Last year, when gas was topping $4/gallon, bicycle shops noted increased sales, and it was plain to see there were more cyclists on the street. I don't think it's a secret to anyone that biking is cheaper than driving.
But if you haven't been on a bike for years, or you've only used one for short, recreational rides, it can be less than clear how to use a bike to commute or run errands.
Bike to Work Day is coming up next week, Thursday, May 14. All this week, I'll be describing how you can bike as an effective means of transportation.
First, you'll need a bike. I recommend getting your bike from a bike shop, not a department store, for several reasons (and you'll find wide agreement among cyclists on this point.) A decent bike isn't cheap, and a cheap bike isn't decent. Department store bikes use the cheapest components, which will result in a less pleasant ride you're less happy with. Bike shop employees are cyclists themselves, and will be able to answer your questions. They can help match a bike to your needs, and make sure you get a bike that fits you, and that it's adjusted correctly. New bikes from a bike shop frequently come with one or two free tune-ups in the first year or so. You'll end up paying at least $300, instead of as little as $100, but that extra $200 is well worth it.
You'll probably be looking for a road bike or a hybrid bike. "Road bike" is sometimes used to refer to racing bikes, sometimes for any bike intended for paved roads -- make sure the bike shop employee isn't confused about what you mean. "Hybrid bike" means a hybrid of a road bike and a mountain bike, and makes for a good general purpose bike, with some advantages if your riding includes unpaved (or badly paved) roads.
These are upright bicycles, i.e., bikes you operate in an upright position. By design, this puts about 40% of your weight on your hands. This makes biking difficult or impossible for people with upper body injuries. There is an alternative. Recumbent bicycles are operated with no weight on your upper body. I bought one over a decade ago when a severe repetitive stress injury made riding my upright bike prohibitively painful. I'm still riding it, with no interest in going back. But I'll leave a more detailed discussion of recumbents for another entry.
Something I find a little unfortunate is that a new bike, without accessories, isn't all that useful. It can't carry anything. You can't leave it anyplace. It has no lights, and you can't safely use it at night. It won't even stand up by itself. To make it useful, you'll need a few extra things.
First and foremost, you need a helmet. It may or may not be legally required in your jurisdiction, but I encourage you to not worry about that. Just get one. In the U.S., all helments sold meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission standard; some also meet other standards. All of these standards are sufficient; you can be confident that any helmet you could buy provides adequate protection. The difference between low-end helmets and high-end helmets isn't safety; it's venting, aerodynamics, and appearance.
It's easy to think that a helmet isn't necessary because it's only a short ride, or they're low-traffic roads, or, heck, you rode your bike for years without a helmet, and you never needed one. But, no matter show short the ride, or seemingly safe the route, something could happen (through no fault of your own) that could knock you off your bike. The world is full of things that are harder than your skull, and even a single trauma to the head can have catastrophic and permanent results.
You also need to wear your helmet correctly. It's not a beret, and should not be worn at a jaunty or rakish angle. It should be sitting squarely atop your head, with the strap adjusted appropriately so that it's not moving around. Leaving the strap unfastened is as good as not wearing it at all. A bike shop employee should be able to assist you with fitting your helmet, and adjusting it correctly.
I'll go further into the accessories you need to make your bike useful on Wednesday.