If you are a bike commuter in Vancouver, or want to be, one of the things you’ll have to deal with are the short winter days. Add in the inevitable rain, and riding the streets means riding in the darkness. Darkness brings two problems: being seen by other road users and being able to see things on the roads.
Being seen usually involves two approaches: active lighting and passive lighting. Active lighting involves, well, lights while passive lighting involves reflectivity. This means reflectors on your bike and reflective tape on your clothes. You can get some reflective gear, particularly jackets (or vests) and pants that make you amazingly visible when someone else’s lights hit you.
Passive lighting means never having to changing batteries or worrying about someone stealing your lights. The trade off is, of course, that you’re relying on other lights and that means if their lighting is inadequate, they won’t see you. Think pedestrians and other bikes. Also, the reflective tape breaks down over time, and since you rarely see yourself reflected its pretty hard to judge if you’re reflective enough.
A flashing white light on the front of your bike is a good place to start. It doesn’t have to be large or pricey, it just needs to be bright enough to catch the eye of motorists, pedestrians, and other cyclists. A red flashing light for the rear provides the same visibility from the back. Please don’t put a red light in front, it only confuses everybody. You can get a reasonable set of front and back LED lights for under $20.
Of course other than standard front and back lights, you can get a wide range of other lighting. Lights for your wheels, side lights of various shapes and sizes, and sundry ways of lighting yourself up like a Christmas tree.
One thing that this type of lighting will not do, though, is light up your path. For the most part in the city, this isn’t a problem. There are some areas, though where the street light is utterly inadequate, and if you’re riding when there’s not much other traffic on the roads, it can be quite hard to see both the road and any debris that might be on it. Once you get into the realm of buying lights for seeing, deciding what to buy becomes challenging. There are LED lights in this category but there are also incandescents. The incandescents used to have a brightness advantage over the LEDs but that has largely disappeared. They’re heavier and the bulbs need occasional replacement. About the only advantage of them now is that when their battery runs low, the lights are still functional instead of turning right off. The other major choice is integrated battery versus external battery. The external battery units allow you to mount the lights to your handlebars or your helmet and run a power cable to the battery pack somewhere else where an integrated battery keeps everything in the same place, reducing the cables and clutter.
The biggest decision to make with these sort of lights is how bright to get. Manufacturers offer an almost dizzying number of options. Brightness is measured in lumens, although the cheaper and less-bright options measure in watts. There’s no easy way to convert between the two, particularly since a low-wattage LED light can be much brighter than a high-wattage incandescent. But how much is enough? As the lights get brighter, they get more expensive, so finding a light (or lights) that are suitable for you isn’t easy. And it makes a difference if you’re trail-riding in the dark or if you’re just on city streets. You can get lights that range anywhere from under 10 lumens (the small, under-$10 micro lights, typically) all the way up to a blinding 1800 lumens. For city riding where you want to light up the road without blinding any oncoming drivers, you probably want something between 200-400 lumens. I recently had to replace a malfunctioning front light and since I do occasionally ride very early in the morning opted for a variable-brightness (max 600 lumens) integrated light. It does an excellent job at keeping me comfortable riding in the dark early morning rain.
Do you ride in the dark? How do you make yourself visible? Do you use your own lights to light the way, or is the street lighting good enough for you?