A Story of a Bike Light Giveaway

This is a guest post by Steve Vance of Steven Can Plan.

Last Monday someone on the sidewalk yelled “Happy birthday” to me while I was riding to Bridgeport through University Village (UIC’s south campus). It was my birthday. I turned around to identify the shouting person. Joe was a classmate and now I most often see him at a local bike shop or playing bike polo. We went inside the store and chatted for awhile.

The bicycle is an extremely social tool. While it helps me get to the places I need to go, it does so in such a way that fosters community and interaction. As I ride, I’m exposed to the whims of the street: the noises, the chatter, the honks, the people, and the people I know. But it also helps me get to know new people.

I participated in another bike light distribution with Active Transportation Alliance on November 17, 2010. I photographed a previous distribution in Wicker Park a week earlier. This time around, at the corner of Halsted and Roosevelt at the UIC campus, I took a more direct role by flagging people riding bikes without lights to pull over and stop. I would then attach a brand new headlight to their bicycle, courtesy of customers of Groupon and the law office of Jim Freeman. During the two minutes I had their undivided attention, I told them about the state law requiring a front light and the role of Active Transportation Alliance in the city and suburbs.

This time I wanted to record more information about all the people I helped and talked to. I kept a little note card in my pocket and recorded the revealed reasons why the person didn’t have a headlight, how many men and women I helped (I only recorded two categories), and some select quotes.

I think six people refused my offer for a free headlight – this is because they couldn’t hear me (several wore headphones), didn’t understand our intentions, or both. Also confused, a man driving a car said, “You little bastard with your bikes,” but I won’t let anyone distract me.

Genaro gives a free headlight to someone without it

Genaro installs a headlight to someone riding on Halsted Street in University Village.

Of all the people I stopped, I identified 21 men and 11 women (32 total). Four people said they lost their lights or had them stolen and hadn’t yet replaced the lights. One person forgot their lights. 27 of the 32 people riding bikes didn’t know it was state law to ride a bike with a headlight on at night. Here’s what some riders had to say:

“No one told me that!” I suspect this is an extremely common explanation. This is definitely an opportunity for local bike shops to educate their customers, but there are other places people can get this information, like resident advisers at dorms, churches, and workplaces. The Active Transportation Alliance fights tirelessly to instill basic information into the minds of people riding bikes around town.

One person I was talking to hadn’t heard of the Active Transportation Alliance and after I explained to him what the organization does, he said, “My friends and I want to start our own group.”

Someone on foot asked me, “How long are you going to be here? I want my friend to get one.” This guy came back with his friend and they both got free headlights.

Speaking of the bicycling leading me to meetings with people I know, three friends were walking by and said hello. I had met one of them, Andrew, at the same spot, in front of the UIC Skyspace as we both raced in an October 2006 scavenger hunt.

Blues unite!

Walk under the Skyspace to get a direct and undistracted view of the sky and space.

Great story!  Read more from Steve at his excellent blog about urban planning, cities and transportation, Steven Can Plan.

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15 thoughts on “A Story of a Bike Light Giveaway

  1. dukiebiddle says:

    Yay headlights. :) More important than a rear light; but use one of those too. :D

  2. Mr Colostomy says:

    Nice to see a Yuba Mundo in that last shot there, looking excellent with cream tyres.

    Personally, I regard my rear light to be the most important for being seen. I can tell if someone in front of me doesn’t notice my bike and I can take appropriate action. What was the rationale for giving out headlights rather than tail-lights or both?

    • Dottie says:

      I can’t speak for the people who organized the giveaway, but the law in Chicago requires a front headlight and only a rear reflector, so that probably factored into the decision, along with cost considerations.

