Let There Be Light: Operation Firefly Lands in South L.A.

Edmundo Rea from the LACBC conducts a survey with a recipient of lights from Operation Firefly. (photo: sahra)

I don’t know about you, but I feel naked riding a bike at night without lights.

On the few occasions I have found myself out later than expected or sporting dead batteries, images of the myriad unpleasant ways in which I was sure I was going to die played in my head the whole way home.

Lightlessness doesn’t seem to bother some people. I often see young guys bombing their way through stoplights along busy streets like Sunset Blvd. with little thought to the fact that nobody can really see them coming or going until they are almost on top of them. Some commuters are a little more fearful of being without lights and might take refuge on the sidewalks, where they are prone to having close calls with pedestrians or cars turning in to and out of driveways or side streets.

The prevalence of the lightlessness always surprises me, especially because these days you can get pretty cheap lights just about everywhere. My own front light is a 99-cent gem that I power with the same rechargeable batteries I’ve had for three years. Even cheaper lights are available at swap meets and informal markets in places like MacArthur Park, where people will lay out used back lights with the other goods they are hawking. They might be junky, but they are functional.

When asked why they aren’t riding with lights, young riders will often tell me they don’t know. They didn’t think about it, or they don’t have them, or they aren’t worried. Sometimes they laugh at me for being such a mom and take off into the dark.

Hoping for more concrete answers, I went down to 103rd and Central last night, where the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition (LACBC) and the East Side Riders were handing out lights to the lightless as part of the LACBC’s Operation Firefly. For this program — intended to reach out to riders caught without lights since the switch to daylight savings time — the LACBC does weekly street distributions of approximately 40 light sets and educational materials. The materials, including spoke cards in English and Spanish, offer a summary of the California Vehicle Code requirements for night riding, along with additional tips for enhanced visibility.

While attaching the lights to cyclists flagged down in the street, volunteers conduct brief surveys asking if they know the law requires them to have lights, if they have had a night collision, and why they are currently without lights.

“Well?” I asked. “What have you found is the reason people don’t have lights?”

Colin Bogart, the LACBC’s Education Director, wasn’t able to offer a concrete answer. He still has to go through the data he’s collected, he said. But, anecdotally, he’s found that people have a million reasons they don’t have lights. And most of them are not particularly good.

Lights are “gay” or “not cool,” some people have told him. Others just hadn’t gotten around to getting them. Or they just hadn’t thought about it. Or didn’t know they needed them. Few seemed to be citing the expense of lights as the problem.

Listening in to conversations with riders the the East Side Riders flagged down yielded more of the same. Some people didn’t want the lights, even after being told they were free. Kids playing handball at Ted Watkins park just had never thought about putting lights on their BMX bikes. Others hadn’t gotten around to getting them.

No one seemed to want to cite expense as the issue, but it was clear that that played a role. Some people had lights, for example, but their batteries were dead and they hadn’t bothered to replace them. Others were very concerned about safety and had makeshift light set-ups that were somewhat functional, but just hadn’t been able to invest in more appropriate lights. One guy was wearing a reflective vest and carrying a glow stick. Another couple of people had multipurpose flashlights with them — one woman carried hers in her hand as she rode and another man had managed to attach the flashlight to his bike, but it seemed unstable. And, he complained, it didn’t blink like a proper front light, so people didn’t see him as easily.

Surprisingly, it took a while to get rid of all the light sets. At their previous distributions, Bogart told me, they were tapped out within the first hour.

It may have been the location — it was hard to flag down riders at such a wide intersection. And it was also quite cold, so word of mouth seemed to travel a little more slowly. It wasn’t until the supplies were gone and we were packing up for the night that people came by saying they had heard about the distribution.

All in all, the outreach effort was a success.

People thanked the volunteers profusely and rode away happy, including one young guy excitedly shouting, “I’m all lit up!!” and raising the open 20-oz. can he was holding, as if to toast us.

“Was that alcohol he was carrying?” I asked, watching him pedal off on his BMX.

“Yeah,” said John Jones of the East Side Riders, shaking his head.

I guess that issue will have to wait for another campaign.

Youth from Los Ryderz and friends get lit up so they can begin participating in night rides. (photo: sahra)
  • LA

    I find it so perplexing that yesterday this writer extolls the virtues of social justice for injecting race in many articles and then DECIDED to include “lights are ‘gay’ or ‘not cool'” in this one. Really? Did the author at least pause and think for a second before she wrote this? Does this have some value in repeating because it is a marginalized group in this specific community? Could the author have used her skills and translated the meaning?

    This language is completely analogous to the way people frequently described minorities or women when they were in certain circles that nearly everyone today finds no longer palatable on any level.   

