Riding in traffic can be stressful for most people. Recent studies show that many people would commute by bicycle if they felt safer doing so. Not surprisingly, lack of bike-specific infrastructure (bike paths, cycle-tracks, and separated bike lanes) inhibits many of these people from riding their bikes.
While it is important (I would say even essential) that we encourage cities, counties, and other local agencies to build bike-friendly infrastructure, the reality is it’s probably going to be some time before L.A. looks like Copenhagen (I do believe it will eventually happen for both environmental and economic reasons). In the meantime, there are things you can do to use your bike for short trips and commutes.
My first bit of advice is to start slowly and gradually increase the distances you ride. Three years ago, I started riding my bike one short trip (less than 2 miles round trip) per week instead of driving my car. Usually, I would go someplace like the post office, bank, the local coffee shop, or the park. Sometimes, after dropping my car off at the mechanic’s for service, I’d ride home, and then ride my bike back later to pick up my car. If you had told me then that I’d be going virtually car-free in three years, I’d have thought you were crazy. But, gradually, I started going for longer rides, and I got some panniers to carry a couple of grocery bags, going to the grocery store for small loads once a week. Here’s the thing: there’s no right or wrong way to begin to bike commute. Do what you’re comfortable doing. You’re not training for the Tour de France. Any practical trip you make on your bike rather than driving your car is a good trip. Any time you leave your car at home, you’re doing the right thing.
Another thing to remember when you take your bike is that you may not want to take the exact same route to your destination that you take in your car. Many communities (like mine, for example) lack good bike infrastructure, like bike lanes, bike paths, or cycle tracks; and many people—especially beginning riders—are (understandably) uncomfortable riding in heavy traffic on major arterial roadways. The key is to scout out a less-traveled route or one with bike lanes. If you’re unsure, drive the route first to make sure you’d be comfortable on it. Another way to scout a bike-friendly route is by using Google Maps, which now has a function that allows you to find bike friendly routes to your destination. It highlights streets with bike lanes and bike routes. Google satellite view also lets you view roadways ahead of time. Another thing to remember is that traffic on your local roadways varies widely depending on time of day or day of the week. A route that goes past a school, for example, might be packed with cars at 8:30 AM, and nearly deserted 45 minutes later. When you’re starting out, if you can avoid those heavy-traffic times, it will make your commute/errand a whole lot less stressful.
Third, learn your rights and responsibilities on the road. According to the California Vehicle Code, bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities on the road as cars do. That means, obey traffic signs and signals, ride defensively, ride predictably, and know your rights. I always assume drivers will not see me, so, as I approach intersections, for instance, I always look at the driver’s eyes to make sure they see me. I nod, wave, and try to be friendly to my fellow road users, even if they don’t always return the courtesy. It’s not hard to do so. Bicycling puts me in a good mood (all those endorphins) and, besides, I’m trying to change the culture, one smile at a time. Besides, I have sympathy for drivers. They’re strapped into their miserable steel and glass boxes, slaves to the car payment, insurance companies, and the oil companies. I’m free. I can afford a smile.
Helmets? In California, they’re mandatory for riders under the age of 18, and I recommend them. But many people don’t like wearing them. Don’t let a silly thing like a helmet keep you from riding your bike.
Go ahead. Run that errand on your bike. You’ll be saving gas, getting in shape, and saving the planet, too.