First, of course, you need a bike. If your bike has been sitting in the garage gathering dust, check it and make sure the tires are properly inflated and the brakes work. If you’re looking to buy a bike, I suggest getting a practical, comfortable bike with gears, lights, and a rear rack and/or front basket to carry things.
You certainly don’t need the most expensive full-suspension mountain bike or a lightweight carbon fiber racing bike. In fact, these bikes are often more appropriate for super-specialized riding (i.e., racing), not all-around practicality. Beach cruisers, while popular, tend to be limited in terms of gearing, so if you live in a hilly area (as I do) they’re not very useful. Get a bike with regular “platform” pedals, so you don’t need special shoes to ride (“clipless” pedals are great for racing, but they require special shoes).
Second, set a goal for yourself. A good goal to get you started is to substitute your bike for one short car trip per week.
Third, find your address on a map, and draw a one-mile radius around it. Find all the places you go within that one-mile radius (school, library, bank, post office, grocery store, friend’s house, park, etc.). Then scout less traveled side streets, if possible, to make your cycling more comfortable. If you’ve got bike lanes or bike paths around you, use them.
Now, a word about bicycling in traffic. Some parts of your short trip will involve bicycling in traffic. It’s actually safer than most people assume, but you should ride defensively, be aware of your surroundings, and know the rules of the road (the LA County Bicycle Coalition website has an excellent overview). In California, bicyclists have all the rights and responsibilities of any other vehicle on the road. That means by law you have every bit as much right to the road as cars do and you have to obey the traffic laws, just like cars do.
There’s a huge debate among bicyclists about helmets that I think is ultimately time-consuming and fruitless. In California, all bicyclists under the age of 18 have to wear them. I usually wear one, especially if I’m going someplace where traffic is heavy. I think being visible, paying attention, and following the rules of the road are much more important for safety than helmets, but when I wear one it’s nice to know I’ve got the protection it affords.
Once you start substituting your bike for some of your short car trips, you’ll enjoy the exercise it provides, appreciate the little things in your community that you miss in a car, and know that you’re doing your part to reduce carbon emissions and pollution. Oh, and you’ll be saving money on gas, too.
Best of all, you’ll be having fun. So, get out there and ride!