Brighten up, Boston!

Mark Allyn, Portland's brightest of 2010

By Joe Connolly

It’s easy to pick cyclist Mark Allyn out of a crowd, even one as sizeable and diverse as Portland, Oregon’s cycling community.

Allyn, a computer programmer by day, designed and custom built a lighting system for his bike and was recently crowned “most visible rider in Portland” at that city’s “Be Seen, Be Safe” event. While many cyclists are content with a few store-bought lights, Allyn’s bike is lit with 20 different colored fiber optic cables and LEDs, all of which are powered by a rechargeable 12-volt battery.

“I probably won the contest just as much for the clothes as for the bike,” Allyn noted, referring to his wardrobe of custom built, neon LED and fiber optic-lit jerseys, vests and jewelry. Fully lit, it’s a wonder that Allyn and his bike aren’t visible from across the country.

Here in Massachusetts, while state law demands the use of front and rear lights for night bicycling, there are city officials and citizens alike who wish that more bicyclists would follow Mark Allyn’s example. Officer Mike Santry, crash reconstruction analysis investigator for the Boston Police Department, responds to nearly every pedestrian or bike accident in the city and believes that poor visibility is often at fault.

“It’s all about seeing the injuries before my eyes,” Santry said. “I’ve noticed a lot of cyclists who are totally non-compliant with the state’s bike light laws […] The more lit, the better.”

As a police officer, Santry is able to issue $20 citations to any cyclist riding at night without a white front light and a red taillight or reflector. But Santry sees education as his first responsibility, and opted to take to the bike paths to educate unlit cyclists who may not know that they are breaking the law and endangering themselves.

Standing out next to a lit “Bike with lights at night” sign, Santry teamed up with the Boston Bicyclists Advisory Group and made appearances in Jamaica Plain and a few other locations this past fall, passing out brochures and warning cyclists without lights that they could be fined if they didn’t bring their bikes into compliance. Santry, who follows local biking blogs closely, knew he was getting the word out when he saw bikers warning each other online after one of his patrols. More often than not, he says, cyclists that he stops simply don’t know the law, and he hopes the discussions will raise awareness.

According to Santry, the City of Boston is at work to make properly lit bikes an even bigger priority in the near future. Coming this spring, the city will be partnering with Target and a few local bike shops to hand out free bike lights at events held in neighborhoods across the city. Santry is also an advocate for a city ordinance that would require bike shops to package a lighting kit and/or a helmet with every bike sold.

Lighting your bike

A trip to the lighting section of your local bike shop with a $20 bill will put you in the good graces of the law, but it’s worth considering why certain lights are more effective at ensuring cars and pedestrians alike will see you coming.

Rear lights mounted under a seat will keep you from getting a ticket, but Officer Santry also recommends a light attached to your helmet because its height makes you more visible to taller vehicles like SUVs, trucks and buses. Lights that blink are also more effective, he says, as they catch the eye more easily than steady lights. For the same reason, lights with multiple LEDs and random blinking patterns are even more effective.

When shopping for a front light, it’s important to understand the lighting demands of your area.

“If your route takes you on the unlit bike path near by the Jamaicaway,” said Eric Stratton of International Bicycle Center in Allston, “you need a light to see as much as you need it to be seen.”

Stratton points out that an entry level front light is easy to outrun if you’re frequently riding in very dark areas, so those riders might do well to seek out a powerful 150 lumen LED. It is also important that powerful lights have different intensity settings, because your light should not be blinding to oncoming traffic.

“There are some cyclists [in Portland] whose lights are either too bright or improperly aimed,” Mark Allyn noted, “[When you see them] you get that after image, when you blink your eyes and can still see the light.”

Quality front lights feature wider output angles, which illuminate more of the road ahead while remaining visible at a distance. In the case of your front light, helmet or handlebar mounting is a matter of opinion, but many lights offer both options.

“I ride with a light on my handlebar, but I have one attached to my helmet as well; if I need to call attention to myself or the road ahead I can point it where I need to,” said Marcus at International Bicycle.

When shopping for a front or rear light, it’s also important to consider how they will be powered. Lights powered by AAA batteries are convenient, and a good model can go for around 50 hours without needing new batteries. A number of rechargeable options are available as well, including some that charge weather-resistant lithium ion batteries directly from a computer’s USB port. Other options to consider include solar powered models, magnetic induction lights and dynamos that run off of your own pedaling power.

Cyclists looking to increase their visibility even further have plenty of other options available. Spoke lights are a great way of calling attention to a bike at night, Officer Santry notes, and they can lend some personality to your ride.  He also notes that adding reflectors to your jacket, bag and ankles is a good way to passively increase your visibility, but isn’t a suitable replacement for proper lighting.

For anyone looking to follow Allyn’s customization example, his exceedingly visible bike was truly a labor of love. While only costing him around $200, it took about 15 hours to build and only lasted a season before moisture began to rot the wiring. Still, Allyn enjoyed building it and will eventually be redesigning it with new colors and features.

However you choose to call attention to your bike at night, it is always wise to heed the refrain that is echoed by cyclists and safety advocates alike: assume that people don’t see you, and ride with caution.

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