Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bright Lights For The Rest Of Us

Visibility is crucial when biking. Ride with a lit highway flare in each hand. - Bicycle Safety Tips from theonion.

Highway flares?  Funny.  But here's something that's not so humorous - most cyclists don’t have lights of any kind. Among those cyclists who do have lights, most are using low-powered handlebar flashlights and blinkies.

According to the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, over half of all cyclists killed are hit while riding at night without lights, even though only 3 percent of bike riding is done at night. The issue is so important that the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) teamed up with local jurisdictions to give out over 800 free light sets last year.

If you don't have lights on your bike, now is the time!!! Daylight is rapidly decreasing every day in North America, and will continue to do so until after winter solstice. You don’t want to get caught riding in the dark, unable to be seen by motorists. The tragic outcome of riding without lights is only too real.

Courtesy Fairfax County Police.

The bike pictured above, although not one likely to be featured on Bikes For The Rest Of Us, is the kind Eco Velo has described as the "ubiquitous transportation bike." The bike belonged to a young man who was riding at night on a road in the D.C. suburbs. He was struck and killed by an 18-year-old motorist who was driving recklessly.  As you can see in the picture, the bike has a tiny reflector on the seatpost, but no lights.  I don't know whether lights would have saved his life.  What I do know is that you can't control when a reckless, drunk, and/or distracted driver will come up behind you.  You can, however, control how visible you are.

Lights can save your life. But what kind of lights should you get?

Allow me to introduce you to the fierce yet obscure debate over bike lighting.  On the one side, you have those who advocate dynamo hubs. On the other, you have the rechargeable battery faction. The truth is that both types of lights have their advantages and disadvantages.

Dynamo Hubs

Schmidt-powered light, illustrated by Robert Higdon. Courtesy Peter White Cycles.

Dynamo hubs allow you to harness your own energy to make light.  You can't get any greener than that.  If you have dynamo-powered lights, you can flick on your headlights and taillights with a single switch at anytime, just as you would if driving your car at night.  Some believe that such availability is essential to making the bicycle a viable means of transportation. And, unlike the old days, the new dynamo lights have "stand time" that keeps the lights on even when you're stopped.

When I started this blog, I was searching for bikes with dynamo-powered lights that came standard (see the first 3 posts).  Unfortunately, most bikes don't come with dynamo-powered lights.  You can, of course, add your own dynamo hub.  Your choice will most likely be between a Schmidt or Shimano hub (Update: Tom says you should also check out the Novatech hub available at Velo Orange).  Schmidt has almost no drag when the lights are off, while the Shimano does.  Shimano appears to be consistently cheaper. 

In addition to buying the dynamo hub, you will of course need to rebuild your front wheel (or have it built at your local bike shop), and you'll need to buy compatible lights.  So let me be blunt:  This is not going to be cheap.  However, advocates of dynamos argue that the investment is well worth it.  Your bike will have a dependable, renewable, off-the-grid source of light that may well last a lifetime, and you won't have any environmental waste. 

Another option (and to avoid rebuilding your front wheel) is the bottle dynamo that attaches to your front fork and generates power as your front wheel turns. You can use a bottle dynamo with standtime lights so that you still have light even when your wheel has stopped.

I highly recommend visiting Myra Simon's website.  She is a leading advocate of dynamo-powered lights.

Rechargeable Batteries

Alias HID Light from Planet Bike. The 14.4 volt lithium battery powers a 10-watt HID bulb.

On the other hand, lithium ion batteries have been getting more powerful and less expensive.  They are not only brighter than dynamo-powered lights, they are also more versatile.  For someone with multiple bikes or concerned about theft, there's an advantage to a portable light system that you can attach and remove easily.  I have the older version of Planet Bike's Alias, which has a wire connecting the light and battery.  But check out the new "wireless" Alias, pictured above.  Something else you might want to check out: Light and Motion offers a headllight/taillight combo that attaches to your helmet (Urban Velo has a write-up).

