The Best Commuter Bike Lights

We’ve tested 54 different commuter lights in the last four years, and have researched literally hundreds. After all that, and a lot of price fluctuations, we believe the Light & Motion Urban 350 is currently the best way to see and be seen in traffic, without spending a fortune. You can’t get a better-made light for the price and it looks great. Pair it with the Cygolite Hotshot 50, a taillight that runs seemingly forever and works in all kinds of conditions. It can be seen in traffic from half a block away, day or night, and costs less than anything comparable.

Last Updated: June 21, 2016
After considering five new lights, our top headlight and taillight picks for spring are the Light & Motion Urban 350 and the Cygolite Hotshot 50. After a price change, the Urban 350 is now the best light you can get at a reasonable price.
Expand Most Recent Updates
April 12, 2016:
After considering five new lights, we’ve decided that our new top pick for the spring cycling season is the Cygolite Metro 400. Prices have undergone major fluctuations, and the Metro once again offers the features that commuters need at the best price. The Metro has a hard quick-release mount that you secure to your handlebars with a screw. If you prefer a light with a silicone strap mount, the new Lezyne Hecto Drive 300XL is another top recommendation due to a redesign and a major price drop. It's very effective and notably stylish, and it costs a few dollars less than the Metro.
November 25, 2015: Soon after we updated our guide recommending the Dash 320, Cygolite released the Dash 350, which is quickly becoming more widely available than the 320. The only difference is it’s a little bit brighter, but looking at it with the naked eye you can’t really tell the difference. Otherwise, they’re the same light, so we’re updating again to recommend the 350 as our favorite. If you happen to find the 320 cheaper, we still think you’ll be happy with it.
September 25, 2015: After testing 13 new models for 2015, our new favorite bike lights for commuters are the Cygolite Dash 320 headlight and the Cygolite Hotshot Micro taillight, which you can purchase separately or in a combo pack. If the Dash is unavailable, the Cygolite Streak 310 is our runner-up pick. The Streak offers the same battery life but doesn’t have the silicone mount or some of the battery-saving features of our top pick. If the Hotshot Micro is sold out, get the regular Hotshot, which has an annoying two-button interface but offers the same performance and a longer, 500-hour battery life.
August 24, 2015: After setting aside 25 discontinued models and testing 13 new ones for 2015, our new favorite bike lights for commuters are the Cygolite Dash 320 headlight and the Cygolite Hotshot Micro taillight. You can purchase them separately, or in a combo pack. We still like the Metro series, but the Dash has everything we like about the Metro, but it's smaller and has an easier-to-use silicone mount. It also has an additional row of lower-wattage LED lights that let you blink in the daytime while still saving battery power. Our testers said it had the most eye-catching blinking pattern out of all the lights we tested. You sacrifice a bit of battery life with the Dash when compared to the Metro, but the Dash makes up for it by charging faster, and overall it's the better light. The Hotshot Micro also has a newly updated silicone mount, a single on-and-off button that won't get pushed in your bag, and looks brighter to the eye than similar lights. Despite its tiny size, it has a longer battery run time than any other USB taillight (aside from the original Hotshot). Look for our updated guide very soon.
July 16, 2015: In recent months our research has uncovered a whopping 70 new products and design changes in the world of bike lights. Prices have dropped, lights have gotten brighter, and companies that have never before manufactured lights are getting in the game.Even with all of these new options, our preliminary findings confirm that Cygolite is still one of the best overall values we can find, and our long-term testing has confirmed this--so feel comfortable proceeding with a purchase. In the meantime, we've called in 20 new models to test hands-on for fall and will be updating our guide shortly with anything interesting we find.
September 4, 2014: There are many new and interesting bike light designs--especially for commuters!--that have come out or are on their way. We rounded them up in the What to Look Forward to section and will integrate them into the guide once we get a chance to test them ourselves.
August 25, 2014: The Cygolite combo pack is back in stock on Amazon.
August 22, 2014: Updated with an alternate taillight pick if you care a lot about being able to swap it out easily between multiple bikes: the Knog Blinder 4.
August 21, 2014: The Cygolite combo pack is sold out on Amazon and REI right now, but you can still order the Metro headlight and Hotshot taillight separately on Amazon. We'll update this post when the combo pack is back in stock online.
July 4, 2014: We tested 15 brand new 2014 headlights to see if any could top our pick, but the Cygolite Metro 360 is still the best for most. However, we’ve added a number of alternative picks. The Light & Motion Urban 550 is a sure bet if you’re looking for a big upgrade in quality (for a price, of course). For taillights, we tested USB-powered models for the first time, and the Cygolite Hotshot is the clear standout. The Superflash Turbo remains an unsurpassable battery-powered option. And we found an additional rear light that had so many potentially useful applications, we couldn’t pass it up. The biggest difference between now and October of 2013 is that lights got a lot brighter for a lot less money. If you wanted a brighter light for a dark commute but were reeling from sticker shock ($150+), there are now more affordable options, and we have a recommendation for one of those, too.

