night bicycle bike lane
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You can do it on the way to the grocery store. You can do it in a deep maze of the city streets. But can you do it when the lights go out?

We’re talking cycling — night cycling. Something funny happens to bikers when the sun goes down: Riders who will gleefully pedal all over town between dawn and dusk hesitate to saddle up for a moonlight roll. I’ve done a bit of after-hours cycling myself, but it’s typically been on off-street bike paths or quiet suburban roads — never in the urban core. Having conquered both bike culture and daytime downtown cycling, it seemed I had yet another bike frontier to explore.

The perfect opportunity came this week, when I wanted to go to a rock show in a city neighborhood about three car miles away. My fiancé had the car we share, and infrequent late-night bus service meant it would take me more than an hour to get home if I relied solely on public transit. Why not become the mistress of my own destiny and take my bike?

I’ll tell you why. I’ve asked myself this question before, and the following concerns have always kept me from going for it.

  1. Safety (cars)
  2. Safety (muggers, kidnappers, jewel thieves, and other ne’er-do-wells)
  3. Safety (invisible road hazards)
  4. Arriving at my destination drenched in sweat and wearing lame shoes

No longer: This time out, I’d be taking the two-wheeled chariot. But first, a little preparation to address each of my concerns.

Hazard: Traffic safety

Here’s the thing about riding at night: There’s not much traffic. Here’s the other thing about riding at night: It’s dark. And that makes it harder for the drivers who are still on the road instead of at home like decent people to see us fragile cyclists as we attempt the share the road. Fortunately, there are useful (and often, legally mandated) solutions to this problem short of taping a Roman candle to your helmet.

You definitely need lights. And not just any lights. My city, Seattle, spells out the bare minimum in its traffic code, but bike safety advocates often advise taking extra steps to make yourself extra conspicuous [PDF]. First, get a white strobe headlight visible from at least 500 feet away and affix it to your handlebars. For extra points, get a second light for your helmet, which allows you to see wherever you look — although really, it’s as much about being seen as it is being able to see, especially in the city where there are streetlights.

In the back, legally, all I had to add was a red rear reflector, but it’s an excellent idea to boost that with a blinking red light. While you’re at it, consider adding reflectors or reflective tape to your helmet, pedals, and spokes and wearing a bright neon jacket and/or reflective vest.

Of course, as per usual, follow bike lanes or designated bike routes when possible — that way drivers will expect you. And even after you’re lit up like a traveling amusement park, be extra careful in case drivers still don’t see you. If a car gets too close, it can be useful to turn that helmet light into the driver’s eyes and shriek “BIIIIIIIKE!” at point-blank range. That, or scream expletives. I’ve seen both done.

Hazard: Crime

Nighttime is when the bad guys come out, so naturally I wanted to ensure a safe route. I figured any neighborhood populated and well-lit enough for me to feel comfortable walking through alone would also suit for cycling. Dark bike paths have freaked me out ever since a night ride I took a couple of years ago in Denver. The path traced a river located down a rather steep embankment from the street. During the day, this lends a pastoral, away-from-it-all feeling; at night, as I rolled along, I suddenly realized I’d ridden straight into no-one-can-hear-you-scream territory. (This wasn’t helped when I noticed several presumably homeless guys rustling around in the bushes.)

In short, don’t ride where you wouldn’t walk. And a U-lock makes an excellent self-defense bludgeon.

Hazard: Unseen potholes

The little dips and bumps of urban asphalt can be tough to see, even under a streetlight. And bike lights bright enough to really light up the road ahead can get incredibly expensive. Best defense: When the sun goes down, stick to routes you know well — or at least scout the route in the daylight before riding it at night.

Hazard: Nightlife fashion faux pas

Now that we’ve dealt with the serious issues of life and limb, let’s get real. If you’re not winter commuting, presumably you, as a night rider, are heading to a social event. You might not want to cycle in your eveningwear (heels and flip-flops, in particular, make for troublesome pedaling). And you certainly don’t want to arrive slathered in sweat.

There are ways around these issues. As I was heading to a casual event, I decided to make my footwear statement with sneakers. I did also try to moderate my pace and walk up the worst of the hills to preserve bodily freshness. This only sort of worked, but I was headed to a sweaty rock club anyway. You can also toss clothes and shoes in a backpack and change in the bathroom, provided the bar will let you check your helmet.

So off I went. Luckily, the path between my apartment and the bar wound through safe parts of town (which I discovered with the help of this amazing interactive bike-route map). I took an off-street multi-use path for part of my outbound route, when it was still light. Then hours passed and darkness fell.

I admit, I was a little nervous as I pushed off from the curb and rode for home late that night. But I could see my lights reflecting in parked cars and street signs, reassuring me of my visibility. I took an alternate way across the heart of the city this time, as it was well past the witching hour. Plenty of other revelers around, brightly lit streets, zero problems.

I did have one near-disaster, but only because I ignored my own advice about sticking to well-known routes. Instead, I tried out a few new connector streets suggested by the bike-map route finder. It was a great path between points A and B, sure, but it also delivered the single scariest moment of my night cycle. On a new street, I noticed an inch-wide seam in the road just as I barreled toward it, nanoseconds from getting my wheel jammed and giving myself a road rash to end all rashes (or worse). Miraculously, I adjusted just in time to skim the seam without riding into it. I think my heart will probably have stopped thrumming by the time you read this, but I’m not sure.

For the most part, though, the night ride went smoothly. As I cruised serenely through streets that are jam-packed by day, turning left without thinking twice and owning my lane, I thought, This isn’t so bad. I had the quiet night and views of the glittering waterfront practically to myself. And as I blazed by a trundling bus, I swear I could see a glimmer of longing in the eyes of the lonely riders.