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.