An all too common way a crash happens in an urban setting is that a motorist makes a turn without noticing a rapidly approaching cyclist and cuts him or her off. What if you could alert a driver to your presence in advance, even in the motorist’s blindspot? A scary close call on her own bike, backed by a deep dive into safety data, inspired Emily Brooke, creator of Blaze Laserlight, to focus on improving road safety for urban cyclists.
Her high-tech light uses a laser to project a glowing green symbol of a bicycle onto the pavement about 19 feet in front of the bike, extending the rider’s “footprint” to improve safety in traffic. Citi Bike this week launched a pilot program in which Laserlight technology has been added to 250 of the blue bikes. The launch announcement cited the hope that this safety feature will help attract more female riders. Following extensive study and a favorable trial in London, Laserlight technology currently is being installed on the 11,500-bike fleet of London’s bike share system.
Brooke, 31, founder and CEO of London-based Blaze, conceived the Laserlight as a design project while still a university student in 2011. A massively successful Kickstarter campaign in the U.K. in 2012, with venture capital following, helped launch the product, which combines laser projection technology with a bright white LED light. With its sleek aluminum case and beautifully machined control panel, the consumer version of the Laserlight is a 21st-century re-thinking of the classic bike light; it now ships to 55 countries from the company’s website. Meanwhile, the company’s business focus has broadened to integrating Laserlight technology into bike share systems.
In the following exclusive Q & A, the savvy, high-energy entrepreneur shares more details about the Citi Bike pilot program, discusses what it’s like for a small start-up to work with big stakeholders, and reveals the best business advice she ever got. Will we be seeing this Brit in the NYC bike lanes? Read on:
This interview was edited from the original.
Is this the first bike share system in North America testing the Blaze?
Yes, New York is the first in the U.S. to pilot our Laserlight technology.
The entire Santander Cycles bike share fleet in London is now equipped with Blaze lights. How did that evolve?
Working with the bikes in London was an extraordinary process. They actually contacted us! They went on the website, picked up the phone to our office line, saying “We’re interested in your innovation, will you come in for a meeting?” Things from there were a little more complicated for a small startup, as there are three major and very big stakeholders to work with and appease. All of these people had to be happy before specifying Laserlights for all of the bikes.
Transport for London commissioned a detailed 12-week study into the innovation. They used an independent body, the Transport Research Laboratory, who tested the relative visibility of a bike with and without a Laserlight around different vehicles (trucks, vans, cars and buses) in different light conditions, on different road surfaces, interviewed drivers, the full works. They then submitted a 92-page document to TfL, which is amazing. It demonstrated that a Laserlight decreases the blindspot of a truck by over 25 percent, a van by over 30 percent. It even proved that a bike with a Laserlight in pitch black is more visible to a driver than a bike without it in broad daylight! I was very nervous about this investigation at the time, as we were obviously not allowed to be involved, but extremely grateful for the subsequent data.
What does the Citi Bike trial mean to you and your company?
The Citi Bike trial is the most exciting thing for us right now! The product going into the bikes in New York is more than we have done in London — it is not only our projecting Laserlight technology, but we are also replacing (and hopefully greatly improving) the front light unit too, making riders in New York more visible and safer.
How do the bike share lights differ from the ones that people can buy for their own bikes?
The device is completely different from the consumer Laserlight — as it is built into the bike. It doesn’t have the lovely aluminum casing, but is powered by the dynamo in the bike and has a light sensor, meaning the laser comes on automatically when the bike is moving and in darkness. The laser projecting technology, projecting the symbol of a bike down onto the road ahead of a rider, is exactly the same however.
Women are underrepresented in the bicycling industry. What do you consider to be the best advice that you received in building your own company?
Get on with it. I spent my first year terrified — I’d never had a job before, let alone started a business! I was constantly asking myself, “Is this the right way, or is that the right way?” It took me a while to realize that there are many right ways, and you’ll learn so much more by getting on and doing, than worrying and thinking about doing.
Beyond focusing on developing innovative products for urban cycling, you have been involved in research into cycling safety in London. Talk a bit about the Near Miss Project and why you became involved.
Improving the safety and number of cyclists is our overriding mission, and so we want to add value to the situation. So with Dr. Rachel Aldred, national thought leader in cycle safety, we commissioned the Near Miss Project.
To date all cycle safety policy is driven by serious road incidents, those that result in a casualty or fatality and therefore have been recorded by the police. These incidents you hope happen relatively rarely. But it is in fact near misses, which often happen multiple times in a journey, that influence how you cycle, or if you cycle at all, and these have never been studied. You analyze the black box of aircraft after near misses, so why not cycling?
We kicked off a 2-week period of research, we asked people to submit a cycle diary of any near misses they experienced: anything that made you feel nervous or scared, from an aggressive truck honking to a pedestrian stepping out in front or a vehicle pulling into your path. We needed 100 participants for meaningful data. We had close to 2,000 and 25,000 miles of riding recorded! The findings were fascinating in generating insights such as the relevance of a ‘close pass.’ Although a vehicle overtaking too close to a cyclist relatively rarely results in a crash, and therefore is not represented in cycle safety data, it was the No. 1 most common near miss recorded by participants, making riders feel uncomfortable and unsafe. This arguably makes some cyclists (often females) cycle more defensively, tucked over closer to the curb, which makes them harder to spot and more likely to be involved in an incident. What can be done on a policy, infrastructure or education level to decrease the number of close pass incidents for cyclists?
You’ve stated that your ambition is to grow Blaze into a global cycling brand. What would that look like, and what will it take to get there?
Yes, I want us to build the global urban cycling brand. I believe that with rapid urbanization, urban cycling has an increasingly significant role to play in the future of our cities. It is believed 70 percent of a growing global population will live in cities by 2050. Mobility for these people is a massive challenge. Cycling, whether shared bikes, personal or electric, offers an efficient, personal, environmental and cost-effective solution. I want us to be at the forefront of helping to enable more peoples’ mobility by bike by providing technology and products that make cycling safer and more enjoyable to individual cyclists, bike share operators and bicycle frame manufacturers.
You’ve learned a lot in the process of developing and testing the Laserlight and now the Burner rear light. What advice would you offer – especially to those who might like to try cycling for transportation but feel scared about riding in traffic?
Take your time, enjoy the ride. I know this sounds glib, but it has honestly been a revelation for me recently. I have three road bikes, and cycling in the city for me before had been part racing across town, part exercise and part survival. I started using the Santander Cycles when we began working with them and I now use one every day. It’s changed the way I ride in the city. They are obviously not built for speed with their weight and limited gears. I found I was forced to take my time. And I enjoy it so much more! I feel safer, more relaxed and observant.
Will we be seeing you in the bike lanes of New York City?
Yes please! I adore New York! Lots of my best girlfriends have relocated there in the last year and I’m pretty envious. I find any excuse for a visit and hopefully there are lots coming up. While I am there I use Citi Bikes almost exclusively to get about. However, I’ve never been in the depths of winter and am curious to see how two wheels fair in the incredible snow you guys get.
Photos: From top, Helen Armstrong for Blaze, Citi Bike (video), Santander Cycles via twitter, Blaze