Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lights on Bikes - 2015 edition

Got this photo from the @BikeOttawa Twitter feed.
In only two hours this afternoon, the City of Ottawa, Citizens for Safe Cycling and Safer Roads Ottawa set up on the Somerset side of the Corktown Footbridge and handed out something like 450 sets of bike lights - 900 or so lights in all, and that's not counting the taillights donated by one of CfSC's members, and the pedestrian and dog lights that were also given out.

I was there as a volunteer with CfSC, and I might have been the first person to get bike lights, in fact, because I was there on my spare bike, one I'd spent a couple of hours getting roadworthy the night before, and it didn't have any lights yet.

(Mike, you see, is getting to be downright unsafe. I discovered recently that his brake cables were distressingly frayed, his back brakes are seized up, his handlebars appear to be corroded . . . anyway, I wasn't really willing to ride him very far in his current condition, and there was no way I was driving a car downtown to volunteer for Lights on Bikes. That would just be tacky. So, I had done a quick tuneup on my spare bike, an unnamed Nakamura Profile (who I think, now, will henceforth be known as Akito), but didn't have any working lights. So, Akito may have been the first bike to get little blinky red and white lights strapped on to his frame.)

Felicity, from CfSC, at right, talking with a passing cyclist.
It actually amazes me how many people are riding around with no lights. Even leaving aside that it's illegal not to have lights, it just freaks me out to go anywhere without lights after dark. I guess when I first started riding, I thought having lights blinking away on my bike was kind of dorky. But a few years on the road has driven that right out of my head. Now, I can't face the idea of riding home along South Bank Street if I know my taillight is out. I will get on the sidewalk.

In part, it's because I've been riding a while, and I have a much better idea of what is involved in riding in traffic. I have also been driving more since getting my first car a couple of years ago, and I have seen first hand how invisible a cyclist is if they don't have any lights. It's frightening to be driving along (especially if, like me, you're also a cyclist) and have someone in a black hoodie on a bike with no lights, and maybe a couple of half-assed, dirt-encrusted, dim reflectors, suddenly emerge from the dark at the side of the road. Or, worse, cross the road in front of you, or pop out from the sidewalk at an intersection.

Seriously, how do people ignore how invisible they are?

So I was happy to flag people down - lots and lots of people - and ask them if they wanted some free lights. A couple of people just said "nothanksIdon'twantany," the way you do when you think accepting the free gift will then end up with you signing up for some mailing list or getting roped into something else you don't really want. Most people, though, stopped, and said, "What? Free lights? Yes, please! Mine just broke down," or, "Someone stole my lights yesterday, I'd love some!" or "Absolutely, thank you, this is amazing!"

I was particularly happy when the people I was handing lights to seemed like folks who might not otherwise have spent the $5 or so that these lights cost. People who would have had to think, "yeah, so. . . bike lights? Or an extra meal today?"

It's something to seriously think about, actually. A bike is just about the cheapest mode of transport you can have, other than your feet, and once you have one you can ride it for years without having to put much money into it. If $5 is going to make or break your daily, or weekly, budget, you're not going to buy lights for your bike - and what exactly will you do when you get a $100 ticket for not having lights? We're giving people free safety. I kind of wish we could do another blitz to give out bike lights in specifically targeted, low-income areas. Somehow find the people who wouldn't buy bike lights because they have to pay rent and buy food instead, and give them lights. There's got to be a way to do that.

That's part of what pissed me off about the one and only belligerent person I encountered: a guy on rollerblades who completely lost it when I hesitated after he asked if he could have a set of lights for his wife, who, he said, rode her bike every day. (See, we'd been told that we could only give out lights to people with bikes - no extra lights for a person's whole family, no lights for someone with a bike somewhere else.) He got angry right off the jump, and before I even knew what was going on, he was shouting. "My wife is an executive," he said, "she rides her bike every day, and she doesn't get off work at 4:00 like these people," and he indicated everyone else on the path, "she's very busy. Are you working with the City? Do you work for the City? Do they subsidize this? We pay taxes! Do you have a manager, someone with some sense I can talk to? I go just as fast on these rollerblades as any cyclist, and my wife's life and my life are just as important as these people's . . ." Honestly, I'd tuned him out at that point - in fact, well before that point, as soon as I realized he was actually going into a full-blown entitlement temper tantrum over a $2 set of blinky lights. I mean, seriously: if his wife is some hotshot executive, surely, surely she can actually buy her own bike lights. Nicer ones. Bigger ones. And probably already has.

Yup, that's Somerset Ward Councillor McKenney
in the blue jacket. She's cool. 
Aside from Ranty Rollerblade Man, who I suppose must just have been having a really bad day or something, pretty much everyone else responded to, "Hey, would you like some lights for your bike?" with a hearty, "Absolutely, hell yeah!" It was amazing how much happier people were after you'd flagged them down, stuck a couple of lights on their bike that they didn't have before, and waved them off on their way.

And after a while, we actually started to run out of lights. By 5:30, when we were due to stop anyway, there were only a handful of lights left. Since we had 1,000 lights to start with, and some of them turned out to be duds, we figured that was about 900 lights, or 450 sets, we'd handed out over a couple of hours. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The police officer who was on site for the event, putting a collar light on a Yorkie who happened by. We also put a lot of lights on dog collars, joggers, and pedestrians this evening. 


  1. Great post, and thanks for being there to hand out lights! Wow, that rollerblade guy sounds intense, but I think you're well-equipped to shrug it off - makes an interesting contrast to most of the people you met, too.

  2. This is great advice. I taught a niece to ride this way, but we practiced on a slight decline so that it was easier for her to glide along and practice balance.
    Great gift guide, there’s some wonderful ideas on there.

  3. hi i just bought a brooklyn bike, one of those vintage looking ones with the basket on the front , im a chunkie monkey and the wheels are very thing and no use for my weight as they are practically flat when im seated on it. what would you suggest that will take my weight,im thinking of replacing the inner tubes with ultra heavy duty ones, but dont want to waste my money, what do you suggest , or do i need to buy new wheels entirely ?