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Let there be (bicycle) light
One ‘accessory’ that is a must-have
YOU’RE AT the dealership, you’ve picked out your new car, and now it’s time for the fun part: negotiating the best possible price. Those dealer installed options are a good place to start.

Undercoating? Don’t need it unless you’re planning to make frequent trips across the Mason-Dixon line in the wintertime.

Pin stripes? Nah. Wheel locks? You’ll probably lose the key.

What about head and tail lights? You could definitely shave off some of the final price by going without. The idea that you could buy a car or truck not equipped with lights is ludicrous, of course, but that’s the situation folks find themselves in when they are in the market for a bicycle. Lights are an option that customers must specifically request when buying most bikes.

This is despite the fact that a white front light is required by law when riding in darkness and — in combination with a red rear light — is essential for being visible at night. Reflectors, while useful, are not enough.

This is not the fault of our local bike shops, but rather a failure of bicycle manufacturers to keep up with trends in bicycling. More about that later.

Savannah Bicycle Campaign volunteers have been doing their part to light the way for people, who by choice or necessity, ride bikes at night. Thanks to a grant from the Downtown Neighborhood Association, they are giving away 1,000 lights at events, in coffee shops, and even standing on street corners and offering them to people riding by.

In exchange for the lights, recipients are asked to complete a short survey. Their responses reveal why they are riding without lights and where they are going.

So far, 75 percent of recipients said they are aware that lights are required at night and 25 percent reported having been stopped by police because they didn’t have them, which might surprise people who complain that law enforcement officers ignore traffic violations committed by cyclists.

So why don’t they have lights? Many of them once did, but 23 percent said their lights had broken and another 15 percent said they were stolen.

For some folks, replacing stolen or damaged lights is added to a long list of things they’ll take care of when they can get around to it. For others, who have limited means, bike lights might wind up in the luxury category.

One recipient told us he was looking for work and buying lights was something he hoped to do with part of his first paycheck. He was grateful to receive a set for free.

Being lightless can be a temporary predicament that even the most responsible people find themselves in from time to time. To prevent theft, it’s good practice to remove lights and stash them in a bag or jacket pocket when locking a bike in a public space.

But that makes lights easy to leave behind on a future bike trip, which isn’t intended to end after nightfall. Maybe a study session at the Jen Library runs long (about half the light recipients are SCAD students) or a benefit concert is so much fun, it’s hard to leave.

That was the case for some nice people who lingered longer than they’d planned at Statts Fest this past Saturday. Volunteers installed lights on bikes that were still parked at SBC’s bike valet after sundown. This came as a surprise and a big relief to people who were worried about riding home from Grayson Stadium without lights.

So why don’t bikes come with lights? It’s due to an increasingly inaccurate, but persistent perception of bicycles as sporting goods or exercise equipment used mainly on sunny weekends, which is how most bicycle manufacturers market their products.

While this certainly describes how some regard their bikes, it fails to acknowledge the many reasons people ride bicycles in cities like Savannah. For thousands of Savannahians, bikes aren’t toys, they’re transportation.

Our city has the highest bicycle commuting rate in Georgia, and our bicycle mode share places it at No. 9 in the South and No. 15 among all American cities with populations between 100-200,000. Many working people in Savannah commute to service industry jobs with schedules that require them to ride before dawn or late at night.

But that’s not the only reason we ride at night. Of those who snagged a light set in exchange for completing the survey, 25 percent said they were visiting friends or traveling to an event or other entertainment destination, and another 25 percent were riding to or from class.

In other words, people are riding bikes at night for the same reasons people drive cars after dark.