It’s 5 p.m. on Thursday and the sun has just set as a handful of volunteers from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition are setting up a canopy at the corner of 24th Street and Potrero Avenue.
They are installing dozens of lights as part of a campaign by the coalition and the SFMTA known as “Light up the Night.” It is the second of six stops where the coalition is expected to hand out 2,000 pairs of front and backlights.
As soon as the canopy is erect, dozens of people, including children and retirees, flood the volunteers. Some come across the canopy by chance, while others have heard through word of mouth. The coalition keeps the location a secret to ensure that the lights are handed to those who need them.
“How lucky am I?” said one cyclist. “And I was just going to buy lights.”
The 12,000 member-strong coalition hands out the lights from 5 to 7 p.m. — the peak afternoon commute hours. And now with daylight savings time, cyclists can unexpectedly find themselves riding in the dark, said Kristen Smith of the bicycle coalition.
This is the fifth time the coalition has handed out lights, and it is now more important than ever; the number of bicyclist has increased by 58 percent in the last four years, Smith said.
The majority of riders seen on the street this night already use lights. Those who don’t said their lights were stolen; they were about to buy new ones or simply neglected to have them.
One cyclist, Camila Osorio, doesn’t want to be pulled over by the cops again. California law requires cyclists to have a white headlight, red reflectors or a blinking light on the back. Not having one can result in a “fix-it” ticket, which doesn’t actually carry a fine, but there is a $25 court fee to clear it up.
The lights couldn’t have come at a better time for Jose Atilano. He began commuting by bike in March to his job near the Bayview. He rides his bike at 4 a.m. before sunrise and the area is not as well lit as other parts of the city, he said.
He fears for his safety. On one occasion, a man chased him as he was riding.
“Even my eyes were watery because I was going so fast,” he said. Luckily for him, he reached a gas station where many people congregate.
Two of his friends were not as lucky. Their bikes were stolen on Third Street three years ago.
Case and point is Shannon Arakaki. She had spent five hours at general hospital getting her subscriptions filled and did not have lights because they had been stolen 10 times in a two year period, she said.
“Even if you leave it for just a second, they take it,” she said, referring to her lights.
She is not alone. The majority of the people interviewed said they had at least one pair of lights stolen.
“These are hard to steal?” Nikhil Srivastava asked one of the volunteers. “That’s good.”
“I was just being careless,” said Pamela Gilmour about her stolen lights as she was getting new light installed on her Fuji road bicycle. “I am like the worst person for this, wearing all black.”
Eric Larson, who was already planning on buying lights, was pleasantly surprised to find to canopy.
“I am like the poster child for this situation,” Larson said jokingly. “Riding without a light with kids.”
The next light handouts are scheduled for Nov. 30, Dec. 8, Dec. 12 and Dec. 20.
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that bicycle ridership increased in the city by 60 percent over the last four years. It was actually 58 percent.