Does the world need a glow-in-the-dark bike?

Bike at night
© Mission Bicycle Company

The Lumen bike from Mission Bikes, is a lovely thing. It also has a special feature: "By day the Lumen is a deep charcoal gray, with a slight iridescent sheen. The embedded reflective material adds a unique visual depth. At night, with direct light, the Lumen's frame and rims glow with dramatic effect."

It uses the "cat's eye" effect, or retro-reflection; as they explain on their kickstarter pitch:

Retro-reflection works by returning light directly to its source, rather than bouncing, scattering or diffusing the light. Retro-reflection is focused, creating a signal that is brighter and more intense. By coating the entire frame and both rims, the Lumen has more reflective surface area than any existing bicycle solution. Each bike will be painted with hundreds of thousands of microscopic spheres. As light enters those spheres it boomerangs right back to the source. This effect - known as “cat’s eye” - is visible up to 1,000 feet.

As I said, it is a lovely bike with beautiful specifications. It just glows, as Mission Bikes suggests, like " city lights, and full moons"

So what's the problem?

The problem lies elsewhere, in how North Americans think about bike safety. In Wired's coverage, Michael Calore writes:

We city-bound cyclists invest countless dollars in gear to make us more visible to the giant SUVs, surly cabbies, and enraged Ubers we coexist with on our commutes. We glue, sew, strap, and tie lights and reflective strips to our packs, bikes, helmets, and shoes–all in an effort to reduce, however slightly, the chance of getting killed by a driver who will ultimately claim he “just didn’t see you there."

In Grist, Holly Richmond notes the cost:

Like most cool things on Kickstarter, this one ain’t cheap. The frame’ll run you $499, the single-speed is $1,245, and the eight-speed is $1,595. (Just imagine your mom saying, “But can you REALLY put a price on safety?”)

But it is Fast Company Design, where John Brownlee goes straight at'em, titling his post This Glow-In-The-Dark Bike Could Save Your Life. His first paragraph:

As a cyclist, you're always only a blind spot away from being maimed or killed. As such, making yourself as visible as possible (especially at night) is your first line of defense against being reduced to a gelatinous smear in some automobile axle rod. Making your bike as bright and shiny as possible, then, is of tantamount importance, yet unfortunately, many of the accessories that make a bike more visible to drivers also make it more visible to thieves.

Lets get past the first sentence:

...and get to the meat of the matter, which is the way this all builds on the culture of fear that is being promoted. Statements like these reinforce the sense that cycling is really dangerous, that one is taking their lives into their hands when they get on a bike. That one should spend lots of money on gear like this, even though this particular concept is only visible from the side, limiting its usefulness somewhat.

With an infrastructure designed for bikes as well as cars, with appropriate traffic signals, cyclists are rarely gelatinous smears. With good enforcement of speeding, cyclists are less likely to be maimed and killed. But what's even worse, spreading these kinds of misconceptions about the safety of cycling are counterproductive and hurt the cycling movement. Or as other better bike activists and writers than me have noted:

Brooklyn Spoke, discussing a $600 dollar helmet:

The fact that so many of my non-cycling friends sent me this link speaks to the opportunity cost of focusing on this arguably cool invention. It sends a message that cycling is inherently dangerous and that only technology and consumerism can save cyclists from distracted or reckless drivers.

Design, of course, is inarguably important in the ongoing quest to improve cyclist safety, but design should be focused on roads, not fancy gadgets. As the Dutch and the Danes learned a long time ago, the goal is to build a city where no one feels that a helmet is necessary.

Chris Bruntlett in Hush:

This contrived perception of danger is, in many cities, the single biggest barrier to the widespread uptake of utility cycling. By implying that a blow to the head or chest is unavoidable, we suppress numbers to only those willing to armour up, and scare the vast majority of our risk averse citizens onto other, less active modes of transportation.... The remote possibility of a traumatic injury trumps the overwhelming chance of a lifestyle disease, every single day of the week.

And of course, Mikael Colville-Andersen, in his post Blaming Victims and Dictating Clothing :

The Culture of Fear is a nasty bitch. Destructive to our societies. It is, however, rather easy to trace where messages come from. In this case, it's the darling of the automobile industry... Basically, if you feel the need to advertise reflective clothing for pedestrians and cyclists, you are advertising your complete ineptitude about building safe and liveable cities. You are shouting to the world that you believe cars are king and everyone else is at their mercy.

The people at the Mission Bicycle Company are not marketing their bike as a safety device. They call it "A 100% retro-reflective city bicycle inspired by late nights, city lights, and full moons." Those of us writing about their bike do them no service by using the language of danger and promoting the culture of fear.

Does the world need a glow-in-the-dark bike?
It's a nice idea, as long as it isn't sending the wrong message.

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