Gear Prudence: Now that it’s winter, I’ve been reticent to ride my bike since it gets dark so early. There are a million different kinds of bike lights, and I have no idea what kind I should get. Any advice? —Baffled, Utterly Lightless Bicyclist
Dear BULB: Good sense suggests that you only ride at night with lights on your bike, but moreover, District law demands it. All bikes ridden at night must have a front white light that can be seen from 500 feet away. That’s a little less than the height of the Washington Monument or roughly the same as the diameter of Dupont Circle. (Note: Bikes are not allowed on the Washington Monument elevator, so take this into consideration when testing visibility.) The law doesn’t require a rear light—just a red rear reflector—but you should get a rear light, too. Lights are about seeing, but equally important is being seen, and a red rear light is both in your self-interest and a welcome courtesy to those around you.
The visibility requirements are a bare minimum, and your personal requirements will vary depending on your route. If you’re riding on trails or on poorly lit roads, you’ll want greater luminescence. In the city, you won’t need to focus on lighting your path so much as being seen by others. Err on the side of visibility, but shining like a Christmas tree doesn’t preclude continuing to ride with sufficient caution. Be mindful of the impact on those heading toward you, and shield the light briefly to avoid blinding them.
Many lights are USB-chargeable, which is convenient for workers who sit at computers all day, shirking off work and clicking refresh on bicycle advice columns. If you get a light that’s battery-charged, invest in rechargeable batteries. Those who can’t be bothered to remember charging should look into outfitting their bikes with dynamo hubs, which power your lights with each push of the pedals. Those committed to authenticity can accompany their 1890s facial hair with an acetylene light, but who has time for old-timey carbide lamp maintenance with all the mustache waxing and artisanal blacksmithery and such?
Good lights are a fairly unsexy bike investment, but a worthwhile one. You can buy some really good lights for as a little as $30, but they might not last for more than one winter. Buy the best lights you can comfortably afford—you want durability as well as visibility. And remember to use them! That it gets dark at night should not surprise you, and just as you would have no excuse to drive a car at night without lights, the same is true with riding your bike. It’s non-negotiable. Don’t be dim. —GP