On the left is the demonstration light fixture on the dark part of the Southwest Bike Path along Gregory Street. On the right is a bike with a good headlight, which can be a rarity on Madison streets. But on this path most -- though not all -- riders at night have them. One rider who says he has a powerful light on his bike and enjoys riding on the path even on winter nights is former mayor Dave Cieslewicz. Blogging as Citizen Dave for Isthmus, he wrote a curiously ambivalent post about the lighting issue. He begins by saying that, personally, he likes the path dark.
It's not just about me. If it were, I'd be against lighting the Southwest Commuter Path, a major bicycle route that runs from Allied Drive into the heart of downtown Madison. I use that path all the time and I like it the way it is, without lights. I walk my dog on the path at night and I like the dark night sky. Safety hasn't been a problem since I got a blinking red light that I put on Calvin's collar. In the winter, I bike that path in the dark on my way home from campus. I have a high-powered light that illuminates the ground in front of me, and makes the ride feel like a smooth drive down a town road. So, for me, it's good as is.Then he goes on to say that because it's not just about him, he favors lighting the path. The reason? To encourage bicycle commuting to work and taking a bike instead of a car on errands.
The real payoff is that these lights are likely to get more people to bike to work and for errands and to bike year round. There are no downsides to getting more people to bike in the city. It means less traffic congestion, less demand for expensive parking spots, less dependence on fossil fuels, less combustion of greenhouse gasses, less wear and tear on the roads, and better public health. The bike is just about the single most perfect human invention, and one that has special benefits to urban places.I agree that the bike is just about the single most perfect human invention, but "these lights are likely to get more people to bike..." seems a slender reed on which to hang a controversial $200,000 project. What evidence do we have that lighting would increase bike traffic, and even if it did, would it increase traffic enough to justify the expense? You might call this the "Build It and They Will Come" argument.
Personally, I'd like to see the path stay as it is. It's beautiful in the dark, there haven't been any serious accidents, many neighbors oppose the lights and a lot of bikers seem happy with it as it is. I'm also not sure what fixtures like the one in this picture accomplish -- little puddles of light every 200-250 feet still leaves a lot of darkness.
Still, some people are concerned about safety and are convinced there should be lights on the path. Perhaps a reasonable compromise might be to install less bright, solar-powered lights at more frequent intervals and much closer to the ground, more like garden lights than streetlights.
In any event, I'll be interested in hearing the pros and cons tonight at the neighborhood meeting a neighborhood meeting tonight, July 19 at Edgewood College. It's at 7:00-8:30pm in the Anderson Auditorium of the Predolin Humanities.