If you want to read more about the advantages of lithium ion batteries, or learn how to build your own ultra-bright battery-powered lights, I highly recommend visiting Steven Scharf's website.

How bright is bright enough?  That's another issue that's the subject of debate. Several commenters(lumpynose, Fritz, John Marr) assert that lights powered by AA or AAA batteries are adequate.  But adequate for what?  Bike lights aid the cyclist in two important ways - seeing and being seen (see Planet Bike's article on how to choose a light).  With respect to that latter, just about any type of light is "adequate."  Some even argue that reflectors alone are adequate for that purpose.  However, there is a reason why I titled this post "Bright Lights For The Rest Of Us."  If you want to use your bike in the same way that a motorist uses a car, you will want not just to be visible but to have the proper illumination for all types of lighting situations (urban, rural, etc.).  In addition, you will want to be able to ride at night for long periods of time without worrying about battery failure. I like a 10-watt headlight and a headlamp that can go up to 100 lumens. The headlight is mainly for being seen; while the headlamp is useful for seeing around bends in the road and in case you need to stop and change a flat or make repairs.

Unfortunately, I haven't found comparably bright battery-powered taillights.  The brightest are about 1/2 watt bulbs, but check with PDW and Planet Bike - they keep offering better and brighter lights every year.  In any event, most commuters I know use 2 or even 3 taillights in addition to reflectors.

Tom's taillights and triangle reflector. Courtesy Tom Wyland.

Anything that makes you more visible is a worthwhile accessory, whether it's reflective clothes, a flagpole (check out this lighted one), or "night bright tyres."

Be safe out there -- stay visible!


lumpynose said...

On Steven Scharf's website it says that the last update was February 2008. With the drop in price and more widespread availability of super bright LEDs I question his claim that LEDs don't make reasonable lights.

lumpynose said...

The Night Bright Tyre / Cyglo seems like a dodgy solution; won't you be restricted to the tires you can use? What if I want to use some puncture resistant tires?

If I were going that route I'd rather have something in the spokes, for example

2whls3spds said...

Have you ever seen a Planet Bike Super Flash? runs on 2 AAA cells and it plenty bright enough to be seen at substantial distances.

I prefer the dyno hubs over batteries for a variety of reasons.

The biggest problem with bicycle lights is that car lights have gotten brighter and drivers don't pay attention to something that is not as bright or obvious. Retrain drivers to be better aware of their surroundings.


Yokota Fritz said...

I like USB chargeable LiIon lights like what's available from NiteRider and Light & Motion, but there are decently bright bike lights driven w/ AA/AAA batteries.

2whls3spds already mentioned Planet Bike's Super Flash. There's also Princeton Tec's similar Swerve light.

Dinotte's headlights and taillights also run off of AA batteries, and their lights (tail and head) emit at least 120 lumens and go up from there. Compare that to the paltry < 4 lumens emitted by Planet Bike.

Car headlights are roughly in the neighborhood of 1,000 lumens, while car tail lights around around a couple of hundred lumens.

Freewheel said...

lumpynose - Steven Scharf's site links to the brighest LED lights currently available, which are made by Dinotte. For the price of those lights, I'd definitely opt for dynamo or lithium ion powered lights.

2whls3spds - I have Planet Bike's Superflash taillight. It's one of the brightest taillights available, yet the bulb is only a 1/2 watt. I would not use it by itself - that's just not bright enough for night riding.

Fritz - see my commnets above on Dinotte's LED lights and Planet Bike's superflash. Your last comment points to the need for brighter bike lighting.

DL said...

That MonkeyElectric stuff only works if the rest of us are on drugs.

Anonymous said...

I use a Basta bottle dynamo which fits on the side of my front fork, and didn't require a wheel rebuild. The accompanying Basta lights are not so great, but I'm switching to Busch & Muller lights with capacitors before autumn/winter.

Freewheel said...

Anonymous - switch now! Then write back to us and give us a review. Thanks.

Yokota Fritz said...

@Daniel - I have a MonkeyLectric wheel light. It's decently brilliant -- lights up the pavement under my wheels very nicely.

DL said...