In addition to the observational testing we do every time we update, over the last three years of long-term use we’ve broken three mounts, shattered one lens, had three lights stolen, slammed six in apartment gates, dropped one on the train tracks, sent one flying into the sewer mid-ride, got two fully dog-chewed, had one spontaneously fall apart while sitting untouched on a desk, and even once had our gear confiscated by police while out shooting beam patterns in the woods. After years of tough love, we’re convinced we’ve found the best tools for the job.

Our pick
Light & Motion Urban 350
The 350-lumen Urban has better-quality optics than anything else we looked at, an easy-to-use silicone mount, and bright amber side cutouts so cars can see you better.

The Light & Motion Urban 350 has been our upgrade pick for years, and now that it’s dropped in price, we feel you can’t get a better light for the money. It has four light modes, including one that can blink and shine light ahead of you at the same time so you can see and be seen in traffic simultaneously. Bright amber side cutouts increase your visibility to cars on either side of you, and the silicone mount is both easy to use and superstrong—ours hasn’t stretched or broken in three years of long-term testing, and no matter how hard you mash on the power button the light won’t budge. Light & Motion Urbans are also FL-1 certified, which means the company took measures to guarantee you get the number of lumens advertised on the box, a claim that can often be misleading. The best part is that these lights look great. They’re a pleasure to hold and use, something that can hardly be said about any bike light. They also come in several nifty color schemes and are available as brighter models if you want more light.

Our pick
Cygolite Hotshot 50
This updated model is 20 lumens brighter than the former version and has a redesigned, easier to push on-off button that we really like.

A very bright and affordable light, the Cygolite Hotshot 50 is an updated version of the older 2-watt version. It’s brighter overall, and the on-off button, which we thought was a little sticky on the original, has been redesigned on all the Hotshot models and is now easier to operate. Observers sitting in a driver’s seat of a car chose it as the most visible light out of all the models we tested thanks to its attention-getting flashing pattern and bright LED. It’s a workhorse piece of gear that has shown more consistent battery life and fewer mounting issues than anything we’ve tried. A brighter version is now available, the Hotshot Pro 80, for those who ride in very dark areas (or very sunny ones).

The Cygolite Metro 400 has been our top pick in the past and is still a great value. More important, our testers regularly rate the blinking pattern on Cygolites as the most visible. It has the simultaneous blink/steady pattern that we love for its ability to let you see while also shining into the eyeballs of traffic, and a quick-release mount (the hard kind) that doesn’t budge once you put it on. This combo includes the Hotshot 2-watt, which is an older version of our current taillight pick, the Hotshot 50. But older doesn’t mean outdated—it’s a touch less bright, but still plenty bright for a commute. Otherwise the design is identical, including the easy-to-push button like our top choice, and we don’t think you’ll even notice the difference in light output.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, we also have some alternative picks: a brighter light that can give you more visibility (or more battery life), a permanently installed, antitheft pick, and a rec for a helmet-mounted front and rear set if you want to augment your on-bike lights (also a great option for those who use bike share). We also have an alternative taillight option with a wider, brighter beam.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

I’ve written the past four versions of this guide, which now represents more than 65 hours of research and three years of continuous testing. I’ve been a bike commuter in the Bay Area since 2008. And in those eight years, I’ve been hit by a car twice—a very real-world way to learn how drivers do (or don’t) respond to cyclists on the road.

I also spoke to Jim Burakoff, manager of the Berkeley, California, BART station bike valet and a certified instructor with the League of American Bicyclists, which provides safety training for new cyclists ready to hit the road. At Alameda Bicycle, I spoke with sales associate Scott Karoly about what types of lights people gravitate toward, and also consulted Keith Wall, co-owner of Spokeland bicycle co-op, a resource that provides bike repair services and training free of charge to the community of Oakland, California. Picking through bins of discarded items at the shop, we learned a lot about what kinds of lights do and don’t last. Finally, I interviewed Daniel H. Rose, a personal-injury lawyer and cycling advocate who provided legal details regarding the liability issues of riding without lights.

Why you need real bike lights

$15 blinkers are too weak to be easily seen in traffic.

Depending on where you live, it could be illegal to ride in the dark without bike lights. And should you get into an accident and don’t have lights on, it’s possible you could be held liable—even if wasn’t your fault.1 Jim Burakoff, our League of American Bicyclists instructor, succinctly told us, “Compared to the consequences of not being seen, bike lights are incredibly cheap.”

Anything is better than nothing, but inexpensive lights—those cheap $15 blinkers sitting right next to the register in the bike shop—are not really good enough. They’re too weak to be easily seen in traffic.

commuter-bike-lights

From only seven car lengths away, a blinker looks a lot like a reflection.

