Making the invisible cyclist visible: Why I invented the laserlight

Emily Brooke is the Founder of Blaze, a London tech startup that creates a light to make urban cyclists visible to cars in front of them.

Cycling is booming. For convenience, expense, health and environmental reasons, more and more people are turning to the bike as their main means of urban transportation. However, personal safety is consistently given as the greatest barrier to participation.

The summer before my final year at the University in Brighton, I completed a 1,000 mile charity ride, cycling the length of the UK. The result? A severe case of the biking bug. Returning to Brighton, it did not take me long to realise that riding a bicycle in a city is a more stressful affair. Spurred on by my new-found love for cycling and my dissatisfaction with the existing urban facilities, I dedicated the final year of my Product Design course to Urban Cycling.

I attended cycling shows, joined online cycling forums, participated in “sportives”, interviewed fellow bikers, kept charging everywhere on my bicycle, and even fixed a camera on my helmet – which made for some interesting footage.

I also worked with a driving psychologist, the local bus company and spent around five months diving deep into road safety statistics and data. I analysed which accidents most commonly happen, who is involved and what are the most likely causes.

There is one piece of data that really stood out for me, and still amazes me to this day: 79 per cent of UK cycle accidents occur when the cyclist is going straight ahead and a vehicle manoeuvres into them. The most common of these we all know: a bicycle caught in a driver’s blind spot. The driver then loses sight of the cyclist and turns across its path. The second is a vehicle pulling out of a side junction and into the path of an oncoming cyclist.

In both these situations, the threat is in front of the bicycle – the bicycle rider can often see the vehicle, but the vehicle driver fails to see the cyclist, or only sees them once it is too late to avert an accident.

My moment of inspiration came when cycling through the city. Approaching a junction, I found myself wishing I were just five yards ahead – that I could be just in front of my current position and alert drivers of my approach. I suddenly realised I could “project myself” there. And so, the Laserlight was born.

The Laserlight in action. Image: Blaze.

The Blaze Laserlight was my final year university project. It includes a front-facing white light, that all cyclist are required to have by law; but it also has a green laser that projects the symbol of a bike down onto the road ahead. It alerts drivers to the bike’s presence, and prevents them turning across its path.

The advance laser feature is transformative for bicycle lights. It not only gives the cyclist visibility out of their usual footprint on the road: it also increases their chances of being seen when otherwise invisible.

It has been an incredible journey for myself and Blaze so far, from university project, through endless product design and iteration, multiple trips to China, to one of the first successful Kickstarter campaigns in the UK, and the distribution of our first product. I had never had a job before, let alone experienced the challenges of running a company.

An example of one of the many barriers we have faced lies in the internal technology we are using. The laser diodes are not the same as one would find in a laser pointer, but the very latest in optical electronics. Securing this technology at a price we can afford has been a big obstacle.

Blaze now has a small team of seven working in the creative area of Shoreditch in East London. Everyone in the team shares a passion for their bike, and a clear goal: to upgrade urban cycling. With a great number of challenges for city cyclists still unsolved, the Laserlight is just the first in a range of innovative products designed to tackle these problems.

Blaze has raised around £1.5m from various venture capitalists and private investors for the development of future products and international expansion. The Laserlight has been selling for just over a year, and we are currently shipping to 50 different countries around the world direct from our website. The US, Japan and Germany are big focuses for this year.

The Laserlight is one way for cyclists to be safer and more visible on our cities’ roads. We are witnessing a truly exciting moment of innovation and support for urban cycling. Blaze is joining many other projects to bring positive change to cities: initiatives that share our passion to make the world a more sustainable, healthier place, by encouraging more people to cycle.

Emily Brooke will be speaking at the New Cities Summit, to be held in Jakarta on 9-11 June.

This post was originally published on the New Cities Foundation's blog.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.