In March of 2006, I stopped driving to work.
A year into marriage, my blood pressure still sky high, I decided to take positive action and fix myself up. My goal was to strengthen my heart and lower my blood pressure, so that I might stick around happy and healthy for longer than my then-current path would have allowed. I would do this by riding a bicycle.
My commute is a 4-mile round trip, so a) it does not take significantly longer to bike than to drive, given traffic control and b) it is puzzling that I had not started sooner. I had not started sooner because I was concerned that if I did not drive, then my vehicle would not be available to me all day and what if I desperately needed to use it? Slowly, it dawned on me that I never actually need to use a car during working hours. And those occasions when I thought that I did were excuses to get out of the office more than actual needs.
At first, bicycling with traffic is an incredibly scary thing — and it should be! Cars are big and loud and comparatively difficult to control, when considered alongside a bicycle. Learning to navigate among them on a two-wheeled vehicle that is less than 1% of their weight takes a shot of courage and patience. Successfully riding in automotive traffic takes a special set of skills that builds over time and experience.
When I tell people that I ride a bicycle to work, many suggest that bicycling is dangerous. Riding on the wrong side of the street, on sidewalks, weaving in and out of cars, chatting on the cell phone: these activities make bicycling appear dangerous. Just as you would not expect a safe car ride on the sidewalk, or against traffic, or while chatting on the phone, you should not expect a safe bicycle ride under similar conditions.
If you ride responsibly according to the rules of the road, your chances of being killed on the bicycle are remarkably low. Obviously, this does not mean that you definitely won't be the unlucky one to get mashed under the tires of a steel beast operated by a text-messaging teenager — it's just that the chances are lower than you might have been led to believe. (Everyone's got a pet statistic and a favorite comparison, like "less of a chance than being stung by a killer bee". Statistics and clever comparisons, however, are not relevant to basic riding skills; the novice rider needs to get it out of her head that cycling is inherently dangerous and get into her head how it is done safely.)
Mythical Retort #1: Isn't it safer to see the traffic coming at you?
First off, why wouldn't we extend this reasoning to the car? Since so many auto collisions are rear-endings, clearly it would be "safer" if there weren't anyone behind you, yes? Obviously not, and the same applies to the bicycle.
Furthermore, if you travel against traffic, your speed relative to an oncoming car is enormous. If you're traveling at 15mph and a car is traveling at 55mph, your relative speed is 70mph, almost sure to be a fatal collision. Your relative speed is only 40mph if you are traveling in the same direction as the car in the same scenario. A collision would certainly still hurt you at this speed, but your chances are much better.
Many cyclists new to traffic are afraid of being struck from behind. Again, statistics show that this is one of the rarest scenarios in bicycle crashes. But the big point is to realize that when you ride predicitably — in a straight line in the flow of traffic — drivers know how to respond to you. If, for example, you weave in and out of parked cars, drivers will not be as certain about what your next move will be, and therein lies danger. Remember: no sane driver wants to hit you.
Of course, riding predictably will not help prevent a distracted driver from drifting into you. Unfortunately, this is the source of most rear-end bicycle collisions. In our cellular age, chatting and texting are virtually the default behavior among less experienced (younger) drivers. As a defensive maneuver you can make every effort to stay behind obviously distracted drivers. For example, at a stop sign, let them go ahead of you.
It is also important to develop good listening and looking skills. Looking behind you while riding in a straight line is a skill that you have to develop. Before you brave heavy traffic, it's a good idea to have already developed this skill. As far as listening goes, you should be able to sense an approaching car by the sounds behind you. When you hear a car, give a glance to make sure that the car behaving as predictably as you are. In addition to listening, you can look behind you with a mirror. However, as in operating a motor vehicle, mirrors are not a substitute for the head check.
Mythical Retort #2: Isn't it safer to ride on the sidewalk?
Definitely not. The overwhelming majority of bicycle crashes happen at intersections, where driveways count as intersections as well as streets. Sidewalks are generally pushed back a few feet from the road and motorists typically do not look for fast-moving vehicles on the sidewalks; typically, a motorist only expects pedestrians on the sidewalk. Furthermore, motorists tend to roll past sidewalks before coming to a complete stop. This is not so much of a problem if you're walking, but if you're going 10-15 mph on a sidewalk and a car appears in an intersection ten or twenty feet in front of you, it is likely that you will collide with the car.
The least safe place to ride is on the sidewalk opposing traffic. This is the case because motorists tend to look in the direction that traffic is coming. For example, if I intend to make a right turn out of my street, I will look left as I approach the intersection as that is where the traffic is coming from. A wrong-way cyclist on the sidewalk truly flirts with disaster in this scenario, as it is incredibly likely that I will overshoot the sidewalk in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the oncoming traffic. As an experiment, sit for a minute and watch how drivers behave at a residential intersection: you'll be amazed at how far past a stop sign most will actually stop.
A bicycle is a vehicle.
In the eyes of the law (in most states), the bicycle is subject to the same rules of the road as motor vehicle traffic. The bicycle is treated as a slow moving vehicle. This means that you can receive a DUI on a bicycle, a speeding ticket, failure to yield or stop, and so on.
Given that your bicycle is a vehicle, and is traveling in the same space as automobiles, the best and safest way to ride is predictably, and with the flow of traffic. Riding predictably means that you should ride in a straight line at a reasonable distance from the curb or shoulder (or in a bike lane if there's a well-maintained lane striped on the road). Motorists are prepared for the things that cars do, like slowing down, signaling, turning and the like. If you do the same things, you are far safer because you're not metaphorically asking motorists to do anything extraordinary by giving you space; they give you space like any other slower-moving vehicle on the road.
Notice that if you ride against traffic, predictability is completely lost! If a motorist sees a car coming directly at him, what will he think? Panic! It's just as uneasy of a feeling when a motorist sees a bicycle approaching — well, an attentive motorist anyway.
Signal your intentions! My preference is to signal with my right arm straight out for a right turn, my left arm straight out for a left turn, my left arm pointing down if I'm stopping or maintaining my lane position when a right-turn-only lane is coming up. Again, this helps with your predictability, which helps you integrate into the flow of traffic.
In California, it is legal to "filter" to the front of a lane of cars, just as it is on a motorcycle. Drivers, however, really hate this. My recommendation, at least in light traffic, is to maintain your lane position at stop lights behind the other vehicles. Bicycles can accelerate faster than cars up to about 15 or 20 mph — for a reasonably fit person. This provides ample time to clear an intersection at a traffic signal. In heavier traffic, because I don't want to stand behind a CO-spewing tail pipe for too long, I'll filter to the front and take my chances. Just be aware that when you filter, you're not being particularly predictable, so be on your guard.
These are some of the most basic tenets to follow in traffic. Be predictable and visible and obey the rules of the road and your risks in traffic will be lower than if you were driving.
(By the way, since biking regularly my blood pressure has dropped from an all-time high reading of 174/114 to regularly about 115/75. It makes my wife happy that she'll have a more relaxed version of me around for a long time.)