For me, night riding was an area where my expectations kept me from trying something new for many years. My main concerns with night riding were the obvious ones: reduced visibility and the greater potential for impaired drivers on the road. Both were, and are, legitimate concerns, there is more light in the daytime, and as a result you are more visible, and for the most part there are more impaired drivers on the road at night. I wasn’t just concerned that drivers would not see me; I was also concerned that I would not see obstructions in the road (e.g. potholes). I realize that many commuters don’t have a night riding option (they work during the day), but there are some commuters that start so early that they leave in the dark, during the winter sundown can happen before you leave work, and people who work the night shift will likely commute in the dark. Thus night commuters are a non-trivial component of the overall commuting population, in part depending on where you live.
I might never have tried riding at night except for the fact that I was assigned an evening course the second year I was commuting to work. The class was from 7pm to 10pm, so when it let out it was dark. I didn’t mind the late teaching so much, but the 1hr – 1hr 30min commute home at the end of a very long day (I started in the morning at my day job and left for home around 10:15-10:30 pm depending on student questions after class) was extremely unpleasant. For a while I would cycle to work in the morning and leave the bike overnight in my office rather than drive it home at night.
Then, as these things often happen, I just decided one day that I should try a run home at night. I already had the night riding gear, rear red lights for the bike and for me, a front light, reflectors all over the bike, and a riding jacket with reflective stripes. Much to my surprise, since that original trip I now look for any excuse I can find to ride at night, I not only enjoy it, in many cases I prefer it to riding during the day, for a host of reasons. Still, riding at night it not without its limitations, and if you are to add night riding to your regular commuting ride (or just for recreation) then there are some points worth remembering.
Riding at Night: The Risks
First and foremost, you need to be visible on the road. The basic equipment mentioned beforehand, reflectors on the bike, red rear lights, a regular white forward light and reflector stripes on clothing are sufficient to make you visible to cars approaching from both directions. It is important to have a combination of lights and reflectors, as lights can run out of power at the most inconvenient time, they can also become dislodged from you or the bike (rear red lights can clip on to your jacket and later fall off, I have had this happen to me). There’s no need to light yourself up like a Christmas tree, but erring on the side of excess is probably not a bad idea. I generally use two of each of my front and back lights, one mounted on the bike and one on me. The odds of both front or both rear lights failing are fairly slim. For a while I considered carrying a spare set of AA batteries as a precaution, but I eventually decided that doubling up lights was better, as the cause of failure might not be the batteries themselves.
This is particularly important if you are concerned with ground conditions and visibility. When I’m worried about obstructions on particularly uneven or poor surfaces, I will point one light forward for cars to see and another light slightly downwards to illuminate the ground in front of me. In principle a bright front light will illuminate the ground, but I prefer a dedicated light as it lights up more and the direct light is stronger than the general illumination of a front facing light. A forward light is one of those items I’m willing to splurge on, mainly due to the fact that if I need it and doesn’t work well driving can be hazardous. Not so much on regular roads, where the general illumination is fairly good, but riding on trails or uneven surfaces requires a strong light. I have the most powerful light I could find as my “illuminate the ground” forward light, there’s no point getting something weak. I have used it in a variety of conditions and find it works exceptionally well.
Most lights (front and rear) now have a number of different settings, continuous light, flashing, rolling, etc. I’m not convinced that it matters that much which you use. If you are illuminating the riding surface you want a continuous light, some people prefer the flashing light to get the attention of motorists, but I have seen no evidence that flashing lights are more effective. My intuition is that flashing lights are better as they create a contrast with the dark background. If you are riding in a straight line for a long period of time a continuous light can “blend” into the background to a degree, a flashing light always stands out. Still, this is only an intuition, and I am sure that a regular continuous light would be fine.
One new concern that I have noted lately is motion sensitive lighting. I have been cycling before at night and found that lights would spontaneously switch off. At first I assumed that it was an accident, or that they were on a timed cycle, but as I watched the pattern it appears that they are shutting off in certain places when there is no car traffic. As they don't all shut off at once it isn't that big a concern, but it is worth noting as it can be disconcerting.
Another concern associated with night riding is that it limits your ability to use bike trails. Bike trails through public parks are frequently poorly lit, making night riding a bit more of a challenge. Bike trails also wind back and forth a bit more, which is an issue if you are relying on your light to illuminate them, as your light points in a fixed direction (usually straight forward). Thus when you turn it takes a moment for the light to “catch up” to the path surface ahead of you. On a straight main road this is not an issue. In addition to this, as public parks are one of the few areas today you can move around without direct public surveillance (e.g cameras, police) and they tend to be sparsely populated at night, there are safety issues to be considered. Getting a flat in the middle of a deserted, dark public park might not be pleasant. For the most part I avoid bike trails at night as a result.
