Having the right equipment is important for dealing with traffic. Techniques
for using such items as mirrors and lights is a part of the Urban Cycling
curriculum. On this page, we'll look at some of the types of equipment
available for this purpose, most of which is available at Easy
- The bike itself. This is a big and divisive topic, so it
gets it own page.
- Mirrors: These usually mount to the handlebars, sometimes to
the helmet. In rare cases, the mirror is attached to a bike frame's
top tube or other places. A good mirror must be vibration resistant
and be mountable in a place where it is easy to see it, to allow for
steady, or even constant, tracking of pursuing traffic at critical moments.
It is handy to set the mirror far enough away from your eyes that the
shift in focus between the streetscape and the mirror is not too hard
on your eyes. It is also good if the mirror is set so a pursuing driver
can clearly distinguish when you are looking in your mirror (i.e. "they
know that you know of their presence"). Mirrors are a very good
way to reduce your stress in traffic, as cars cannot sneak up on you.
You can detect when a driver has started to steer around you or slow
down. You can also detect those few drivers who are not reliable, and
track them steadily as they close on you from behind.
- Mirrors usually mount on the left (in the US), but a second mirror
on the right is not excessive and it will be used. In particular,
when going through a right bend, your left mirror won't tell you
anything. It will also guard against being surprised by a strong,
but boneheaded,cyclist attempting to pass you on your right.
- A wide as possible position is best, as it reduces or eliminates
blind spots where you can't see an overtaking car. Visual information
about a car is handy at the moment that car tries to pass you.
- Our recommendation for a handlebar mounted mirror is the Mountain
Mirrycle (pronounced "miracle") made by Mirrycle in Colorado.
This mounts in the bar end. For bikes without mountain bike style
handlebars, such as road bikes or bikes with swept back bars, we
recommend the Mid-bar Mirror, which melds a Mirrycle with a Minoura
clamp to attach inboard of the grips. While this is serviceable,
a wider mirror layout works better. Easy Street also carries helmet
and eyeglasses mirrors.
- Mirrors will increase your aerodynamics drag, which will reduce
your top speed.
- Oh, and by the way, like most of the gear you really need
to deal with city traffic, mirrors are terribly unfashionable. top
- Flags: Speaking of unfashionable stuff with poor aerodynamics,
consider flags. Flags are most useful approaching intersections, where
objects at ground level may block an approaching driver's clear view
of you in the short moments before they turn down your street. Flags
will also keep drivers aware of your presence in thick traffic, so they
can detect your bike over intervening traffic. The snapping of the flag
in the wind gives a strobing of Day-Glo color that boosts your visibility
from behind as well. For most purposes, it is best to have the flag
as vertical as possible and not trailing behind the bike, so it marks
your position more reliably.
- But let's get to the point about flags as a social statement.
Lots of people are resistant to flags, as they associate them with
some pasty-faced tot turned loose to pootle up and down the sidewalk
with their training wheels. The fear is of appearing to be some
sort of mentally handicapped person who lacks streetwise and savvy.
There are ways around this problem. First, don't mount the flag
using the standard rear wheel axle mount, but instead use a more
elegant slip mount located on the rear rack or elsewhere, depending
on the bike's configuration. Getting two flags, mounted wide on
cargo compartments or on a recumbent seat abandons the specter of
the tyke on the bike entirely, as does getting a mix of colors.
This begins to create a new paradigm. It stops looking as though
some parental authority has clapped you with this flag due to your
incompetence. You begin to look more like the hard-bit veteran of
urban traffic, out to bite off another distasteful hunk of rush
hour. An aluminum crossbar with some extra tail lights further establishes
this paradigm of knowledgeable and well-equipped adult cyclist.
- Flags are still whoppingly non-aerodynamic. As noted above, in
urban environments this matter less, but if your business takes
you out on higher-priority roadways for greater distances, then
speed is more of a factor and visibility behind objects is less
of a factor. Demountable, collapsible flags will serve if your riding
takes you into and out of urban areas.
- Since flags are a visibility aid primarily to people ahead of
you, you don't want the visible surface trailing too far behind.
Attaching a flag to a highly reclined recumbent seat usually cocks
it too far back to be of best use approaching intersections. Early
detection of your flag is paramount, and it cannot lag behind. "Spinnie"
kites are an alternative to flags, but have the problem of trailing
relatively far behind the bike, so a kite should not be your primary
- Headlights: Headlights are required by law at night, though
enforcement is lax. The main function of a headlight is to help you
be seen, and should be intense enough to be detected early. The
minimum requirement for headlights won't do much to help you see, though
reflective street signs will appear easily. Headlights should be directed
at the ground, partly to let you see the patch of road directly ahead,
but also to keep it from blinding others. While it is true that bike
lights are much less intense than car lights, all the car lights (including
the high beams) point at the road. Even a small headlight, pointed right
in someone's eyes, can start carving temporary blind spots on their
- While waiting to cross a busy street at night, you can play your
headlight left and right as need be, to better alert approaching
- There are two main types of headlights: halogen and high-intensity
LED lights. LEDs last much longer but give a less intense light.