In addition to visibility concerns, cheap blinkers often use watch batteries that can freeze in cold weather. It’s not hugely common, but it does happen. More commonly, the batteries die and just never get replaced because they’re harder to track down than common AAA or AA cells. Some of the lights’ housings are flimsy; I’ve had them crack if they drop on the pavement, crack in the bottom of my bag, crack in my hand. Invest in something that will do more to keep you safe.

Most flashlights are designed to help you see, but not be seen, whereas bike lights are designed to do both.

Similarly, don’t mount a flashlight to your handlebars and call it a day—yes we’ve seen the forum posts and how-to articles. We asked Cygolite’s head engineer about the viability of mounting a flashlight to a bike, a suggestion we see made often in lighting forums and comment boards due to the fact that flashlights are much cheaper and tend to be brighter. His reply: “Would you mount a flashlight to your car?”

The answer, simply, is no. Most flashlights are designed to help you see, but not be seen, whereas bike lights are designed to do both. Flashlights disperse light in long, narrow streams, from a source that is mostly stationary, in order to create a pinpoint of light. Headlights are made to illuminate a wider path to help you see and be seen. And they also have blinking patterns for better visibility. Some flashlights will have blinking modes, but they won’t have blink-and-illuminate modes that keep you visible and illuminating the road ahead. Ultimately, it’s possible that a flashlight could do a decent job of helping you see and making you visible, but a good bike light—particularly one that we recommend—absolutely will exceed in both respects.

How we picked and tested

To reach our decision, we started by reading all the comparisons of bike lights we could find—and years and years of documentation are available. Every year, MTBR updates its bike lights shootout, Outdoor Gear Lab has a tool that lets you compare light beams side by side, and the Bike Light Database is constantly adding to its list of reviewed lights. These are the three most comprehensive and up-to-date resources we’ve found.

We contacted the major light manufacturers to ask for updates and details on new products, identified new trends, and kept an eye out while riding, often running to catch cyclists on the street and ask about their lights.

Our experts helped us focus on the most important features of a bike light:

  • Bright enough to see and be seen (but not bright enough to blind drivers)
  • Steady illumination and blinking modes (and preferably another mode that does both simultaneously)
  • Easy to install and remove (to prevent theft)
  • Durable enough to withstand abuse and weather
  • At least a week’s worth of battery life (which is fewer hours than you’d think)
  • Easy-to-use buttons (but not so easy that the light accidentally turns on in your bag)

A good light needs to be bright enough to illuminate the road, but not so bright it blinds traffic. The brightness of a headlight is typically measured in lumens, and available models range anywhere from 100 to 1,000-plus. We know from testing that a 100-lumen light doesn’t pack enough heat—it gets washed out under street lamps. And Scott Karoly, a veteran sales associate at Alameda Bike, tells us ultrabright lights in the 800-plus range can be hazardous on normal roads: “Those are for mountain biking at night and are really only useful for the trail when it’s pitch black. I mean, if you had an 1,800-lumen light on the street you would get a ticket.” Lights in the 300- to 500-lumen range are ideal for a city commute.

commuter-bike-lights

New and redesigned 2016 lights tested for this update.

Your headlight needs to have at least two settings—steady and strobe. Sometimes these are referred to as “see” and “be seen.” The steady beam is your “see” setting—it illuminates the road in front of you. The strobing pattern is “be seen”—it makes you visible to cars. Many lights now blink and illuminate simultaneously (the best of both worlds), a feature we looked for when choosing our light.

A good light has to install quickly and securely, stay put while biking, and be easy to remove when you arrive at your destination. Otherwise, it makes a tempting target for thieves. No tools, no battery packs, no cords.

It needs to be durable and weather-resistant for those unexpected rainy days, and also be able to handle some abuse from accidents and drops.

As for battery life, most lights advertise only a few hours of run time, which doesn’t seem like much. But Karoly reassured us, “If you commute, even five days a week, … just recharge it on your day off. I don’t have to charge mine except maybe once a week.” If you have it on for only 30 to 45 minutes once a day, this makes a lot of sense, and three to four hours of burn time is plenty to get you through the week.

Your light’s buttons must be easy enough to operate with gloves on, but not so easy to push that they can turn on inside a bag, unknowingly draining your battery. And all lights we looked at have an indicator that lets you know when it’s time to recharge.

We judged taillights by a lot of the same criteria as headlights—they have to be bright enough to see, have enough battery life to get you through the week, and be easy to put on and take off the bike. They also should be red, so drivers can understand that they’re seeing a rear light and not a headlight. Extra waterproofing is good, too, because your rear wheel kicks a lot of spray on the back of your bike when it rains. And taillights must have a crazy blinking pattern, as their sole purpose is to alert people to your presence.

We set aside lights that require you to use a proprietary charger instead of a basic, widely available standard Mini- or Micro-USB cable. We also didn’t consider dynamo lights, which are self-charging, but hard to find in US bike shops.2

By now, we’ve run a lot of different tests on these lights. Like other publications, we have photographed beam spreads to observe not only how bright a light is, but also where and how the light is directed.

