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Good bike lights are empowering

Photo from behind the handlebars at night. the headlight shines brightly.
A foggy evening ride.

Good bike lights are empowering, pun intended. But really, with the end of daylight savings plummeting evening commutes and dinnertime grocery runs into darkness, many readers may be spending a lot of time biking around town at night for the first time. But with a good set of lights, a little darkness does not need to be a reason to leave your bike at home. In fact, some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike happened at night. Having lights and whatever other reflective stuff helps you feel confident riding at night is an incredible feeling. Add in proper rain gear, and nothing can stop you from getting around by bike.

Speaking of night riding, Commute Seattle is hosting their annual Light Up Your Trip event from 3–5 p.m. Wednesday (Nov 8) in Occidental Park in Pioneer Square. You an score free safety gear, food and more.

The good news for bike light buyers these days is that technological advancements in LEDs and batteries mean that a good set of lights is easier to find and more affordable than ever. When I first started writing this site, awful little lights powered by watch batteries were still very common. Now you can get powerful lights in all kinds of form factors, which is great. The downside, of course, is that with so many choices and no clear standards (in the US anyway), it can difficult to know what to choose. So while I have written versions of this post many times before, here is my updated advice for 2023:

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  • Buy lights. This is the most important rule of all. It is not only legally required to have at least a front white headlight and a rear red reflector (a rear light is strongly recommended), but having lights is vital for safety.
  • Your headlight should illuminate the street or path in front of you. If you find it difficult to spot things like potholes or unlit people, then it is time for a headlight upgrade. Spending a little more on a good light is probably the single most cost-effective bike upgrade I can think of. It is so much more enjoyable to ride at night when you can confidently see what is in front of you.
  • Angle your light beam forward and down. Make sure the strongest part of your light beam is not pointed directly into people’s eyes. It may be counterintuitive, but people are better able to see you and track your position when your light is splashing off the ground in front of you than if your beam is going directly into their pupils. You can also look for a light that meets the German StVZO standard, which means they use optics to shape the light beam similar to a car headlight in order to prevent shining in people’s eyes while still being very bright. Most dynamo-powered lights meet this standard, and they are by far my favorite.
  • Take your light with you when you lock up so it does not get stolen. Light theft is common, especially if it is battery-powered and easy to remove.
  • Use your lights when the sun is low, not just when it is dark. Your lights can help you stand out when the low sun causes windshield glare. Likewise, use your lights when it is rainy or foggy out.

For the ultimate solution, I absolutely love hub dynamo-powered lights. They are a set-it-and-forget-it solution. They turn on automatically when I start pedaling, they’re very bright, they are bolted to the bike, and they do not require batteries. It’s my single favorite bike upgrade for someone who bikes all year and in all weather conditions. You can significantly reduce the cost by making the upgrade when you get a new front wheel since building a new wheel is a big chunk of the cost for this upgrade.

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13 responses to “Good bike lights are empowering”

  1. Andres Salomon

    Love my dynamo lights, but as I enter the world of ebikes I’ll note that things are changing around bike lights once again.

    My older Bafang BBSHD (circa-2018) doesn’t have a dedicated cable for powering lights, but my new BBS02 (ordered a few months ago) has a light power cable and came with a free gift of a front headlight which is fantastic. Despite being packaged with the motor, it has a bright beam with decent cut-off ensuring that the thing focuses light on the ground. The beam is slightly less bright/wide than my B&M Luxos dynamo lights, but overall still more than sufficient.

    I expect that as ebikes become more prevalent and more focused on transportation riding, quality bike lights that run off the ebike battery will take over. Getting that dynamo hub (especially with different wheel sizes) is still a substantial hump to get over for most riders, but if ebike motors start coming with cables for lights, it’s going to me super convenient to upgrade to quality lighting.

  2. Fnarf

    Busch & Mueller is the way to go. Germans know their stuff. You do not need to shine a million lumens into the treetops and drivers’ eyes. Germans also forbid flashing lights on the front, which is smart. Flashing lights in general tell others that a cyclist is SOMEWHERE but not where.

    1. Daigoro Toyama

      CatEye makes lights that are StVZO compliant, such as the gVolt. I purchased their Volt 800 NEO while in Japan. The Volt NEO is sold exclusively in Japan and has the cutoff beam like the gVolt, though I don’t know if it does meet the StVZO standard. Naturally, I take it with me when I leave my bike. It’s not easily replaceable in the US.

      FWIW, flashing headlights are prohibited in WA, too, though I don’t think it’s strictly enforced.

    2. MHowell

      Where are Busch & Mueller products available in (North) Seattle, or are they mail-order only?

      1. Fnarf

        Electric and Folding Bikes in Ballard has them.

  3. Peri Hartman

    I bought a Knog 600 lumen front light about 5 years ago and it’s still working fine. The thing that I particularly like about it is its pulse mode. Instead of strobe, it smoothly varies the intensity from 100% to, I’ll guess, about 60%. This gives it an attention grabbing effect similar to a strobe but without the blinding. It also has a directed beam, though I have no idea if it meets any standards. But that can help, too.

    The model I bought appears to have been superseded with this model:

    They have higher lumen models as well.

  4. Janine

    When I lived in Seattle and commuted on the Burke in the early, dark morning, an effective headlight focused on the several feet in front of me was a revelation. I appreciate your advice to all about “forward and down” as I frequently had to try to signal to on-comers not to blind me, which I did by moving my light up and down a few times as they approached from the distance–with maybe 60% success.