@Yokota: That's cool, and I'm glad it works for you, I was just talking about how they kind of look like a rave. To me. Maybe the music in the video on the website didn't help.

M_Perks said...

Another option worth considering is the Dymotec 6, a very high quality German-made bottle dynamo. Easy to install and no drag during the daytime. Check out Peter White's web site, which has a lot of info on lighting.

Anonymous said...

"Unfortunately, I haven't found comparably bright battery-powered taillights (the brighest are about 1/2 watt bulbs),"


A Planet Bike Superflash in strobe mode is visible and eye-catching more than 3 blocks away - even on an extremely heavily traveled roadway like Market Street in San Francisco.

lumpynose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
neeber said...

What about pedal lights?

I've got them on my commuter bike. No batteries. Stay lit for a few minutes after stopping. Easy to connect -- just swap in the new pedals.

lumpynose said...

As an example of a bright lithium ion powered light, have a look at the Magicshine; e.g., from Geo Man Gear, also do a search on YouTube to see some demonstrations of it. I like that it also comes with a helmet mount; I'd like to strap the batteries on my arm like I do my mp3 player (when I'm not on the bike), does anybody have any suggestions for that?

lumpynose said...

I think this entire article/entry is a combination of being incorrect, misinformation, and not well researched. It starts off talking about how riding without lights is unsafe (obviously) but then goes on to dismiss AA powered LED lights out of hand.
One problem is the referring to lights by their wattage; that may be useful when talking about incandescent lights but I strongly suspect that it doesn't apply when talking about super bright LEDs.
For an article that's supposed to be helpful the reference to Night Bright Tyre / Cyglo Tyre seems pointless to me since it's simply an idea on paper at this point.
Some of the wording is confusing or meaningless; "On the other hand, lithium ion batteries have been getting more powerful and less expensive. They are not only brighter than dynamo-powered lights, they are also more versatile." Lithium ion batteries have no brightness; the brightness comes from whatever bulbs they power.
If you want people to ride more safely by using lights at night (or also in the day, like I do with flashing lights) you need to give them options, for example, from less effective to most effective.

Freewheel said...

M.Perks - thanks sharing re: dymotec 6. I agree that Peter White's site is an excellent resource.

Anon 1:31 - I have the Planet Bike Superflash, too. How bright it is (it uses a 1/2 watt bulb) depends on the conditions. I use mine in combination w/ another blinkie and a reflector.

Neeber - pedal lights (used along w/ other lights) are an excellent idea! Thanks for sharing the link.

Lumpynose - Ok then. AA or AAA-powered lights are "less effective." Much less (w/ the exception of the Dinotte lights). The batteries wear out quickly; you'd better carry back-ups. Now, if you have any facts to bring to the table, please do. Provide us w/ links to *bright* AA-battery powered lights.

lumpynose said...

Are there any lithium ion lights for rear lights? My impression is that for rear lights we're going to have to make do with AA powered super bright LEDs.

Here's a video comparing the RadBot 1000 with the Planet Bike Superflash. The RadBot is the one on the right and the Superflash is the one on the left (it took me a few moments to figure that out since the video doesn't have any commentary or text overlay explaining it).

As always, the comments add more information.

Tom said...

A couple notes on rear lights:
- Single blinkies are harder to see than having multiple lights and/or reflectors.
- Having a backup light is key in case you lose one or the batteries fail, etc.
- Some of the rear lights (dynamo and batt) are made to European standards and have one single LED. The Spanninga lights that Velo-Orange stocks are an example. These aren't that bright compared to Radbot/Superflash varieties.
- Lights don't have to be expensive. Here's a site that sells cheap safety lights and reflective gear:

lumpynose said...

Thanks for the link to Bright Ideas.
My overall feelings about light safety, night or day, are that the more blinking lights you have on you and your bike, the more likely you are to be noticed by motorists. Brighter is better of course, but flashing is crucial.
And you want ones that are visible from both the sides as well as front and back. I just bought some Orbit flashing lights, made by Cateye, that go into the spokes, similar to the reflectors in the spokes. They were only $20 for the pair.