To test our latest batch of lights, we simply shined each one on the ground, and didn’t find anything we hadn’t seen during testing in previous years: All the brands project different patterns, some square, some round, some smooth, some wavy—and when we look at them projected from our bike onto a city street, they look similar.

We’ve installed every mount there is—the screw-lock mounts of Cygolite and NiteRider, CatEye’s FlexTight bracket, Knog’s trademark bungee, ratchet-style clamps used by Planet Bike and Serfas, and every other iteration of silicone-strap and hard-plastic mechanisms—and ridden them on terrible roads.

We’ve tested battery life, draining more than 25 lights to empty to cross-check run time claims and find out how light output changed over time and how the lights turned off.

We even started freezing our taillights to see if cold temperatures would compromise the battery.

All of these things do matter. But we decided the most important thing we could do is look at each light from the vantage point of a car. So our panel of five testers sat in the driver’s seat and observed our top headlight contenders from two critical angles: as the driver prepares to make a right turn as a bike in the bike lane approaches it from behind, and on the car’s left as the driver is getting ready to pull out of a parking space or exit the vehicle.

We also had testers look at our taillights. They stood on the sidewalk a block away and observed in order to address a question that numbers can’t answer—when a driver looks at this light, will they see that it’s a bike? We’ve done this both in daylight and at night, and in a bracket-style elimination round we narrowed the field to our top choices.

Headlights

commuter bike lights, urban 350

The Urban 350 in Voltage. It comes in two other colors, Blue Moon (white on blue) and Obsidian Stout (black on black).

Our pick
Light & Motion Urban 350
The 350-lumen Urban has better-quality optics than anything else we looked at, an easy-to-use silicone mount, and bright amber side cutouts so cars can see you better.

The Light & Motion Urban 350 has been our upgrade pick since we started writing this guide—the only problem was that it was expensive. But now that the price has dropped (to even less than that of our former top choice), we didn’t hesitate to choose it as our favorite for commuters. It projects a bright, even, beautiful wash of light a full 180 degrees and has additional side illumination, increasing your visibility to traffic even more. It’s simple to install, a pleasure to hold, and assembled in the US, and Light & Motion does a lot of testing to guarantee the quality of its product. This is the commuter light we would recommend to our friends if they asked us which one they should get.

Nathan Hinkle of Bike Light Database states, “The optics of the Urban lights are unparalleled …,” going on to say that the Urban 350 is “exciting because it’s the first L&M headlight that I feel is in the price and output range that appeals to the most riders.” Competitive Cyclist also likes the 350. “It’s an extremely visible LED light that employs the same innovations as the more expensive Urban series lights, like amber-colored side lighting for 180-degrees of visibility …”

The most important thing a light has to do is keep you safe, and the Urban has four light settings to help do that; high, medium, low, and pulse. Pulse is Light & Motion’s combination steady/strobe pattern that we find critical in a great commuter light. It lets you see the road and also alerts traffic to your presence. It wasn’t rated as the most attention-getting flash by our testers—that award goes to the Cygolite Metro, our runner-up pick. This light also doesn’t have solo flash, so if you really want a light that only blinks, consider the runner-up as well. What it comes down to is that unless you have a specific use in mind for that flash mode, we don’t think you’ll miss it. In fact, it might even make the light easier to use, because you don’t get lost sorting through five, six, seven different modes.

The steady breathing pattern emitted in pulse mode is still plenty visible, and other features of this light make it fit for the road, like side lights, for example.

commuter-bike-lights, Light & Motion Urban 350, Cygolite Metro 400

The amber side cutouts on the Light & Motion Urban 350 (left), compared with the smaller side cutouts on the Cygolite Metro 400 (right).

Several other lights have side cutouts to help spill a little to the side, but they pale in comparison to the amber glow of the Urban’s extra-large side cutouts. The light from the Urban’s cutouts is much brighter and more visible from the side than that of any other light we tested. While the NiteRider Mako has dedicated side LEDs that are comparably bright, the main 200-lumen light is a bit too dim for us to recommend.

Jim Burakoff mentioned in our interview that side lighting isn’t necessarily everything. “A light without these side windows can still have a pretty great viewable angle,” he mentioned, “and may be just as effective the majority of the time. Turning a light on and then walking around it from a distance will give you a good idea of how well it stands out from which angles.” But even if we only considered the viewable angle of the main beam, it projects light more evenly side to side than anything we tested.

We also love the mounting strap. We’ve used our test model for three years, and it hasn’t stretched, broken, or degraded over time, the major issue with silicone mounts.

This light’s battery life is similar to that of everything in the category, and we’re assuming you’ll be using the pulse setting most of the time, which can go for 12 hours, so you won’t have to charge for an entire week or more, depending on the length of your commute. It will run on high for one and a half hours and low for six hours.

