Since you're reading this, you have a bike. Are you commuting on it? Get away from the dangerous assumption that commuting by car is the way things ought to be. It isn't.
Many of us first tasted freedom riding to and from grade school. We dropped bikes when we started to preen in junior high, and gave up for good when we were given the option of moving a few tons of metal between home and high school. Burning fossil fuel to move 6,000 pounds, one person and a small bag a short distance just doesn't make sense.
If you take the energy stored in a gallon of gas and convert it to food calories, many cyclists could get over 900 miles to the gallon. What does your car get? The cost of operating a bike is pegged at three cents per mile, while driving a car solo costs 70 cents per mile.
There are other benefits, too. Riding means you don't have to commit the absurd act of driving to a gym to work out. Transit doubles as exercise, a twofer that saves time and improves health. Commuting means you're in control; no more sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. You can also eat more and enjoy it. Gobble that leftover donut down; consider it re-fueling after the morning ride.
Parking options improve, too. Bicycles almost always get the rock-star spot while the poor chumps in cars circle for several minutes looking for parking--another environmental disaster and huge waste of time.
In today's fast-paced world, time is valuable. Luckily, for most short trips—whether to the market, quick errands or work--riding can be comparable to driving. If you can manage 15mph, five miles can be completed in 20 minutes--with almost no time spent stuck in traffic. Between walking to the car, traffic lights, finding parking and walking to the destination, that five-mile trip in a car can easily run beyond 25 minutes.
Leave the Rush Hour Traffic Behind
Anyone with a bicycle can be a commuter. If you have only one bike, then you've got your commuter ride right there. Converting an old bike is becoming popular, and there are a number of ways to improve your ride for the task. As in racing, lighter is better--but not at the cost of reduced durability or the potential for extra maintenance.
If there's one essential for commuter bikes, it's bulletproof tires. Tires that have Kevlar or some other impenetrable layer reduce the likelihood of flats. While carrying a pump, extra tube and tools is always a good thing, flatting when late to work sucks. The right belted tires may mean the only flats you get result from riding the tires under-inflated. Many of these tires have thick treads, so they can last a year or two depending on how far and how often you commute.
The best commuter bikes are simplified, with the gearing appropriate for the ride. If it's a hilly route, make sure you have extra-low gears so you don't have to huff and puff to get where you're going. With a flat ride, consider using internal gearing, a single speed or a fixed-gear in a ratio that is easy to pedal.
The Fix Is In
Fixed-gear bikes are becoming pretty hip these days, offering certain advantages when the conditions are right. They're light because the chain is short and there's only a single cog and chainring. You can also get away with just one brake in the front. The rear wheel is generally bolted on--making it harder to steal--and the same can be done to the front wheel. And you'll never space out on the morning ride because the direct drive attached to the pedals means that when the wheels are rolling, the pedals are turning.
If you're a newbie and you're lusting after a new fixed gear, get one with a flip-flop hub and two handbrakes. A flip-flop hub allows you to switch from a fixed cog on one side to a freewheel cog on the other. Schwinn re-released their popular Madison model, and Swobo also has a stylin' fix called the Sanchez.