (I found a bicycle repair book at a used bookstore for $4).
What kind of bike works best for errands? I like my beach cruiser - it's stylish and sturdy, has one fixed gear so it's easy to maintain, and has a big cushy seat. It's also not a huge target for theft like an expensive carbon-fiber rig. If you like bicycle touring you can look into a road bike. Wilderness riders will be most comfortable on a mountain bike. Hybrid bikes combine road and trail capabilities. Also consider folding bikes (sold at RV supply stores), electric bikes, or an old kid's bike that you can still fit onto.
I prefer to fly under the radar with a solid looking inexpensive bike. I've had bikes stolen before, and looking after a super fly ride can make one paranoid. Get a beater bike, lock it up with a cheap chain, and don't worry about it. :)
My Bicycle and Cargo Trailer Case Study
I found a very clean, barely used beach cruiser bicycle in my local thrift store. It was in perfect condition except that the tires were flat. The asking price on the bike was $70 and I negotiated the price down to $55. I loaded the bike into my SUV and drove it home.
Since I am not mechanically intelligent, I called a few bike sellers in nearby towns. Fixing my flats cost around $30.
At that point, I had a working bicycle for toodling around on, but it wasn't what I had in mind for running errands and buying groceries. I wanted a cargo trailer for that. I didn't want to set up panniers or ride the bike wearing a backpack. I wanted a towable that I could pull in the back and make for a stable 'tricycle' type ride.
After looking on Craigslist.org for the keywords 'bike trailer" I found several child carrier trailer options for around $50 - $100. Those would have worked fine for me, until I realized that my friend's landlord had a child carrier sitting outside rotting by her shed. When I asked my friend to ask his landlord if I could buy that, she said I could have it for free! Score!
It was dirty and sun faded, but since it was intended for groceries and not children, I didn't care. I got the trailer tires refilled for free at a bike shop, and hooked the connector arm to the back of my bike. I bought two bicycle chain/locks and one tire repair kit at a local dollar store. For $87 I was well set up for local errands (add four more dollars if you count the used bike repair book I picked up).
I can fit almost anything I need in my child trailer, and I have the added bonus of having people drive carefully around me (since it looks like I might have a child on board). When I buy groceries, I simply plop my bags of food in the trailer seating area and go. I even have room to tote my dog around!
I can do more if I wanted more cargo space. I could buy front and rear baskets (easy to find used) and even look for panniers (harder to find used - check bicycle forum classifies or save your money to buy a good new set). I could wear a courier bag (great for biking with your laptop) or even add a backpack (which I find unwieldy, but your mileage may vary).
Budget for Your Errand Bike Set Up
I'd suggest laying out no more than $250 for a used bicycle/child trailer combination; you can probably do much better than that if you look around. A lot of people have older kids that have outgrown their child trailers, and the parents are really happy to unload the now-useless trailers to anyone who asks nicely. And as of this writing, Amazon.com has a very nice new child trailer for $70 that comes with free shipping to your house. That's a screaming deal! The reviews for this model are pretty favorable.
The savings from this kind of inexpensive outfit can be astounding. Recall that local driving gets the worst gas mileage in cars. At this writing, it costs $70 to fill my SUV tank. After a few months of local errands, the bike has paid for itself! It's a sustainable, green, healthy and affordable way to do your in-town runs. Highly recommended!
Helpful Products from Amazon.com
InStep Take 2 Double BicycleTrailer
Bike Repair & Maintenance For Dummies