It’s rechargeable via Micro-USB—the same as most Android phones and USB battery packs. A full charge takes five hours, and it has a four-stage battery-status indicator light on the back. As the battery drains, it changes from green to amber to red. With 5 to 10 percent battery life remaining, the red light will begin flashing. We’ve never had the button turn on in a bag, but there is a lockout mode—just press and hold the button for six seconds.

This light’s design is more refined than that of any other model we’ve looked at, and it is a pleasure to use. The USB port cover stays put, the light doesn’t tilt when you press the on button, and the housing isn’t just weatherproof, it’s fully waterproof to IP-67 standards (survives for 90 minutes under 1 meter of water).

Light & Motion offers a two-year warranty (excluding the battery, which is warrantied for six months), after which they can either repair the light or let you trade it in for a credit toward a new one via the company’s upgrade program.

The Light & Motion Urban 350 is a very polished light and, up until now, one of the few complaints we had about it was that it was too expensive. But now that it’s as cheap as the competing Cygolite models, that’s been fixed too. The only remaining issue is that its blink/flash pattern isn’t as visible as the Cygolites’s. Then again, the Cygolites don’t have bright side lighting, so you win some and lose some.

commuter bike lights, Cygolites

Cygolites are always a good value. They offer features commuters need at very reasonable prices.

Runner-up

*At the time of publishing, the price was $45.

Cygolite Metro 400
Our top pick works great, but if you want the light that our testers rated most visible from a car driver’s seat, this is it.

When we put our testers in the driver’s seat of a car to observe light patterns, Cygolites are always rated the most visible. The SteadyPulse mode on the Metro 400 is a simultaneous blink/steady pattern that is really noticeable—more so than that of the Urban. We don’t think that’s a dealbreaker for our top pick, because you’ll still be seen by traffic, but if you want something more eye-grabbing, the Metro is your best option. It has two more modes than our top choice, including a very bright day flash (the most eye-piercing we’ve seen—which you should not use at night because you’ll blind everyone!) and a walking mode that runs the light on low power to save battery. The mount is also different. It’s a hard, quick-release mount that installs to your handlebars, instead of a silicone strap, which some people prefer. We like it better than other hard mounts on the market because it has no loose parts that can get lost, and since we started testing three years ago, it has never tilted, loosened, or slipped.

commuter bike lights, Expilion

The Expilion is similar in size and shape to the Metro series.

Also great
Cygolite Expilion 850
You simply can’t get more light for the price than with the Expilion series. Or if you want a light with long battery life, get this one and run it on low.

The Cygolite Expilion 850 packs more lumens for the price than any other commuter bike light in existence. It’s not our main pick because we think 350 lumens is plenty for most people on illuminated urban streets, and if you’re one of them you should save the extra money. But if you ride on darker roads and need more light, the Expilion 850 gives you more lumens per dollar (9.4 at the time we tested) than any other light of similar power output. Another advantage of a brighter light is that you can get more battery life if you run it on a low setting. The Expilion will output 425 lumens for three hours, twice as long as our top pick (and brighter, too). This makes it a great pick for those with commutes longer than 30 minutes—that way you can make it through the week between recharges.

commuter bike lights, cygolite-expilion, battery

The swappable li-ion lets you carry a spare and change mid-ride if you really need a light to last a long time.

The Expilion will output 425 lumens for three hours, twice as long as our top pick (and brighter, too). This makes it a great pick for those with commutes longer than 30 minutes.

If you plan on going on much longer rides or always want to have a charged battery ready, the 850 also has a swappable 3.7-volt lithium-ion battery. It comes with one battery stick included, and you can purchase additional batteries for $40 each.

The Expilion gets great accolades from Gizmodo and the ever-comprehensive Bike Light Database, and has a 4.6-star Amazon user rating.

commuter bike lights

The Vis 360+ comes in two pieces—a headlight and a taillight—which are connected by a power cable that stretches over your helmet and links them together.

Also great
Light & Motion VIS 360+
Though pricey, this helmet-mounted option sits low on the visor instead of on the top of your head, and has a taillight that remains highly visible no matter where you shine the headlight.

If you want to make yourself more visible, adding a helmet-mounted light to your on-bike arsenal can help. Helmet lights are also a great option for anyone using a bring-your-own-helmet bike-share program—the built-in lights on those bikes aren’t always that great, and this way you never accidentally leave lights behind. The Light & Motion VIS 360+ is pricey, but worth it, because the front light tilts easily to accommodate different head and riding positions while pedaling or stopped at a light. Even if your handlebar light came with a helmet mount in the box, we don’t think it’s the best tool for the job. If you’re rolling around with a bike headlamp perched dead center on top of your helmet, you can’t make any on-the-fly adjustments, which are essential if your light is mounted on something that will be moving when you ride (like your head).

Helmet lights are also a great option for anyone using a bring-your-own-helmet bike-share program.