    I have worked with Colin and doubt he said this but even if he was relaying something that someone else said. We are a diverse global city and it is the author’s, Streetsblog’s, my, and everyone’s responsibility to not PERPETUATE language that degenerates a group.

  • sahra

    I said in the sentence prior that their reasons were not good ones. And, to make clear that it was not a label that either Colin or I agree with or condone, the words were put in quotes. If I had left the term as-is without the quotes it would have been indicative that I accepted that as an appropriate term/label. Which I do not. Nor does Colin. And yes, he did tell me that and I find it rather unfortunate that you think I might just throw in an offensive term just for kicks. In fact, we talked about it at length because I was puzzled that someone would label wearing lights as such.

    But even though people say a lot of things I don’t like and do not agree with, my job is not to pretend they didn’t say them. I can control, however, how I report them, which I did. Putting the term in quotes to signal that I felt the term was inappropriate is convention–I’m sorry if you are unaware of that convention (see
    my piece on the “ethnic” media if you want more on that discussion. I
    called “ethnic” out in quotes because I find the term inappropriate.
    Others were upset I put it in quotes and it spawned a lengthy discussion).

  • mabel

    Sahra’s article is clear and balanced. Colin isn’t giving an opinion nor should the writer omit a relevant quote to her article because it might be insensitive!  She is a writer getting out an important story.  Lights or the lack thereof.  

    Importantly, to those who think lights aren’t “cool” or “gay” might think twice before being hit by a car who can’t see them!  That’s the point.  Not the writers quotes!  

  • Guest

    I have to agree with commenter LA here, the language was unnecessary and made the group look small-minded which wasn’t the point of the story. Mabel, I think other commenter didn’t say the article was not clear or unbalanced. Where did you read that? Not sure why that was brought that up.

    Authors makes choices in what quotes to include or to not include and repeating this language is unnecessary.

    Quotes “by convention” can indicate passing along the exact language or that you didn’t necessary agree…I am not sure the other commenter was saying that you agreed but rather the choice to include the hateful comment without a clear qualifier unfortunate. I thought it was odd to include the comment as well.

    Interesting article otherwise and hope people start using lights more frequently and maybe even one day we can have lights specifically on bike lanes like those that sometimes appear on sidewalks for pedestrians. Maybe once there is such a critical mass of riders we won’t be the unexpected entity on the street at night.

  • Brianmojo

    Not to stir the pot here, but I felt like “people have a million reasons they don’t have lights. And most of them are not particularly good,” is a pretty clear qualifier. Part of the article was about the many reasons people weren’t accepting the lights, and if a bigoted bias is one of those reasons, it seems pertinent to include.

  • sahra

    I try to be very careful about the words I choose. I agree that including terms that are offensive is a very touchy thing. But I think that context matters. Here, the LACBC was gathering data. Data often isn’t pretty. But as researchers, you hope that your respondents are honest so that you understand why they behave in a particular way. Colin recounting to me data that he had gathered does not make the LACBC small-minded — the suggestion that it does is silly.

    In this case, someone labeling lights in that way is actually an important piece of data, for better or worse. There is a strange idea of masculinity that pervades certain subsectors of urban youth and it drives a lot of ignorant behavior. Mortal fear of being seen as weak (however they define it) is behind a lot of the fighting, gang violence, and other reckless behavior that some young men engage in. With regard to youth and bikes, getting them to make safer choices means addressing that culture — the culture that says brakes, lights, and stopping for stoplights is for “pussies” (something which, for a while, I was being told constantly and which is also highly offensive) — not making something like lights more accessible/cheaper or lecturing them about safety. For that reason, ugly data has its place. 


Portland Bus Driver Says Let There Be Light…on Bikes

Usually when we talk about someone having a windshield perspective on this blog, we don’t mean it as a good thing. But today, courtesy of Streetsblog Network member Bike Portland, we bring you a windshield perspective that is actually quite helpful. TriMet bus operator Dan Christenson has written a guest column about how happy he […]

Use Your Body and Your Brain Will Thank You

We talk a lot on this blog about abstractions — theories of urban development, economic hypotheses, planning paradigms. But in the end, it all has to play out in the real world. And the real world of transportation is about one simple thing: moving your body from one place to another place. So today we’re […]

Streetsblog Interview: Steve Hymon

Hymon, Second from the Left, Joins Sue Doyle in Talking to Richard Katz and Asm. Feuer Does anyone really need me to write an introduction for an interview with Steve Hymon? If so, I’ll be brief. He’s the transportation writer for the Los Angeles Times, making him one of the five most read transportation writers […]