In American cities, it's unfortunately intimidating to get started with bicycle commuting. Traffic safety and theft are the biggest issues. Once you overcome those concerns, it's by far the fastest, funnest, most efficient, and most environmentally-friendly way to get around! I hope this guide helps you get started. By the way, you can avoid theft and up-front costs with bikeshare (not covered in this guide).
Don't feel intimidated by spandex-clad cyclists with sleek carbon bikes—you don't need to spend thousands to get started. Here's what I'd recommend you get, in priority order. Fancy pedals and clothing are not necessary for most commuters, but I'm including them for completeness or in case your commute is more than 10 miles long.
Finding a good bike route can be the difference between a terrifying trip and a relaxing one. It can be hit and miss, but bike infrastructure in many American cities has gotten better over the last decade and continues to improve.
Here's the types of road surfaces you should prefer, in order starting from the best.
Paved car-free bike path. Usually allows pedestrians too, like the Boulder Creek Path to downtown shown above. Boulder, Colorado has an exceptional network of these multi-use paths.
Protected bike lane, in which cars are separated from bikes by parking or a buffer. These are less effective when there are many right-turning cars.
Bike lane, no right-hand-side parking. These can be pretty comfortable, unless they're too narrow, the road surface is bad, or there are many right turns.
Bike lane, with right-hand-side parking. These can be deceptive, because you're in the door zone, as discussed below. You may need to ignore it and take the car lane.
If none of these options are available, choose between: taking the entire car lane (see below), biking on the road shoulder / right-most part of the lane, or taking the sidewalk (if available) to avoid competing with fast traffic on narrow lanes.
In my opinion, safe urban bike commuting is counterintuitive. Novices tend to fear cars, and therefore stick to the right-most part of the bike lane (or car lane). This can cause major issues.
Stay away from the door zone. If that puts you in the close pass zone, take the lane. source: dutchreach.org
Instead, avoid the door zone, and when that's too close to cars for comfort, take the lane: bike in the middle (or even towards the left) of the car lane to force cars to pass you in the next lane over. You still need to be careful: always look over your shoulder before taking the lane, but I do this all the time in San Francisco.
Taking the lane feels aggressive, but especially in urban, dense areas with slow-moving average traffic speeds, drivers rarely get annoyed. It's even recommended by REI. Remember that, in good visibility (daytime or nighttime with bright lights), cars are highly unlikely to deliberately murder you by plowing you from behind. Plus, it's affirming and satisfying to take the space on the road that you deserve, and let the cars wait their turn.
Another potentially dangerous interaction is merges: you're approaching an intersection in the bike lane, and a car must merge across the bike lane before turning right. Assume drivers don't check their mirrors and may not notice you during a merge. When possible, look behind and to your left before the intersection, and if it's clear, preemptively merge into the car lane well before the intersection, so that cars must merge right behind you. As a bonus, this makes it easier to pass (on the left) any queue of cars waiting to turn right to quickly reach the intersection.
This guide is based on my perspective as (a) a white guy who is (b) tempermentally in the top 10% in terms of cycling aggressiveness. I'm aware that other people, especially if from different identity groups, may experience the road differently than I do. For example, a woman can get catcalled, or a Black cyclist can face more adversarial drivers, or hassling from police even for legitimate maneuvers. I think those issues are deplorable, and we should work to address them, and I don't mean to suggest the above tips will work for everyone.
Thanks for reading! Let me know of any errors, comments, or simply if you found this a useful guide! You can also find me on Twitter @barakgila.