The Vis 360+ is a 250-lumen light that can shine for three hours (on high), and has three modes—high, low, and pulse. It comes attached via cable to a taillight that also mounts on the rear of your helmet, which you can leave flashing or turn off entirely. The whole setup charges via Micro-USB.

We preferred the Vis to all-in-one commuter helmet lights such as the Lezyne Macro Duo, because it sits low on the visor and back of the helmet. It feels less top heavy and keeps the rear taillight in the right position to be seen, rather than potentially pointing too high when you need to shine your headlamp to the road.

commuter bike lights, vis 360

The taillight portion of the Vis 360+.

Yes, there’s a cheaper version, the Vis 360. But if you’re interested in this light, go for the plus model because the Vis 360 shines only 110 lumens, which we noticed gets easily washed out by streetlights while commuting and is almost invisible to the naked eye from less than a block away.

Our only complaint is that it didn’t come with instructions, and mounting wasn’t very intuitive, so we had to Google search for information on how to get it on the helmet.

commuter bike lights, fortified-bike-aviator-afterburner-boost-combo

To turn the light on, press the lens.

Also great
Fortified Bike Aviator and Afterburner Boost Combo
Sold as a pair, these lights mount to your bike permanently (or until you decide to remove them) to thwart would-be thieves.

Because of a recent price drop, there’s finally a pair of locking bike lights we feel we can get behind: the Fortified Bicycle’s Aviator and Afterburner Boost, sold as a combo pack. The Aviator is a 300-lumen front light with three very simple modes (one steady and two blinks). Unfortunately, it can’t shine and blink simultaneously like the Urban or Metro. The Afterburner taillight is 30 lumens and has two settings (blink and steady).

But the main attraction is that these lights permanently install to your bike frame so that they can’t be stolen. The light housing itself is one solid piece that can’t be removed unless the culprit happens to have a tiny little torx wrench handy, and those odds are small. To charge the battery, rotate part of the light (secret instructions included) then remove the cell and plug it into a Micro-USB.

commuter bike lights, fortified-bike-aviator-afterburner-boost-combo

To recharge the light, open it up and take the battery with you. The housing stays clamped to your handlebars.

And should your lights get stolen, Fortified pledges to replace them. Compared with other locking options we’ve seen, such as the Blackburn Grid Bolt On, the Aviator and Afterburner offer more light for the same price, plus the replacement guarantee.

A word of caution: Do not get the cheaper non-Boost version of these lights. The 150-lumen headlight is simply too dim to offer any real safety benefits on a crowded road.

Taillights

The button on the lower left is on-off. The button to its right lets you customize the frequency of the blink pattern.

The button on the lower left is on-off. The button to its right lets you customize the frequency of the blink pattern.

Our pick
Cygolite Hotshot 50
This updated model is 20 lumens brighter than the former version and has a redesigned, easier to push on-off button that we really like.

For a bright, rechargeable taillight with long battery life, we recommend the Cygolite Hotshot 50. It’s brighter than its predecessor by about 20 lumens, and combined with a parabolic reflector it appears brighter to the naked eye than any similar light. In blink mode it can run up to 300 hours between charges—you won’t have to recharge in this lifetime. It also has an updated on-off button that’s easier to press.

Taillights can be more difficult to compare than headlights because some are rated in watts and some are rated in lumens. These are different ways to measure output, but comparing numbers side by side requires some electrical engineering know-how. So, to figure out how much light was enough to be visible, we photographed a variety of taillights during the day from 45 yards away. This is roughly how much distance a car traveling behind you at 35 mph needs in order to stop without hitting you. The conditions were intentionally extreme, because sometimes it’s important to be seen during the day as well as at night, and we compared 0.5- to 2-watt lights, and lights ranging from 25 to 80 lumens.

We discovered that 2-watt models provide an adequate amount of illumination and aren’t as costly as brighter options that might be unnecessary for average city streets. Once we set aside the large number of 0.5- and 1-watt lights available, the Hotshot was the least expensive light in the 25- to 40-lumen range, making it an easy pick.

The Hotshot blinks in the same SteadyPulse pattern as the Metro headlight, but to make sure it was as eye-catching as we thought, we stacked it up against some former competition for our panel of testers to observe by eye. From one block away, they singled out the Hotshot as the most attention-grabbing light in a field of 2-watt and 25- to 40-lumen lights.

commuter bike lights, hotshot

The Hotshot comes with a basic plastic mount that needs to be screwed to your seatpost. If you prefer silicone mounts, check out the Hotshot Micro below.

The light will run for an impressive 300 hours on blink mode—nothing of comparable size lasts anywhere close to that long—and charges via Micro-USB. The on-off button is an upgrade from the original’s two-button design that was a hassle to turn off. This one clicks on and off with ease.

