Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Note to Saint Paul Bicyclists: Your Lights Suck

The last few months on the second Tuesday I have been bicycle counting as part of the Transit for Livable Communities' monthly bike counts. Several of us from the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition have been doing counts along University Avenue. I took University just west of Raymond Avenue where I can conveniently sit in the front window of The Edge Coffeesop and do my counting. In the summer, this was nicely air-conditioned. They play fun music, Edith Piaf yesterday for a while, I settle in with my coffee, and for two hours am on high alert, counting bicyclists and bikes on bus racks (my own addition). It's kind of nice to quietly observe the neighborhood traffic for two hours once a month, you notice things.

Anyway, with the end of Daylight Savings Time, sunset now happens in the middle of the 4:00 to 6:00PM counting period. The sun disappeared behind the horizon at 4:50 and at 5:00 I went outside to be able to see better, since we classify cyclists by helmet/no helmet, gender, road or sidewalk and 15-minute period.

I had to be extra vigilant. There were 28 cyclists in the 5:00 to 6:00 hour, lower volume now than in the lighter/warmer months even though it was unseasonably warm, and I think maybe 6 or 8 had adequate lights. I didn't formally count light quality, but maybe half the people showed no lights at all and most of the remainder had dim tailights.

People, this is a busy four-lane street with lots of truck traffic. There is a left turn lane for people wanting to get on Highway 280/I-94, with brake lights and turn signals. There is a utility truck parked along the side of the roads with blinking strobe lights and a big yellow arrow telling traffic to move over. There's traffic lights and a big flamboyant neon sign on the liquor store. Throw into this mix an old, dim, mis-aimed blinkie and you are just about invisible.

Look, I know you can see fine. That's because you're 25 and your eyes are young. The people driving these motor vehicles are 40 and 60 and 80 years old and I can tell you that night vision doesn't improve with age. Don't rely just on reflectors or your own mad cycling skillz, get a damn light! If your blinky is more than about 2 years old, get a new one, the LEDs have been improving tremendously in brightness.

About 750 cyclists are killed by motor vehicles each year in the U.S. Stats aren't kept on the fault in these accidents, but reading daily accounts for a while leads me to believe that in about half the cases, the cyclist is heavily complicit through some sort of bad behaviour. It's easy to fix; don't run Stop signs and red lights, don't ride drunk, ride with traffic and not against it and put on some damn lights.

Trying to count the stealth cyclists riding by lightless makes this obvious. I was absolutely alert and looking to see you and it was a challenge. Think about the motorists driving home from work, going to the grocery store, fiddling with the radio, looking to see if they can change lanes left. They're worried about all sorts of things besides trying to acquire visual contact with unlit cyclists.

I don't know all the lights the lit people were showing but the Planet Bike SuperFlash has a pretty distinctive flash pattern (we have 4 or 5 of these lying around the house for use in the fleet) and the most visible cyclist was a young lady showing two SuperFlashes, one low on the bike (rack or seatpost?), and one high (on a backpack or helmet). I could see her for several blocks after she went by even amongst the cavalcade of lights on University. She is a model to us all.

I personally like to run two taillights, one blinking (a SuperFlash) and one steady (Busch & Müller 4D Toplight). A lot of people don't seem to care and run nothing at all. If you're one of them and get hit, I will feel the same lack of sympathy for you as I do for drivers who text while driving and run off the road and get killed. Remember, stupidity has a way of catching up with people.

Don't be stupid.


Unknown said...

I totally agree. Having adequate lighting is critical for safety. I wrote a little bit about the MN laws requiring lights here.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

You seem to be mostly concerned about lack of taillight, but with good reflectors you shouldn't need a taillight.

On the other hand, a bright headlight is essential. The legal requirement is minimal and can be satisfied cheaply. I prefer to have a light that goes well beyond that minimum.

The Donut Guy said...

I don't ride much at night anymore, but when do....I light my bike up like Las Vegas.

2 Superflashes, a Planet Bike blinkie helmet light, a blinkie mounted on my left handlebar end, 2 ten watt headlights (on on the handlebars and one on the helmet, about 3 yards of 3M reflective tape on the bike and on my high vis jacket.

If someone hits me from sure ain't because they didn't see me.

Leah said...

Nice! Have a pleasant holiday shopping season.

nago said...

Really well done for the blog.these are so sweet and pretty!
Boyd Coddington Wheels

Mandie said...

Hi, I came across your site and wasn’t able to get an email address to contact you. Would you please consider adding a link to my website on your page. Please email me back and we'll talk about it.


Mandie Hayes

Stan Engelbrecht said...

Hey Matt. I was just looking around at a few bicycle blogs and I came across yours. I thought you might enjoy a project myself and a good friend have been working on for the last 2 years, called 'Bicycle Portraits'. Our 6000 kilometer journey aimed to be a photographic study of South African commuter culture (something that is nearly non-existent here), but it's turned into a portrait of a nation through the bicycles that they own and ride every day, revealing all manner of social, historical, class and cultural nuances never imagined. We are about to publish the best 165 portraits (from over 500 photographed) in book form, accompanied by 6 essays and beautiful watercolor maps for each portrait indicating where it was photographed. We are currently in the last phase of fundraising through pre-sales of the books (plus great extras like prints and special editions) on the wonderful Kickstarter platform.

Please have a look at for our Kickstarter page, or visit to see the project online - and please spread the word!

Hope you like it! Ride safe!


Stan Engelbrecht
Day One Publishing, South Africa
+27(0)82 928 6586
silencebegan (Skype)
/bicycleportrait (Twitter)