    1. G. Harris

      I agree with the previous post. I do ride on the Burke in the fall, often at dusk or at night, and have been blinded by riders that do not dim their lights or redirect them downwards for on coming bikes. “Powerful” lights as your praises can actually be a bad thing on a dark trail with no other lights if pointed directly into other peoples eyes. We dim our lights for in coming drivers when driving cars, lets do it for our fellow riders. Thanks.

  5. Al Dimond

    I agree with all this and also:

    Seattle is not Chicago. In Chicago it’s fine — not ideal, but fine — if off-street paths are degraded or even unusable when it’s dark, cold, and wet or icy, because Chicago is flat, and you can get where you need to go on the streets. In Seattle many of our off-street paths are unique or nearly-unique corridors between the hills. They’re the backbone of our bike network. We need better visibility conditions built-in.

    The place I crashed and broke my arm last year was the Westlake Cycletrack, one of our newest and most popular bike paths. It happened when someone ran out in front of me from behind a parked car with its headlights on. I ride with a pretty good light. And… let’s be honest, people run out in front of me all the time, even from out behind cars, and I almost never crash into them! But I need enough lighting to have a chance. No light I could mount to my bike individually would have given me a chance. In that environment and the many similar ones throughout the city, with all the distracting light from roads, buildings, parking lots, and cars, we absolutely need surface lighting for the path.

    1. G. Harris

      I know this comment may be slightly off topic but I’ve always thought that there should be a Burke Gilman Trail Keeper who is in charge of monitoring the safety of the trail and other nearby trail systems, coordinating communications with the different municipal jurisdictions and repair people, and help identify funds for upgrades such as surface lighting. I have heard that in many countries this would be normal, maybe with a little house at one end where he or she could live! There is the Hudson Riverkeeper as well as the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance that help keep our waterways clean and safe. Maybe a trail keeper position might be good and help serve the biking community.

      1. Al Dimond

        Yeah, I think about this sort of thing when it snows. On the roads the city and state have clear priorities and make an effort to communicate, put out signs, etc. On the bike network the patchwork response reflects the patchwork of jurisdictions and land owners. I wouldn’t expect bikes to be the highest priority in the snow but it would be nice if I could have a clear idea what the priority route network is and what state it’s in before heading out. Last time it snowed the sidewalk connection from the Fremont Bridge to the Westlake Cycletrack (i.e. a really important chokepoint in our bike network!) was dangerously icy long after most of the city seemed passable enough that I thought it was OK to travel by bike again.

        I definitely think we need a city-wide conception of the bike network that crosses the land-ownership boundaries. Someone should be responsible for the transportation function of our entire bike network even if parts of it are owned by the parks department, the port, UW, etc. (random private owners? Seattle City Light? WSDOT?). To ensure standards of quality, to prioritize maintenance, to communicate conditions to everyone. Hopefully, here in the friendly northwest, this responsibility could be managed mostly by polite phone calls, but someone has to do it.

        I typically say that should be part of SDOT’s job. Of course some of the trail owners within Seattle have historically been resistant to taking orders from the city, and many trips cross the city limits. An existing effort that might have the right geographical scope is the one Jay Inslee boosts when he tries to make himself look cool by riding a bike, “Leafline”. I always get mad at Leafline because it seems to me like a toothless organization that slaps its own name on the work of others while refusing to put real weight behind projects that would build the regional bike network they want but don’t have full local support. If they wanted to be less useless and make me less mad, they could step up to the plate. But they would have to do some work outside the venerable field of PR. Maybe a totally new kind of regional “trail keeper” is really called for.

        Ultimately our state/nation/one-world-government should be imposing the standards and relevant local DOTs should own the ROWs but that day is a long way off.

  6. Jenny

    Lights are critical, but they are a poor and inequitable substitute for adequate infrastructure. Large sections of the Interurban in North Seattle are completely unlit, and yet it is still consistently referred to as a major north-south thoroughfare. I personally would expect a major thoroughfare to be safe for commuting year round, even when it’s dark at 4:30. See you in the spring, Interurban. Even with my bright ebike light, I still can’t see well enough and to navigate the curves, trail detritus, and people in dark clothes with off-leash dogs. I’ll be on the street with the cars til then.

    I also rode for years in Chicago at all times of the day or night with small, convenient lights because of great streetlights. I didn’t even appreciate it at the time.

    1. Al Dimond

      It’s interesting to read this comment today because I just took the Interurban to go up to Shoreline last night, after thinking about trail lighting a lot, and I thought as I turned onto the off-street part of the trail, “Ah, this trail is fine without overhead lighting, all the distracting light is blocked off by the trees! It would be nice to have reflectors along the margins, especially near curves, but otherwise it’s fine!” Really shows how perspectives can differ. I was going pretty slow, trying not to sweat too much with very tired legs, on my kinda slow bike, carrying my guitar. The ground was dry and the trail was weirdly empty (maybe I was out there just after the post-rush-hour dog-walking surge ended?). Change around a few of those conditions… wet ground, e-bike, more traffic… and maybe I’d be singing a different tune.

      Or… maybe not! If we want bike transportation to be a real option for everyone we’re going to have to fix a lot of things that one random guy that already rides a lot thinks aren’t broken.

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