Utne Blogs > Politics

Ghost Bikes for Dead Riders Run Afoul of Law

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: bicycling, ghost bikes, death, memorials, law, politics, Keith Goetzman,

San Diego ghost bike 

As bicycling proliferates, so does a new type of urban death memorial: White “ghost bikes” that memorialize cyclists who’ve been killed in collisions with autos. The ghost bikes are equal parts shrine and safety awareness campaign, meant to honor lives and prevent more deaths. Bicycle Times magazine (Feb. 2011) interviewed Meaghan Wilbur, a filmmaker who’s working on a documentary about the phenomenon.

Wilbur has been in touch with bike advocates all over the country about their ghost bike displays, and she notes that not all cities allow the white bikes to stick around:

“Boston takes them down almost immediately after a few days or a few weeks. San Francisco, too. People in both those cities cited reasons like tourism, beautification, graffiti laws, and not having the streets cluttered up with junk. Boston is not too keen on street art and other spontaneously appearing objects. Cycling advocates that I spoke to in San Francisco mentioned that perhaps ghost bikes are less common in San Francisco because the SF Bike Coalition is an incredibly strong voice for cyclists, and therefore there is less feeling that a statement needs to be made. … New Mexico has a state law protecting descansos (roadside memorials), and the Duke City Wheelmen Foundation has so far been successful in getting the state to recognize the ghost bikes are descansos and therefore protected under that law. … Miami installed a permanent memorial including a ghost bike for Christopher Lee Canne earlier this year in Key Biscayne, where his was killed. … Portland, Oregon, also has a couple permanent ghost bike installations.”

I sympathize a bit with both the pro- and anti- camps here. As a year-round urban bike commuter, I understand the bikers’ need to mark the places where their own have fallen, and both bikers and motorists can always use more reminders to be careful out there. Nothing does that quite like the bicycle equivalent of a skeleton.

However, I confess that I became firmly opposed to roadside automobile death shrines on travels through the Western United States, where they were more common than mile markers in some areas, and often unsightly: From a distance, many looked like crucifixes growing out of trash heaps. Some scenic stretches of road began to feel more like funeral routes.

I can’t get too worked up about ghost bikes, though. In urban environments, they don’t intrude much on the scenery, such as it is. And they can have a poignantly haunting quality, which I guess is the point. Several ghost bikes have been placed in Minneapolis, where I live and ride, and each time I pedal past one I think, there but for the grace of Ford go I. 

Sources: Ghost Bikes Film ProjectBicycle Times (article not available online), Ghost Bike Minneapolis 

Image by Osbornb, licensed under Creative Commons. 

george
9/27/2012 4:32:00 PM

Our urban environment, in case it has escaped your notice, is supersaturated with potentially distracting visual phenomena, such as advertising, signage, other humans, art and architecture, etc. I can imagine one could find this project problematic for several reasons, but to object for the bikes' potential to distract drivers seems a little silly.


labann
9/11/2011 7:24:28 PM

Roadnet is designed to flow impatient traffic to the tune of 1.3 million fatalities annually globally. More people have died collectively in motoring mishaps than warfare in the bloodiest century in history. In a way, promoting tolerance of cycling is an antiwar protest, only it battles cancer, climate change, heart disease, motoring carnage, and wars over oil, which continue to claim more lives than anything on Earth. Art can be the act of living effectively, and bicycling, as the most efficient form of transportation, can be art. A few reminders, as if chicken soup, can't hurt, might help raise awareness and spread tolerance. Yet all the 6 ghost bikes I personally deployed under chain and lock were promptly removed or vandalized by those swayed by motor lust. http://bike-n-chain.blogspot.com/


occum
3/22/2011 5:22:19 PM

As someone who lost a loved one on a major highway going through a somewhat remote part of Oregon I understand the concept. However, I'm not sure of the purpose and its healing properties and I often sense it is a harmful distraction. The reminder to be mindful of bicycle riders (motorcyclists, pedestrians etc) is noble but taking my eyes off the road to wonder about the who the person was, how the accident happened in that particular place (often seemingly begnign) and its possible relation to me (sorry for the selfish reference) does not seem to add to the cause. I find it somewhat on the level of accidents that could be cleared much faster if morbid curiousity was overriden by safety concern.