DL said...

I just took my inaugural night ride on my new Jamis Commuter 2.0, equipped with a Cateye HL-EL135, and while I felt like I could definitely be seen by motorists, I had a hard time seeing. I'm in Minneapolis, which is an urban setting with LOTS of parkways and bike paths (that's why we're Bike City USA, I guess). The problem is that, while on said parkways and bike paths, there is a lot of contrast between light and shadow, and I didn't feel like my headlight (or maybe my eyes) were able to cover the spread. I have an old Serfas light that I think is probably similar to the Cateye; I'll add that and see what it does, but I'm thinking I might need something more....ideas?

lumpynose said...

@Daniel - I think it would depend on the price range and compatibility. By compatibility, I mean does it use AA size batteries, or some proprietary battery? For example, this one

is probably bright enough at 900 lumens, at $90 US, but a replacement/spare battery is is $50 US.

The Dinotte 200L-AA-S-HL-GRY is $110 US, and uses AA batteries, but it's only 200 lumens.

For me, compatibility is always an issue, so if I were needing a bright headlight I'd go with the Dinotte. I was reading comments on and people there were saying that the 140 lumens Dinotte is bright enough. Also, the Dinotte sounds like it's very well made.

But as you can tell, I don't any experience with either of these so take these comments with a grain of salt.

lumpynose said...

For rear lights, check out this guy's setup:

Some links I saved from the thread:

Freewheel said...

Daniel - do you use a headlamp? I find that works best for helping me to see, while the bar headlight allows me to be seen.

Lumpynose - Love it

DL said...

Freewheel: I don't use a headlamp, but will definitely look into it. Thanks for the advice.

Chris said...

Check out Reelight than you will know the perfect BFTROS lights. I have them on two of my bikes and they are working perfectly..

Tom said...

Chris, I love the idea of the Reelight, but I'm not sure how bright they are. The new SL series is very slick and seems like they could be an alternative to bottle (tire mounted) dynamos. Does anyone know how bright the SL 550 is compared to a 1-watt planet bike light, for example?

John Marr said...

The alkaline-cell powered LEDs so derided in this article are perfectly adequate for urban riding where you only need to be seen.

And, contrary to the above, a front light is FAR MORE IMPORTANT than a tail light. Anyone inattentive enough to hit you from behind is probably too far gone to be distracted by a full set of klieg lights. The danger is from cars pulling out of driveways and parking places, pedestrians stepping into crosswalks and yes, your fellow cyclists. Without a front light, you are invisible to these road users. It's the invisible cyclist that gets hit.


lumpynose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lumpynose said...

Alkaline are also the best for backup batteries because they hold their charge for a very long time, for when you discover that your rechargeable batteries are dead. Rechargeable batteries, even NiMH, lose their charge after a month or so. And Alkaline batteries are very cheap so it's a no-brainer to carry several.

This is why battery compatibility is important for me (e.g., the AA battery form factor).

kfg said...

As has been noted neither Sharf's nor White's sites are anything near up to date on lights. The LED field is one that is moving at, ummmmmm, the speed of light at the moment. Two year old info/lights are stone age gear.

You can get a CR123 or AA battery light that puts out over 200 lumens on a single battery. More batteries add run time, not brightness on these lights (they are regulated, which means that they maintain near constant light output for the life of the battery, at the cost of some run time). About $60 bucks, same as the Planet Bike 2W (years old tech even though new to the market), only much better made.

These lights can be fitted with red lenses for use as a tail light (but they have little surface area, so back up with an SAE reflector, which you should do anyway no matter your electric system. All electric systems fail).

Sanyo Eneloop batteries are NiMH, but are made in such a way that they have almost no self discharge (and now that lithiums are available in AA size, with a 10 year shelf life, they are now the go to emergency systems battery over alkalines - or for cold weather use where NiMH doesn't do so well).

All that said for short around town trips you'll generally find me using a Planet Bike 1W and a Cateye 3 LED tail light - on alkalines.