Easy Street has 3- and 5-LED Cateye headlight models in stock. These
make a good backup light, and they will meet with the city safety
codes, but are still not quite powerful enough to stand alone, unless
you have a bank of several such lights.
- Halogen lamps are still the mainstay for bicycle headlights. Halogen
lights range in power from as low as 3 volt, 2.5 watt lights that
will just barely meet legal requirements. 6 volt models come in
2.5 watt (our favorite, in a bank of three) through 10 watts.12
volt models range from 12 watts and up. The more powerful systems
cost hundreds of dollars and will only give a few hours of light.
Another way of getting more light is to simply carry several smaller
lights, usually with an accessory that clips to the handlebar to
provide more space for equipment..
- We tend to steer people away from the really high-powered systems
for urban application for several reasons. First is that run times
aren't very long. Run time can always be extended by carrying more
batteries, but this weight adds up fast, and an equipped urban bike
will usually have plenty of weight dedicated to tools, spare parts,
cargo capacity, and other visibility items. Lighting should preferably
last through several days of ordinary usage, particularly in winter
when days are shorter, on a single charge. Otherwise, one is bound
to forget one hectic day, and end the day limping shamefully home.
For off-road or night time racing, very high powered lights are
necessary, but urban riding typically follows lower speeds, simpler
terrain, and more ambient lighting. The risk of obnoxiously shining
a powerful light directly in another person's eyes are greater in
urban riding as well. Banks of smaller lights offer some extra reliability
through redundancy, so a freak problem with a wire, connection,
or bulb won't knock out the entire system. In many cases, only one
smaller light is needed. More lights can switched on when approaching
difficult situations such as crossings of busy streets. Such lights
can often be connected to larger batteries (of the sort designed
for high powered systems) to give several days reliable running.
- Some headlight are designed to be mounted on the helmet instead
of the handlebars. While this offers some possible advantages, we
haven't much experience with them. We tend to try to keep the bike
equipment attached to the bike. The ability to shine the light independently
of the bike's direction of travel could offer some distinct advantages,
but the danger of shining the light directly in another roadway
user's eyes is greater.
- One light of particular interest is the Sigma Sport Ellipsoid
6 volt 2.5 watt halogen headlight. The remarkable thing about this
headlight is that it contains its own battery charger and need only
plug into the wall to recharge NiMH or NiCad batteries contained
within. This makes the use of rechargeable batteries easier, and
it protects the headlight from incidental wear caused by constantly
opening the shell and removing the batteries. While opening a light's
shell doesn't hurt the light, it degrades the watertight seal that
protects the light against rain. It is much nicer to just plug the
whole light into the wall instead of pulling out all the batteries.
- Rechargeable batteries are worth the trouble, not just from an
environmental standpoint, but for the convenience of not having
to go buy new batteries. If the recharging system is convenient,
like on the Ellipsoid headlight above, then one can regularly count
on abundant light. To be a little more savvy, keep a spare set of
rechargeables topped off and ready should you consider the set in
your light to be suspect and not have the time to charge them. top
- Taillights: Judging by the cyclists we see, most cyclists consider
the taillight more important than the headlight. This is probably due
partly to the concern about cars approaching from behind, partly to
the taillight's lower cost. As most cyclists aren't able to track pursuing
and overtaking traffic, they feel somewhat at its mercy, so good visibility
to the rear becomes important to them. Taillight are also easier to
take care of than headlights, since a set of batteries runs for 100+
hours, sometimes up to 400 hours, with reasonable brightness. We think
an ideal arrangement of taillights involves at least three lights, arranged
in a triangular pattern, giving an overtaking motorist the most visual
information about your mutual distance and rate of approach. Two lights
are better than one, but at least three is best. In Texas, a functioning
taillight can serve as a rear reflector. Notably, the law requires more
from one's front lighting on a bike than the rear, where only a red
reflector is required at night. top
- Front flashers: In the interest of saving a few bucks,
some cyclists opt to use an orange LED flasher on the front of the
bike instead of a proper headlight. This is better than nothing
at night, but does not actually meet with state requirements. Front
flashers are probably best used in the daytime, as motorists can
still overlook oncoming bikes when preparing to make a left turn.
