To See or to Be Seen, that is the question

Edit Note:  The following is an open letter/blog post to the Madison’s City Council regarding the proposed lighting on the Southwest Commuter Trail.  As great as our cycling infrastructure is, it only makes the glaring inadequacies that much more noticeable.

I am writing this to advocate FOR some type of path-lighting along the Southwest Commuter trail here in Madison, WI.  I have traveled along this trail quite often during commuting hours, and I can say with certainty that it’s only a matter of time before someone is gravely injured or killed along this dark stretch of “multi-use path”.

My wife commutes to work and back along the Southwest Commuter Trail as often as the weather allows, and last year she rode to work and back well into January before the typical WI forced her back into a car.  Since I often work from home, I will ride out to meet her and ride back so that I get a “commute” as well.  It was along this one section of trail that I’ve had numerous near-collisions with other trail users, and I feel that something should be done to illuminate this section.  While I understand the plight of the homeowners living alongside the trail, I can only hope that a compromise of some sort can be reached.

Busiest Path in Madison

The Bike Fed can produce far more accurate numbers than I can, but on a typical day during the summer there are 3,000-3,500 cyclists along this route, and an untold number of hikers, walkers, dog-walkers, roller-bladers, small children, baby-strollers, etc.  It is a very popular and well-used path, but it also mixes cyclists doing ~15mph with rollerbladers doing 7-8mph, walkers doing 3-4mph, and small children doing… well…. zero, basically, as they stop, turn or start running for no apparent reason.  Newer paths often are designed to separate the various users (cyclists have one lane, pedestrians have another), but this has everyone competing for the same space.

When we were commuting on it in November and December we’d keep count as to how many other cyclists we passed as we rode along it, and often it would number 50+ cyclists in the 10-15min it took us to ride it.

It’s a testament to how great the path is that it’s this well-used, but care must also be taken to ensure that it can handle the additional riders that will be commuting if Madison reaches it’s 20% goal of bicycle commuters by 2020.

2 jumping lights off in the distance

My wife and I have very, VERY bright headlights.  These are the lights that unfortunately blind other trail users, but we felt were necessary for us to have if we were going to keep commuting along this section as darkness fell earlier and earlier through the Fall.  The problem is that while most other cyclists had some type of light or reflector on their bike, the vast majority of pedestrians did not.  These are people out for a walk, at night, with no reflective clothing, no flash light, and no reflective vest/light on their dog (if they were walking one).  In particular I remember one evening when we were riding home around 5pm in the pitch-dark, and off in the distance I saw two small objects bouncing, or jumping around.  These moved erratically (although always together), and so my wife slowed down…  and then stopped as a black lab, no leash, came bounding up to meet us.  It’s owner huffed and puffed to run after the dog, and she was wearing jeans and a dark sweatshirt.  No flashlight.  No reflective gear.  No brightly-colored clothing that would stand out against the darkness of the path.  Nothing.  She just materialized out of the blackness to apologize profusely and to drag her (very excited and happy to meet us) dog off to the side of the trail.

Bicycles have at minimum CPSC-mandated reflectors (white front, red rear, yellow on each side of the pedal, and one in each wheel to be seen from the sides).  Runners are often used to dealing with cars at night, *and* most clothing and shoes that they wear often have reflective material built into them, so even if the runner is not consciously trying to be visible, they will show up when a bicycle (or car headlight) shines on them.

Dog walkers and other pedestrians on the other hand, have no built-in reflective gear, often wear dark street clothing, and use this trail as a way to get away from the bright lights of the city.  Until (or unless) pedestrians can be completely separated from bicycle users, the chance for a high-speed collision along this section remains extremely high.

Bicycle lights aren’t the answer

Here at Stray Cat we’ve blogged about lights in the past, and in a recent post we remarked on how there are two different reasons for lights, “to see” and “to be seen”.

Bicycle lights have two purposes, to be seen and to see.  The first is mandated by law, the second is common sense.  To get something that can be seen from the legally required 500′ away is pretty easy, as almost any cheap single-LED light can accomplish it.  Manufacturers have been selling cheaper “commuting” lights for some time, usually in the $35 range and consisting of anywhere from 1-5 lower-end LEDs.  The “seeing” part is a whole different story, with bicycle lights getting more and more powerful as different iterations of LEDs and more powerful battery packs become commonplace.  The mountain biking community has long demanded amazingly-bright lights for riding in the dark and rechargeable batteries that can last for hours.  Up until now, however, those have been *frightfully* expensive.  Li-Ion (rechargeable) batteries aren’t cheap and neither are some of the higher-end LED “bulbs”.  When those are sold at retail they are prohibitively expensive for just a normal bike commuter, and often more than you paid for your actual bicycle (For example, the Light & Motion SECA 800, $499).

While we talked in that blog post about ways to get super-bright headlights directly from a web retailer in Hong Kong for ~$50, the fact is that most bicycle lights are sold at retail in local bike shops, and that your average sub-$50 light will do almost nothing with regards to lighting up that dark-clothing-pedestrian-walking-a-black-dog-on-a-pitch-black-path.  It’s not that it’s an inferior light, it’s just that it wasn’t designed to illuminate the trail or other users.  It assumes that other users will have their own lights (ie, cars), or at the very least reflective gear or equipment (bicycles, runners).  Unfortunately few pedestrians have either lights *or* reflective gear, and that puts everyone at risk.

The Southwest Commuter Path has become a great asset both to residents living near it as well as people who choose to commute by bicycle.  It is one of the first examples I use when discussing Transportation Enhancements in the federal budget, and we need to ensure that it’s a safe and viable option as more and more people choose to ride bicycles to work and play in this city.

Travis Youman
Owner
Stray Cat Bicycles

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2 Responses to To See or to Be Seen, that is the question

  1. Travis says:

    Also, to the resident who says that all that’s needed is a sign that says “slow down”, that wouldn’t work on any roadway with a dangerous section/intersection and I’m not sure why they think it would work here? We’re spending millions improving roads like the Beltline because a simple sign asking motorists to “slow down” would be utterly ineffective. For better or worse, the same is true with cyclists.

    I’m also not entirely set on the idea of running lights 24/7 (or rather dusk till dawn). It’s mainly needed during commuting times, so 4pm-9pm and again at 6-8am. I’d be supportive of only turning the lights on during those times as that’s when they’re primarily needed.

  2. Travis says:

    As another update, even if your average $30-40 light will illuminate 20′ of the path in front of you, if you’re riding at 15mph you cover that distance in less than a second. 15mph = 22′/s.

    It’s no wonder we opted for the OMFGITSBURNINGMYRETINAS headlamp…

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