The Hotshot is a perennial favorite, and Gizmodo has dubbed it the “Grand Master.” Wired is also a big fan. And this light holds the Best Deal title at Bike Light Database, who says, “No other light matches the build quality, battery life, output, and features of the Hotshot for this price.”

commuter bike lights, hotshot micro

The Hotshot Micro is compact enough to mount wherever you need it, yet as bright as the full-size Hotshot.

Runner-up
Cygolite Hotshot Micro
A small and compact light with a mega-bright flash and epic run time, the Hotshot Micro is a great option if you prefer a silicone mount.

If you don’t want to use the traditional hard mount that comes with the Hotshot, get the Hotshot Micro. It performs the same, but comes in a smaller package and has slightly less run time (but you won’t notice). It’s a very bright and affordable light. It used to be our top pick until the larger version got a redesign, but after a year of use we still like the Micro’s performance tweaks, including the small, light design, silicone mount, and easy-to-operate button. And as of yet, we have had no issues with the battery ceasing to work.

commuter bike lights

A long, vertical strip of small LEDs, the Thunderbolt can add an additional wash of light in front of or below you.

Also great
Serfas Thunderbolt
This best-selling taillight has a red-hot 35-lumen glow and one of the widest viewable angles available, and is currently very inexpensive.

The Serfas Thunderbolt can help you in a few situations in which you need to mount a light in an awkward place. For example, if you have a seat bag hanging on the back of your bike, it might block your best available taillight-mounting position. The Thunderbolt can attach to a seatstay or your top tube, and—though not very elegant—we even managed to strap it to a helmet.

Unlike our top picks, which have a parabolic reflector that points the beam in a particular direction, the Thunderbolt does not, and it is designed to flood light around you instead of straight back into the eyeballs of traffic. If you’re stuck in a situation in which you can’t get your taillight to mount and point straight back, the Thunderbolt’s multidirectional beam could make you more visible than a beam pointed at the ground.

commuter bike lights, Cygolite Hotshot, Serfas Thunderbolt

Left: The beam spread of the Cygolite Hotshot. Right: The beam spread of the Serfas Thunderbolt.

The competition

Though there are a lot of good lights on the market, we dismissed the following for one reason or another. (For some we chose to highlight what makes them special, even if they couldn’t match the overall value of our top choices.)

Headlamps

Bontrager Ion 700 R: We’ve read a few reviews that call this light the “best value,” but we’re not sure why it’s a better deal than similar lights such as the Light & Motion Urban 650 or the 700-lumen Lezyne Power Drive 900XL, both of which have great looks and high-quality components. The Ion does have a pretty and compact design with quality optics and a silicone mount, and you get about 6 lumens per dollar, which is slightly above average, but the brighter Expilion series gives you more lumens for your money—nearly 9 per dollar—at current prices.

CatEye Volt 300: We tested the Volt and liked it, but the locking piece on the mount that could get lost makes us nervous, and the price fluctuates a lot. It’s worth it to get the Light & Motion Urban 350 instead, for both functionality and looks.

Cygolite Metro 550: If you can find this at the same price or cheaper than the 400, get it.

Cygolite Dash 350: Our top pick last year. Still a great light, but because the Urban’s price finally went down, we think the Urban is a nicer light for the money. If you get the Dash, it’s a great light and we think you’ll like it. But if you get the Urban, we think you’ll be thrilled.

Knog Blinders offer relatively little light for your money (the various models offer 1 to 5 lumens per dollar, below average for the models we tested); this is true even when they’re on sale. They used to be the only lights that had an easy-to-use silicone mount, but that’s no longer the case.

Lezyne Power Drive 900XL: A 900-lumen light in a machined-aluminum case that matches the Expilion 850’s specs almost exactly and is a good option if you want your superbright light to also be ultrastylish. Our issue was the on-off button, which was unusually hard to press and too difficult to operate while riding.

Lezyne Hecto Drive 300XL: Another small, compact, utterly pleasing light. However, our top choices bested it because it has a very hard-to-push on-off button and a beam pattern that wasn’t as great, and also because the USB charger is embedded directly into the light—our tech editors warned this design aspect could potentially damage the whole light after repeated use.

NiteRider Lumina 350: This light got a redesign, and gets the award for best-in-class button. The quality of the light itself is also great. But the new mount is a quick-release and silicone-strap hybrid and our testers didn’t love it over a single, dedicated option.

Portland Design Works Lars Rover 450: It’s a bit bulky, and 450 lumens can’t do much more than our cheaper picks.

Serfas’s TSL series: Serfas integrated a swappable lens and redesigned the housing on these lights. Changing your light beam from wide to narrow lets you customize how far ahead you want to see—a narrowly focused beam can peer down a path much farther, whereas a wider flood beam is better for close-distance illumination. This is a clever tool for mountain bikers, who have a great need for anticipating roots and rocks on the trail. But commuters don’t usually need to customize their beam’s width.