- Taillights are used to best effect in a dark street, against a
dark background. But in a busy nighttime urban streetscape, full
of car lights and ambient lighting, they do not stand out quite
so well. One can simply mitigate this with the brute-force approach
of getting more taillights. A more sophisticated approach is to
supplement your lights with reflective surfaces attached to the
bike's cargo bags, cargo boxes, on the rider, or any other surface
on the bike that can mount them. See more about reflectives below.
- Red LEDs, like any red visibility equipment, can only go on the
rear of the vehicle (by law). Amber or white LEDs can go on the
front, and in some cases amber lights can be used on the rear as
- Bells and horns: We think of these as "visibility"
items, loosely speaking. They project the cyclist's presence to the
front, as headlights do. Aside from being a valuable aid in alerting
drivers backing out of parking spaces and driveways, they can be used
to affirm the cyclist's intent to take right-of-way in situations where
he/she has ROW. The only bell that we think is loud enough to penetrate
traffic is the Incredibell, made by Mirrycle. Only the standard Incredibell
is effective. Other Incredibell models are not intense enough, though
the XL Incredibell is likely a better choice for use in pedestrian areas,
such as multi-use trails. Horns come in electric and compressed air
varieties. We do not have much experience with horns, having found bells
suitable enough for our purposes, and in fear of accidentally triggering
the 100dB noise in a pedestrian area. top
- Reflectives: Bikes are required to have a red reflector in
the rear, of a particular type defined by the Consumer Products Safety
Administration. This is the jewel type reflector seen on all stock bikes
(and nearly the only piece of safety equipment found on most stock bikes).
Useful reflectors might also come in the wheel spokes and on the pedals,
though pedal reflectors are useful on recumbents due to the angle of
the pedal during the power stroke. Some cyclists buy reflective tape
and attach it to the frame. Reflective tape on the inside of the rim
can also be visible to front and rear. Most cyclists get reflective
tape from hardware stores, but a wider variety of colors can be found
at sign shops or the plastics suppliers who sell to sign shops, often
at much lower prices. Easy Street Recumbents sells stock and custom
shaped reflective panels of adhesive-backed 3M reflective material mounted
professionally on thin polycarbonate plastic (the stuff your 2-liter
soda bottle is made from), which can be mounted on cargo boxes and bags.
You may not think of your cargo bags are safety equipment, but if you
use them as a platform for a large field of reflective color, they are.
- Reflectives should be mounted low, since that is where car headlight
aim. It is easy to underestimate reflectives in favor of lights,
but remember that reflectives use the huge amount of candlepower
being put out by a car's headlights, so it can return a lot of light.
Indeed, in the LCI Instructor Training Seminar where old #929 got
his teaching certificate, under a headlight test his reflectives
threw back so much light his LED lights were all but invisible.
Reflectives also throw back light from a field with an area, not
from a point, making the bike stand out against more intense point
sources of light, such as the headlights of surrounding cars. top
- Remote strobe: These items are made primarily by Visibility
System of Connecticut (Lightman© Strobes) but other models by can
likely be found. These are high-intensity lights, so high that they
have too short a run time to be left on, and arguably too high to be
left on when someone is queued behind the cyclist at a stop. The light
has a remote switch that allows the cyclist to turn on the light only
when needed. One simple technique is to activate the light as one enters
an intense traffic situation. A more sophisticated technique is to coordinate
use of these lights with one's actual situation. For example, a rear
strobe can be activated if your mirror indicates that a pursuing motorist
is closing faster than you consider appropriate. Two amber strobes can
be used as turn signals. A clear strobe can be used to the front, activated
when the cyclist needs to assert their intent to take right-of-way before
entering an intersection. Lightman Strobes come in a variety of colors
(such as green for helicoptor landing pads or blue for police), but
only red, amber, and clear are really suitable for traffic. top
- Cargo: One does not usually think of cargo are safety equipment,
but once you begin to equip your bike with cargo compartments, you find
you have some ideal surfaces on which to mount reflective panels. These
compartments usually hang low on the bike's frame, putting the reflective
surfaces down where cars' headlight beams are aimed. Like any most useful
visibility equipment, cargo adds not only weight but aerodynamic penalty,
as it increased the width of the bike. But then the profile that is
being widened is the profile that approaching traffic tends to see (that
is, the front or rear profile). By widening this profile and and covering
it with visibility gear, one makes one's bike far more visible, letting
one exert a greater presence on the road. top
- Water and cooling gear: Doubtless you have heard before about
the importance of carrying water and drinking before one feels thirsty.
Water can also be used for cooling in hot weather by tying a wet rag
to the head or neck and using evaporative cooling from the wind passing
the moving cyclist. Cooling is particularly important in urban traffic
where complex situations require both focused attention at critical
moments and wide-area, active scanning of the whole situation (and the
presence of mind to know which mode of thinking to do more of). This
kind of activity becomes more difficult when one is distracted by heat
or thirst. top