They git 'er done; to the extent that people have told me they thought I was a motor bike.

Joseph said...

This article is poorly researched.

Check out:

You can now buy 5 to 10 watt LED flashlights with hundreds of lumens (up to 1000 lumens), concentrated into a narrow beam, which will provide excellent illumination at high speeds. With multiple AA or compact lithium batteries these flashlights can last up to several hours per battery change. They are brighter at the center of the beam than many motor scooter headlights. And they only cost $30.

However, even 1 watt LED headlights are plenty bright for normal riding speeds (up to 15 mph) if the beam is focused straight ahead. My DLumotec B&M dynamo headlight is quite nice, despite only having about 1 watt of power. Newer 3-watt dynamo headlights are very bright.

1/2 watt red LED tailights are very efficient and more than bright enough to be seen. Really, any new LED taillight will make you very visible from straight behind.

Consider that millions of people in Europe, China, etc. got around on 2.4 watt halogen headlights and 0.4 watt halogen tailights powered by dynamos, and long-distance night races were done with the same wattage. Modern LEDs are 3 to 10 times brighter at the same wattage, especially for tailights; many provide 100 lumens per watt.

Sure, a big rechargeable lithium battery in your water-bottle cage will give you much more time at the same brightness, compared to 2 to 4 AA batteries, but for urban and suburban bike riders it really isn't necessary.

If you have streetlights, a 1 watt round LED beam is actually TOO BRIGHT if pointed straight ahead (rather than down at the road), and would be illegally bright in Germany. Modern German-legal bike headlights have a sharp cut-off, meant to be aimed below the horizon, so that those 100 to 300 lumens do not blind approaching motorists.

Please don't buy a 2-watt Planet Bike Blaze and put it on "superflash" (strobe) in the city at night. That's not nice. Too many bike riders think we need to be blindingly, dazzlingly bright to be seen. It isn't true.

Chris said...

@ Tom said... Chris, I love the idea of the Reelight, but I'm not sure how bright they are. The new SL series is very slick and seems like they could be an alternative to bottle (tire mounted) dynamos. Does anyone know how bright the SL 550 is compared to a 1-watt planet bike light, for example?

Tom, the Reelights are definitely town lights to be used in urban areas with street lights. The overall output is approx. 2 lumen (!) but the important fact is that they work always - no batteries to run out of energy, not dynamos to fail or slip or whatever..
You have to choose if this is sufficient for you or not..

Freewheel said...

Joseph Eisenberg: please identify these lights that are 1000 lumens.

Rupinder said...

When the heater was on the LED would start to glow at a low light output so it was nixed there, I didn't wait for it to melt.

LED Grow Lights

Joseph said...

This $32 light claims to put out 900 lumens, but that is likely only under optimal conditions (cold temperatures, full charge on batteries):

Multiple LED flashlights on Deal Extreme use the same LEDs and claim to put out 900 lumens.

Having read a few forum posts about these lights, it appears that many only put out 400 to 500 lumens or so under normal condition. But I think that is still pretty bright for a compact lights available under $35, especially since some can use AA batteries.

The Magicshine light, which uses a big rechargeable lithium ion battery in the water bottle cage, like many good bike lights, uses the same type of LED (Cree SCC P7). It costs more, mainly due to the big battery and nice mounting system, but also claims 900 lumens (and probably puts out 550).

Average cheap halogen car headlamps put out 1000 lumens (at least thats what it claimed on the package when I replaced them on my 1997 Subaru Impreza) and up, and the human eye perceives brightness on a logarithmic scale, so a 500 lumen bike light will look almost as bright as one car headlamp if similarly focused. In practice, most bike lights can be focused more tightly and may look just as bright, but over a smaller area.

Joseph said...

Okay, I found the flashlight that was claiming over 1000 lumens, 1100 to be exact. It uses a Luminus SST-50 LED, which can put out up to 1100 lumens, though in practice probably 75% less when used in a flashlight. It's $70 online:

Freewheel said...