Divine LEDs Bike Light: When we opened the box, the plastic packaging smelled like gasoline. It’s a battery-operated light, and a month after receiving it I still can’t get it to work. Though we didn’t test it, we’re convinced a product with a warranty from a brand that can offer you customer support is a better use of your money.

Taillights

CatEye Rapid X2: The included strap mount is hard to get around a seat post.

Planet Bike Superflash Turbo: This AAA-battery-operated light is a former top pick and still an editor favorite, but rechargeable lights are now so much brighter and more ubiquitous, at this point you should get a brighter light for your money.

Portland Design Works Aether Demon: A quality light from a company that everyone in the bike community loves, but it’s only 0.5 watt.

Serfas Shield 60: Serfas taillights don’t just look bright, they look like they’re throwing off heat. But this one lasts only two hours on high and currently costs $60. The Shield 80 is even hotter, but overkill.

NiteRider Solas: Heavier than the Hotshot, and sometimes more expensive.

Light & Motion Vis 180: This light is long, and the housing didn’t fit in the space under my saddle. The Vis 180 Micro didn’t fit on my seatpost either. It looks like it should from the package, but it couldn’t sit properly flush against the post.

Cygolite Hotrod: An LED array light (so no lens) that’s nearly identical to the Serfas Thunderbolt specwise, but it only has one silicone strap instead of two (testers liked the extra security of the Thunderbolt’s second strap).

What to look forward to

Lights that project things in front or behind your bike for safety aren’t entirely new, but this feature is suddenly more widespread. NiteRider created the Sentinel, which projects lanes behind you. We got a tip from a commenter regarding the Blaze Laserlight, which projects a blinking bike lane projection. The similar CycleAware Laser Shark was recommended to us by a saleswoman a few weeks back, and it didn’t exist a year ago. There’s also this model and this one, and even a design testing the integration of symbols. But there aren’t many professional reviews of lights using this projection feature and it’s hard to tell if it’s useful at all. After testing the Xfire BikeLane taillight, The Guardian concludes that projected lanes are more of a novelty than an effective safety measure. Reporter Trevor Ward writes that although he could see the lines clearly from his vantage point as a cyclist “[his] neighbour, who volunteered to follow [him] in her car for the purposes of the trial, reported that she ‘didn’t really notice’ the lines, so felt no incentive to give [him] a wider berth than normal.” With that in mind, these have been left out of consideration for now, but we will reconsider them if the technology matures.

The darkness- and motion-detecting CatEye Reflex has been around for a while, and more lights that are motion sensitive are starting to appear. These are lights that turn on when you start riding and turn off when you stop, so you don’t have to remember to turn them on and you get long battery run times. But as a whole the brighter designs need some additional R&D, and are still expensive. Blackburn released the Central Front Smart Light, which adjusts automatically to the ambient brightness around you. It’s a neat trick, but with a current price tag of $120, it’s probably not worth it for most commuters. We’ll watch to see if these gain momentum or come down in price.

(Photos by Eve O’Neill.)

Footnotes:

1. I spoke to Daniel H. Rose, a personal-injury lawyer that has specialized in bicycle law and advocacy for more than 25 years. In an email I received from him regarding cyclist liability, he stated: “Yes, a cyclist can certainly be found at fault (or liable for another’s injuries or property damage) for not having a light. This happens frequently, and many fewer cyclists would not have been injured or killed if they had lights.” Jump back.

2. Dynamos are reliable and bright. Keith had some great insight into why they weren’t a practical option for this guide:

“Dynamo lights can absolutely be a practical option for the average commuter; just look at the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, where bicycle commuting is paramount, there is a lot of dynamo hub usage. The practicality, at least in the American market, boils down to availability from your local bike shop. In Amsterdam, bikes are sold with dynamo hubs standard and pre-installed whereas in America a hub generator is usually an aftermarket purchase. Since installation of a dynamo requires at minimum the replacement of your front wheel there’s a rather large barrier to switching over.” Jump back.

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Sources

  1. Keith Wall, co-owner of Spokeland, Interview
  2. Scott Karoly, sales associate at Alameda Bicycles, Interview
  3. Daniel H. Rose, personal-injury lawyer, Interview
  4. Cycling Plus, The best bike lights for road cycling, BikeRadar, December 2, 2015
  5. Chris McNamara, Randy Spurrier, and Max Neale, The Best Bike Light Review, Outdoor Gear Lab, June 18, 2014
  6. Francis Cebedo, 2014 Mtbr Bike Lights Shootout, MTBR, September 29, 2014
  7. Best Bike Lights 2015, Road Cycling UK, July 10, 2015
  8. Bicycling staff, The Best USB-Rechargeable Bike Lights, Bicycling, January 14, 2015
  9. Top 150 Bike lights 2015, Ride On, April 20, 2015
  10. Aaron Zvi, Lumens vs. Watts for LED Bulbs, SF Gate
  11. Virginia’s Driver Manual, Virginia DMV, December 3, 2015

Originally published: June 21, 2016

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