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I live in a fairly urban setting and there are plenty of cars around when it gets past dark. The main point of having a bicycle light/backlight (I contend) is not for you to see, its for others to see you. Besides just using lights, there are plenty of other reflective Doohickeys that purport to make you visible at night. (see this thread for an example)

In practice this works just fine in relatively suburban or lightly trafficked areas. Where an extra light on the road does stand out and people notice a bike rider. However, I live in a fairly urban area, and down-town is saturated with light that a dincky bike light will not stand out in the crowd.

I've experienced this both from the POV of a driver and of a cyclist. Just today I was driving downtown and almost hit a biker with the notorious right hook. Luckily we didn't make any contact, but afterwards I recognized why I didn't notice him even though he was wearing a reflective vest and had a decently bright light. His light made him blend in more with the backdrop of downtown. The oversaturated lighting of downtown desensitized me to certain visual cues that usually would tip me off to the presence of a biker or a car (i.e. their glaring lights in my mirrors). If I was driving down a darkish residential street I would have noticed him right away.

So what are some good tips on biking at night in urbanized areas, where there are more than just a few cars out after dusk. More specifically, what can you do (that you normally wouldn't do during the day) and besides making yourself brighter that would make your night ride safer?

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Whether a headlight is for you to see or others to see you depends on the strength of the light. Most inexpensive LED lights are of the to-be-seen variety. –  Neil Fein Nov 25 '10 at 2:06
    
I would almost advocate carrying BOTH types of white lights! Part of my evening commute has traffic and no streetlights. So my headlight is pointed at the ground in front of me. I may get a couple of supplemental dinky flashers just to point up to windshield height! –  DC_CARR Dec 3 '10 at 23:22

4 Answers 4

Besides the brightness? At night in urban traffic, I seriously ramp up alertness.

"The cyclist must always be on the lookout for idiots, cell phone users, dreamers, jerks, and bigots. The cyclist has excellent visibility and can see everything. To that must be added an instant readiness to respond to bad moves, and I've had motorists make them all." Quoted from: http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/traffic/traffic.htm

And one other tip: Ride as if you were invisible. It's often helpful to ride in such a way that motorists won't hit you even if they don't see you. You're not trying to be invisible, you're trying to make it irrelevant whether cars see you or not.

I frequently ride after dark. The number one thing that has saved me in close calls is alertness.

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"Ride as if you were invisible" - I tend to ride as if I was very visible but have a target on my back! –  mgb Nov 29 '10 at 2:35

When winter arrives and brings shorter days, I add additional lights. As you say, this is just more urban lights, but a bike light--especially if it is blinking--does make you more visible. I prefer a light with an erratic blink pattern, such as Planet Bike's BLAZE with superflash mode (http://ecom1.planetbike.com/3047.html). This erratic pattern forces you to the forefront of attention.

Lights and reflectors are essential but are not the whole answer. I ride at night to be right where the motorists can see me. It is always important to do this, but more so at night. When there is no bike lane and no wide shoulder, I take the MIDDLE of the lane. This is particularly important in an urban setting like Oakland or Sacramento, CA--where I ride. Traffic in the city is heavy and often not much faster than I am. Often cars are maxxing out at 25mph whereas I'm riding at around 15-18mph. I can ride in the middle of the lane and if they're anxious, they can pass me. The downside of this is that I hear a few drivers sounding their horns in protest. The upside is that no one is surprised by me.

No driver wants to damage their $20,000+ automobile by hitting a cyclist. I'm a big guy, too--I'd damage their car. So I ride right where they see me.

Most places where I ride are urban city streets--usually with two lanes in each direction, sometimes a left-turn lane. I use all of these just as a motorist would--and California state law supports me in doing this. My goal and the goal of the law here are to be visible and predictable. I ride like I belong there--without trying to be a jerk about it. The motorists have a passing lane to get around me--and if they don't, I let them pass whenever it's safe and with easily-recognizable hand signals. If they're right behind you, after all, you have their attention.

Be both visible AND predictable.

Have good situational awareness--know what's going on all around--and react to motorists who may not be doing the same.

Have a safe ride!

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"The downside of this is that I hear a few drivers sounding their horns in protest", I've talked to people that say they do this to warn the biker they are going to overtaking. I'm sure there are angry drivers out there, but at least one of them is actually trying to be courteous. –  crasic Nov 24 '10 at 18:14
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That comforts me to hear, crasic. The sounding of a horn always sounds aggressive and confrontational to me, when I'm on the saddle. I must remember my dear old father's words, though, "When driving, NEVER use your horn except as a warning or a greeting." Yep. My father. –  DC_CARR Nov 24 '10 at 21:44

I live in Minneapolis and ride around in the city regularly. I have a planet bike superflash tail light. I haven't had any issues (relative to biking in the daytime).

Reflectors alone are nearly as bad as nothing. Blinky lights are good though because very few things fiercely blink, in the city or in the country.

Also, drivers in the city typically are more accustomed to the presence of cyclists. I feel far more comfortable between lanes of cars in the city than out in the suburbs where people only encounter "one of those people" every few months.

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I cycled loads in the UK in cycle unfriendly cities. I think it comes down to:

  • Lots of good lights
  • Hivis Jacket
  • Helmet
  • Be completely predictable.
  • Expect others (Cars and other cyclists) to be completely unpredictable.
  • Take the safe route.

Now live in the Netherlands, wow that is a different experience.

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