Impaired drivers are another increased risk at night. Of course people can be impaired while driving during the day as well, so the risk is not exclusively a night issue; still it is likely you will encounter more impaired driving at night. On the one hand there is little you can do about impaired drivers; if someone swerves into you chances are there will be little warning. However, I have two recommendations on this subject that can add to your safety. First, check your mirrors regularly while you ride at night. This increases the odds you will spot an erratic driver. It is of course no guarantee; drunk drivers don’t always announce their impending traffic failure with extensive weaving around the road beforehand. Still, if you spot a car behaving strangely in the rear view then you can always pull off the road until they are past you. Forester, who recommends cycling without a mirror and only shoulder checking before lane changes would rob himself of an opportunity to increase the safety of his ride as a result. My second suggestion is to keep an eye on the time. For example, in my neck of the woods bars close around 1 am, being on the road around that time thus carries greater risks. This rule applies to the space you ride through as well, a bit of extra caution when you pass the pub is probably a good idea.
The only other significant safety issue that I have experienced on the road at night is based on a speculation on my part (e.g. I’m not sure if it is the case, but it appears to be). Specifically, motorists are less likely to expect cyclists on the road at night. During regular commuting hours motorists in major urban centres have come to expect a number of bicycles on the road. They may not like it much, but the expectation of bikes is good for cyclists as motorists are more likely to accommodate you. At night motorists are not looking for cyclists (at least those who would be likely to do so during the day) and this makes it all the more imperative that you follow the traffic rules, cycle where you are supposed to on the road and make sure you are well illuminated.
Riding at Night: The Rewards
In my experience night riding has a number of surprising advantages. Indeed, I would go almost as far as to argue that night riding can actually be safer than much daytime riding, for a few reasons. First, visibility is nowhere near as much of an issue as it might seem at first. Yes, it is dark at night, but on main roads and even on most secondary roads there is ample lighting. For example, I have never had to use my front light to illuminate the road when riding at night. Take a look at one of those shots of the Earth from space at night, we tend to over-illuminate our cities, indeed, light pollution has become a public health concern for some. As a result I find that on most of the roads I ride on visibility is not an issue for motorists or for myself.
In addition, as it is fairly easy for motorists to see me given the standard amount of ambient light on most streets, I view my lights as necessary mainly as motorists aren’t expecting me to be cycling on the road at night (just like they don’t expect me on the road in the dead of winter), not as they can’t see me. Lights and reflectors on your bike thus highlight your presence by creating a bright, moving object in the field of vision of the drivers on the road. Visibility at night is generally more than sufficient if you are in an urban centre. If you don’t believe me just try cycling on an unlit bike path through a park, you’ll notice the difference immediately. The flip side of the coin here is that extremely bright conditions can be bad for you as a cyclist as motorists can become unexpectedly blinded when changing directions into, for example, the setting sun low in the sky. Visibility is the issue, too much light is bad, too little is bad. For those considering night riding, the lack of natural light is a very minor safety issue.
The other interesting advantage to night riding is the comparative lack of traffic. Of course roads can be busy at night, and certain routes (e.g. roads around major night venues like bars) might even be more busy at night, but for the most part night time roads tend to be much less traffic intensive. I have used my regular commuting route during the day and at night and the difference is palpable. Secondary roads (as opposed to main arteries) can be completely free of traffic at night, significantly improving your riding safety. After my first few outings on the bike at night I came to long for the empty roads that night riding provides. It is a fairly surreal experience to ride on a route that is teeming with traffic during the day and all but empty at night.
For me the lower traffic volume more than compensates for any perceived safety concern associated with lack of ambient light. Indeed, since I feel that the ambient illumination provided by standard street lights in most urban centres is more than sufficient, the combination of acceptable visibility and lower traffic volume makes night riding a particularly safe and pleasant experience.
There are some other small subsidiary benefits to night riding that are worth mentioning. In the summer when the heat is particularly oppressive night riding is far more cool and comfortable. As you are moving and creating your own breeze as you ride, there is very little that is more refreshing than a night time bike ride during a particularly hot summer. I have also found that “short cuts” are more viable in the evening, as parking lots, sidewalks, etc.are much more likely to be empty. Finally, for what it is worth, there tends to be a greater number of police on the road at nights (due in part to concerns about impaired drivers), which makes the non-impaired portion of the car driving public more likely to behave.
In summary, the most common concern about night riding, that it is more dangerous as it is dark, is for the most part unfounded as most urban spaces are extremely well lit at night. This means that it is easy to see the road conditions and easy for motorists to see you. Your lights, while useful for visibility in areas that are unlit, are thus primarily useful as they highlight your presence on the road as motorists are not expecting cyclists on the road at night. In addition, the lower traffic volume on roads at night makes them much safer to ride than they would be during regular daytime riding (with the appropriate caveats about those roads that happen to be just as busy or busier at night). For those who commute to work very early or very late night time riding is a comparatively safe and rarely considered option. For my part, when I’m not teaching a night course I tend to sneak in “recreational” rides in the evening as I like night riding so much. Once you try it you won’t want to give it up!
I have grabbed some photos of my night commute, forgive the shaky cam but night pics are tough for the camera phone.
Sentinel Road - Note the visibility of the road, and the surrounding areas. Sentinel is not a particularly well lit road, you can see the lights spaced out ahead of me.
The corner of Sentinel and Sheppard, note the brightness of the lights at the intersection, and the emptiness of the road.
Looking down on the 401 from above, in this case looking East.
401 looking East again.
Duval and Lawrence, again, very bright, though Lawrence is a main artery.