      • Mr Colostomy says:

        I wasn’t aware of that. In the UK front and rear lights are required on bicycles after dark. I still personally feel the rear light is most important because the 3% of cyclists hit from behind only refers to cyclists hit directly from behind, it doesn’t include clipping from overtaking cars. A rear light would help with this particular type of collision as there isn’t a lot you can do about it other than ensuring they see you and hope they give appropriate passing distance.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          Arguing over which one is more important is probably counter productive, as a strong case can be made that both are important. With that said, I’m not sure what effect a rear light will have on a hook, as that driver saw you, they just failed to care and remember that you are there – while a cross that occurs at night likely did not see you.

      • Steven Vance says:

        This is exactly the reason we only gave away headlights.

        Chicago law: 9-52-080- Head lamps, reflectors and brakes
        Illinois law: 11-15-1507- Lamps and other equipment on bicycles.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      I think most people like to think we humans are agile enough of an animal to navigate ourselves out of a left cross, but none of us are. 97% of cyclist/motorist collisions come from the front and side, which are better defended against by a front light. 3% come from behind.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      “What was the rationale for giving out headlights rather than tail-lights or both?”

      As Dottie already indicated is the law in Illinois, I believe, as per U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines and legal recommendations, the law in all American states require a front headlight, while most only require a rear reflector.

      • Actually, we did give away a small red-reflective sticker. The entire packet was a front blinkie, sticker, and small flyer explaining the details of the giveaway and info on Active Trans and Lawyer Jim.

  3. Zweiradler says:

    I’m not into singlespeeders and fixies, but the white bike surely does look thrilling.


  4. Daniel Evans says:

    Great guest post Steven,

    Cool about the light giveaway. I want to pickup on the social aspect of bicycling mentioned in your post though.

    I have found that I connect with my neighbors now in a way that I NEVER did before starting to ride my bicycle in our area. It is strange how totally isolating a car can be, but in 17 years of living here, I had never connected with many of my neighbors. That changed when I started riding, and now I see them mowing their lawns, blowing leaves, walking their dogs, etc., and we frequently have a chance to stop and say hello. It sounds like such a simple thing, but in our age of increasing specialization, isolation, and complexity, it is more important than ever to make these personal connections. Bicycling is an easy and natural way to do that. It was unexpected and surprising to me how rewarding that part cycling can be! It’s like finding an extra gift under the tree.



    • Catherine says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I’ve lived in my town (city?) for over 5 years and have been using my bike as my primary mode of transportation for the past 18 months. I have met/formed acquaintances with more people in the past 18 months than in the 3 years before my bike. This is partly because I have been more social in general (got out of grad school, had more time, feel less shy now that I’m older etc), but I also think the bike is a large factor.

      Say you meet a neighbor at the local coffee shop/pub/whatever. If you then see them out and about while you’re on your bike once a week from then on, you maintain a casual sort of acquaintanceship. If you don’t maintain it, and see them a month or two later in the same coffee shop, he’ll just be “that guy I talked to once” rather than “that guy I know from around town”. Being not in a car (enclosed, moves fast etc) dramatically increases the likelihood of seeing someone while out and about.

      There are dozens of people I’m on a wave hello basis with, and when we do see each other at the pub, or in the grocery store, we actually talk. And friendships form. It’s nice :)

      • Steven Vance says:

        Thank you for your comments, Catherine. What you talk about is exactly compatible with the intent of my post. I’d say that bicycling is more social than walking because you increase the number of people you will run into this way (either walking or bicycling).

        Bikes are also way to encourage people driving to ask you for directions, as I do several times to people who pull up next to me and ask me how to get a bar or gas station (like I know where those are!).

    • Steven Vance says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed this part of the post. I’ve been meaning to write about it for years, but I’ve always found it hard to write in a more abstract way.

      These two events, however, coincided and made concrete examples of the feelings about bicycling (and “culture” if you want to go that far) I wanted to express.

  5. JTuttle says:

    Really well done post. I’m going to join Catherine and Daniel in saying that even though I’ve only been riding full time for the past six months, I have many more interactions with people that I never would have. (mostly good). Funny, I just read an article about the rise of chronic loneliness in America, and a real big part of that is the lack of everyday social connections to others. (electronic doesn’t count, apparently.)

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