Joseph: 1100 lumens - now that is a bright light! The price seems reasonable given the capability. Bonus that it runs on rechargeables.

Jaywalk3r said...

Addressing bike lights in a single blog post is like Tweeting War and Peace.

A few important points:

Counterintuitively, the more ambient light there is where we ride, the brighter our lights need to be.

When a light's lumen output is qualified with "manufacturer rated," we can expect the actual out-the-front lumens to be 50-60% of the claimed figure if tested in an integrating sphere.

Strobing/fast flashing rear lights should be used only in conjunction with constant on lights of equal brightness, since flashing lights make it much more difficult to determine the distance between the viewer and the light.

Jaywalk3r said...

It isn't enough to have a lot of lumens. We have to be able to get the light where we want it. Some lights project light out far ahead (i.e., have high throw), usually with a tight, narrow beam. Others provide lots of spill, illuminating a wide area, but without projecting light very far.

The faster we ride, the more throw we need, proportionally, from our bike lights, since we will approach distant objects more quickly.

Most of the brightest LEDs (e.g., Cree MC-E, SSC P7, SST-90, and SST-50) require large reflectors or optics in order to project their light very far forward, due to relatively low surface brightness of the emitter. Such emitters offer outstanding spill, but relatively poor throw when used in a cycling friendly form factor. Other less bright emitters (e.g., Cree XR-E and XP-E) will throw much farther, all else being equal, due to having higher surface brightness.

I have found that high quality modifiable flashlights, compared to purpose built bike lights, offer a much better lumens per dollar ratio, as well as greater ability to easily mix and match emitters to meet the needs of our particular riding styles and locations.

Anonymous said...

Good point about the flashlights; I was wondering about that having seen some with several ultra bright LEDs for a lot less than the bicycle lights. But how hard/easy is it to make a mount for them?

Jatwalk3r said...

I've been trying out various flashlight mounts over the past year and a half. Most are adequate, but I haven't found any without significant weaknesses. I've tried Fenix brand Bike Flashlight Mounts (, TwoFish Lock Blocks (, and various cheap mounts available from eBay and

The most common drawback is that there is typically is no horizontal adjustment, and, when there is, it is available only in discrete increments. They don't work well with bars that lack a section that lies exactly perpendicular to the direction of travel (or at an angle that exactly matches one of the discrete angles available). For drop bars and and straight (non-riser) bars, this probably isn't an issue.

Another common drawback is the mount not attaching to the light or the bar securely enough, though neither the Fenix nor the TwoFish mounts suffer from this problem. A strong rubber band or length of shoelace can be used to keep the light from falling should the mount open.

The TwoFish mount allows the light to bounce annoyingly when riding over bumpy terrain, due to the rubber used in their construction. This gives the appearance to the rider that the lights are strobing while riding over the rough terrain.

I've designed a much higher quality aluminum quick release mount that lacks these shortcomings, but I've not yet had any prototypes built.

Jaywalk3r said...

Incidentally, my current setup is two SureFire 6P flashlights, one with an aftermarket Cree MC-E based drop-in module (for lots of spill out to about 75 feet) and one with an aftermarket Cree XR-E based drop-in module (for throw). I power each flashlight with one 17670 size protected lithium ion rechargeable cell. Both lights are currently mounted with TwoFish Lock Blocks. Sometimes I also wear a third flashlight mounted to a headband. I have four different lights that I might use in that mount, depending on my particular needs for the ride. Up front, I have 700-750 actual out-the-front lumens when everything is on high, distributed in a very useful pattern.

For rear lights, I use two Planet Bike SuperFlash clones, one set to constant on, and the other set to strobe.

When riding in busy urban areas at night, I mount blue LED keychain lights inside my pedals, pointing out to the sides.

Bicycle Light said...

safety items must also b used while riding. These lights are really good. they provide the rider with a clear visibility during the dark conditions. Such lights are good because they are a forms of reflectors and or a reusable source of light. I like it

Freewheel said...

One of my favorite bike comics takes a "lighter" approach to the topic of bike lights. Check out Bikeyface.