Photos courtesy of Allan Crawford of Bikeable Communities.
On the dark evening of Tuesday, January 6, 58 bicyclists in Long Beach were given free sets of front and rear lights, thanks to the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition’s (LACBC) Operation Firefly, a seasonal bicycle safety and bike light distribution program.
April Economides, Long Beach resident and outgoing LACBC board member, explained, “Last year, we landed Long Beach’s first Operation Firefly sponsorship from then-Vice Mayor Robert Garcia’s office. We chose the intersection of Anaheim and Long Beach Blvd. because it’s Blue Line adjacent, sees many low-income riders, and is racially diverse. Most of the 100 light sets we distributed were to low-income men of color commuting home from work – people who ride for transportation and necessity.”
For the past two years in the Fall, when the time change renders hundreds of cyclists ill-equipped to ride the busy, traffic-laden Los Angeles County streets under the abrupt and hazardous cover of night, the LACBC has gathered the sponsorships and volunteers to provide free lights to those who need them the most. LACBC staff, as cyclists themselves, recognized that using these peak hours of the evening commute to ensure the visibility and safety of bicycle commuters
Last year, when the LACBC distributed lights at the same location in Long Beach, on the corner of Anaheim and Long Beach Blvd, over 100 bicycle commuters stopped by to pick up lights. While this year’s number of 58 was a little lower, Colin Bogart, Programs Director for LACBC, said, “58 is a really healthy number, because that works out to roughly a light for one person every two minutes.”
“One thing that's really cool about this program is that everybody goes home happy,” he continued. “The people who get the lights are really excited and happy and thrilled and the people who are volunteers, who come out and hand out the lights, they just have so much fun doing it and they feel so good about it. Everybody comes away kind of high off the event and that’s really great.”
According to Bogart, the response from recipients in Long Beach has been mixed, from skeptics who think there might be a catch to enthusiasts who bring all their friends back. Bogart said, “At the Long Beach location we did the other night, I stopped somebody and they said, 'Oh I don't have any money,' and I said, 'No, it's free,' and they said, 'What?!' Like they can't believe it.”
“We had a woman at the Long Beach location the other night where we could not get her to stop, she rode right past us. We have these signs that say 'Free Lights' in English and Spanish, we're waving at 'em, we're yelling out 'Free lights!' but she was on a mission. I don’t know where she was going, but we could not get her to stop. And she kept going. Luckily she ended up coming back the same way, I guess she was running an errand, but she ended up coming back.”
A stern, elderly woman even told the volunteers that they were taking up too much room on the sidewalk, which was true, said Bogart in a laughing manner. “This woman said, ‘I think what you guys are doing is great, but just don’t block the sidewalk.’”
Each time LACBC does a light distribution, the cost is roughly $1,000, which is why the organization typically asks for sponsors to come in at the $1,000 level on a per-event basis. This year’s season sponsor is the Laemmle Charitable Foundation, which benefits nonprofit agencies working to improve life in Los Angeles through addressing social and environmental issues critical to the region, while the City of Long Beach is the primary sponsor for the ten Long Beach-based events.
The lights that are used are similar to the popular Knog lights, which are extremely user-friendly and don’t require any tools to mount to handlebars or seat posts, but are a less expensive version. They’re more of a “be seen” light, said Bogart, and are not the kind that will fully illuminate the street in front of you, but they will absolutely make you more visible to drivers. The two LED lights have three modes, a solid light and two flashing modes, while the watch battery they run on is easy to replace. Recipients are encouraged to take them off their bikes when they’re not using them because as easy as they are to put on, they’re just as easily stolen.
Those who accept the lights are given a short survey to fill out, one that quizzes them on one of the most confusing laws regarding bicycle safety; whether front and rear lights and reflectors are required by law. Commuters are often surprised to find out that a rear light is not required by law, however you must have a rear reflector. Front lights are also required by law. One Long Beach cyclist told Bogart that he’d gotten a ticket for not having a rear light and was, of course, excited to find out he could fight the “bogus ticket,” said Bogart.
Recipients are also asked if they’ve ever been hit while riding at night and, if they have, were they riding without lights at the time. Over these first two years, LACBC found that of the 20 percent of the respondents who had been hit at night, about half of them had been riding without lights, reinforcing the need for Operation Firefly.
“We introduce that conversation to help instruct them about what the law says, but we go beyond that and say, not only is it required by law but it's just really important that you use a light, especially the front light because there are lots of situations where a motorist's lights are never going to shine on you to illuminate your reflectors. And if they do,” he continued, “it's too late and they're going to hit you.’
LACBC also collects the demographic, age, primary language and gender of the recipients, as well as their zip codes, which along with crash data and bicycle counts are used to determine what locations Operation Firefly takes place. Long Beach, which conducted its seventh annual bike count last year, was able to tell LACBC its top ten most bicycle-frequented locations. Events are planned on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday evenings between 5:00PM and 7:00PM, when people are less likely to take a day off and are highly likely to be commuting.
Allan Crawford of Long Beach’s BIKEable Communities said, “The reason this location [Anaheim and Long Beach Blvd.] was chosen was that every year this site has some of the highest bike count numbers in the city. And as you will see from the photos a lot of those cyclists are riding in the dark with no lights.”
For the rest of January and throughout the month of February, LACBC and their enthusiastic volunteers will host Operation Firefly in undisclosed locations, not including those hosted throughout the rest of Los Angeles County, in Long Beach’s remaining nine districts, something Economides, not to mention our bicycle friendly city, should be immensely proud of.
"For 2015, I wanted to land one in every council district,” she explained. “And why not? It’s a very small investment for cities in exchange for a large return. The city staff I pitched understands that, so much that they added a 10th distribution event along the bike path! I think Long Beach is the first city in LA County to distribute lights in every council district. Heck, maybe even in the nation.”
The distribution locations are not disclosed ahead of time in an effort to ensure that the people who need the lights most are the ones that are able to receive them. If you’re not riding a bicycle at the time, you’re not allowed to take a light. These passersby are encouraged to come back on their bicycle if they really need the lights.
“Car drivers appreciate this program, too, because it’s disconcerting not being able to see bicyclists at night. In this way, this isn’t just a bike program but a road safety program. Bike lights put drivers more at ease and increase road safety for all road users,” concluded Economides.
For those that are interested in volunteering for or learning more about Operation Firefly, click here. The program is seasonal and will end in March when the time changes again.