I finally went to my first official bicycle advocacy event.
The Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition (aka RIBike) held the first Light Up The Night event here in Providence. Basically, the idea is to get lights onto bikes that do not have lights on them. We were fortunate that Planet Bike donated 50 sets of their Blinky Safety front & rear light set. It’s a basic set of lights intended more for “being seen” than for lighting the way. Still, the lights are pretty bright and can make the difference between being seen by a motorist and being invisible.
Nine volunteers met at Legend Bicycles on Monday afternoon to pre-assemble the lights. We then split up to cover two different locations. One group started at Wickenden & Benefit. They didn’t have much luck there so they moved up to Thayer Street. I went with the second group who set up shop at Market Square (aka the corner of College and S. Main). We had two people doing the light installation, and two people trying to flag down unenlightened cyclists and tell them about the lights. I was in the “flagging down” group. This can be a little bit harder than one might initially imagine.
Picture this: you are a young RISD student on your way to class riding your early-80′s Schwinn 10-speed. A guy wearing a florescent yellow jacket, holding a bulb horn in one hand and a pair of flashing lights in the other is waving the lights at you, honking the horn and yelling, “Free lights for your bike!” Next to the man, there’s a sandwich board sign that says “Light Up.” A group of teenage skateboarders walks by making jokes about what they would like to “light up.”A few feet a way is a homeless woman helping out by saying, “Spread the word! They’ve got free lights to keep you safe!” Would you stop at this scene or speed away into the night? Luckily, enough people stopped that we were able to give away almost all of the lights. I have one pair stored in my pannier to give to an unenlightened cyclist should I happen upon one and I can bring myself to offer the lights to him or her. I can imagine myself catching up to an unenlightened cyclist in some sort of Cat 6 race and instead of executing a smooth pass, I pull alongside them and say, “Um, excuse me, I noticed that you don’t have any lights on your bike, would you like this free set?” I might as well go around offering candy to little kids. Of course, I’ve already [inadvertently] donated a headlight to someone.
The cyclists who received the lights were pretty happy to have them. Most were hesitant to believe that we were actually giving them away for free. The only catch was that we had to install them on the bike, we wouldn’t just hand them to the cyclist (or pedestrians who swore they had a bike back at their apartment). Also, we gave them a small pamphlet about RIBike and riding safely in the city. Still, as far as catches go, that’s not too bad. Despite the fact that some people think of vehicular cyclists as a sect, we weren’t doing any preaching aside from the need for lights when riding one’s bike at night. I did feel a little bit like an evangelist standing on a street corner trying to bring the good word to people.
All in all, I’d say it was a successful event. We got lights onto almost 50 bikes. Given the area in which we gave out these lights (one team next to an Ivy League university, the other next to a premier art school), I’m guessing that most of these cyclists could have afforded a set of lights – certainly the Blinky Safety Set at $19.95. Personally, I would have preferred to set up in a less affluent section of town so we could give them to people who can’t necessarily spare the extra 20 bucks to get a set of lights. Still, there is a big concentration of cyclists (including many bike ninjas) near the colleges and it was probably the most efficient way to hand out a large number of lights.
In between flagging down light-free cyclists, I got to chat with the other volunteers. It’s always nice to compare notes with other bike commuters to see what routes they like, how they get along in the city, etc. It turns out that one of the other volunteers rides part of my same route. He takes to the side roads a little more than I do. This means a steeper hill, but less traffic. I tried out his route, and while I see the appeal, I think I’ll stick to Olney street.
As a bike commuter (with a very short commute), I don’t get to see too many other commuters out there because we’re all going about the same speed and generally in the same direction. It was nice to stand in one place and see all of the other cyclists riding home from work. We gave out 25 lights and there were several non-lighted cyclists who ignored us, but I also saw a few dozen commuters who were well lit and riding safely home. It was an encouraging sight – especially so late in the year.
A big thanks to RIBike for putting it together, Jack from Legend Bicycles for hosting (and doing the legwork with Planet Bike), and Planet Bike for donating the lights. 50 sets at $19.95 each is almost $1,000 in retail value – not too shabby.