Do ghost bikes hurt cycling safety more than they help?

I’ve been wanting to blog about ghost bikes for awhile. In theory, I ought to love ghost bikes. I’m a cyclist, concerned about bike safety–see here and here–and I like community based bike activism.  It’s also true that the art project aspect of  ghost bikes fascinates me. I teach a course about death and roadside memorials of all sorts have a lot to tell us about our attitudes to death. But the fact is, it’s more complicated than that. I have mixed feelings about ghost bikes.

First, what’s a ghost bike?

Wikipedia tells us this: A ghost bike, ghostcycle or WhiteCycle is a bicycle set up as a roadside memorial in a place where a cyclist has been killed or severely injured (usually by a motor vehicle).[1][2] Apart from being a memorial, it is usually intended as a reminder to passing motorists to share the road. Ghost bikes are usually junk bicycles painted white, sometimes with a placard attached, and locked to a suitable object close to the scene of the accident.

A Flickr photoset of ghost bikes is here.

And then there’s

Ghost Bikes are small and somber memorials for bicyclists who are killed or hit on the street. A bicycle is painted all white and locked to a street sign near the crash site, accompanied by a small plaque. They serve as reminders of the tragedy that took place on an otherwise anonymous street corner, and as quiet statements in support of cyclists’ right to safe travel.

Now there’s photo book in the works about ghost bikes.

GHOST BIKE: Photography Book by Genea Barnes

Photographer Genea Barnes is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to print an art book featuring her Ghost Bike art. Ghost Bikes are bicycles that have been painted white and placed near a location where a cyclist was killed. Barnes has traveled to over 50 cities photographing these bikes. The book will include the story of her travels searching for the Ghost Bikes and the art she has created.

Each year, the US sees more than 600 bicyclist fatalities, and more than 50,000 bicyclists report injuries. Ghost Bikes symbolize the need for drivers and cyclists to be more aware of their surroundings. Barnes lives Brooklyn, New York and is from San Francisco, CA. The Kickstarter has has two weeks left, ending December 22nd at 6pm EST. Money raised will cover printing costs of the book, the rewards promised, and shipping costs.

“I started photographing Ghost Bikes because you can pass a memorial hundreds of times and eventually forget what it represents,” said Barnes. In some pieces, she combines photos of Ghost Bikes with images of live people manipulated through Photoshop to look like ghosts. Over time, many Ghost Bikes have been removed. ”I hope this project and my book will help raise awareness, and have the memorials and their sentiment live on.”

In 2010, San Francisco Bay Guardian readers voted Barnes best emerging artist. She has been showing her work in world class art hubs like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Milan since 2005. Her current projects explore death, decay, and facets of what is left behind.

You can donate to her kickstarter here:

Here’s some from my city of London, Ontario. And there’s a story about them from the Free Press: Ghost bikes are placed in memory of those killed while cycling

Okay, I’m putting off the tough party of this post. According to my politics and lifestyle commitments I ought to love the idea of ghost bikes. They’re a haunting reminder of the real costs of cycling in urban environments designed for cars and in which most drivers seem to think bikes don’t belong on the road. Cyclists lose their lives and ghost bikes are a striking reminder of the need for drivers to be more careful.

So why I am not in love with the idea of ghost bikes?

It’s complicated. (Remember, I’m a philosopher. You ought to expect that.)

First, while it’s true that ghost bikes are haunting reminders, what they’re haunting reminders of will vary from person to person. Ghost bikes don’t have just one meaning. For many people ghost bikes are reminders that cycling is a dangerous activity. In a collision between a car and a bike, it’s the cyclist who will most likely lose. Ghost bikes can remind people that cycling is dangerous without saying anything about who is to blame.

Second, if cycling is a dangerous activity then it’s just for dare devils but the biggest factor that influences bike safety is the numbers of cyclists on the road. Numbers matter more than anything else. More than helmets even. But if people perceive bike riding as dangerous, they won’t ride. They won’t let their kids ride. Cycling remains a fringe activity.

Ghost bikes are a striking reminder of cyclists who were killed on the road but if that scares people off riding, that’s not a good thing. It’s not clear than they increase driver awareness. If the net effect is fewer people riding, then ghost bikes make things worse, not better.

Third, I worry too that they make cycling seem more dangerous than it actually is. Lots of pedestrians die each year, killed by cars, but are there any ghost people?

There are also lots of automobile deaths. While you see roadside memorials by the highway, you tend not to see them in the city. But there are a lot of car deaths. People don’t think driving is scary but they’re scared of riding a bike. Ghost bikes are a striking memorial. They’re haunting but I’m not sure they’re the best strategy politically. I recognize most of my cycling friends will disagree with me but I’m not a big fan of ghost bikes.

What do you think?

15 thoughts on “Do ghost bikes hurt cycling safety more than they help?

  1. Ghost bikes discourage potential new cyclists, especially ghost bikes next to bike lanes. Also, drivers don’t look at a ghost bike and say to themselves, “oh, I should watch out for cyclists.” Drivers are mostly looking at the road/pavement ahead of them, not assorted sculptures on the side of the road. And it’s possible that by dwelling on the negative (death, injury, danger), we also draw those negative things toward ourselves. Instead, let’s focus on positive aspects of cycling. One solution: a bike counter that says “So far this year, 2,867 people have happily biked past this spot.”

    1. Hi, marycycle, I hope this doesn’t seem aggressive or obnoxious, but… how do you know that ghost bikes have those effects? This is partly a general question, but also relevant to a course that I’ll be teaching. So, if you have access to studies of this, please point me to them!

      1. Hello Vance, I don’t know of any scientific studies about ghost bikes. My comments are based on personal conversations with recreational cyclists who like riding on bike paths in parks, but who are afraid to ride on streets, even when there are bike lanes.

  2. Thanks for writing about this. I am not familiar with ghost bikes (will keep my eye out) but even though I haven’t had any close calls, I am terrified of riding a bike in traffic. I stay to the bike paths/trails.

  3. As someone new to urban cycling, I actually appreciate seeing ghost bikes on my daily commute (one in particular beside a bike lane). For me, they serve as useful reminders to be extra cautious on the road, not taking for granted the fact that since I’m in a bike lane, I’m safe.

  4. Happy bike counter idea is a great idea.

    I’m trying to remember ever seeing a ghost bike by a bike lane.

    I would like more billboard signs for texting while driving… For a cyclist that is disturbing and dangerous.

  5. Well shit, I came into this being all, “Sure, what could be possibly be wrong with them?”: but then you made a convincing case as to what’s wrong with them.

    I still appreciate them the way I appreciate the roadside memorials put up for victims of car crashes – we’ve got a lot of ’em around here – as I think people really do need visual reminders to not be so freaking careless when behind the wheel of a car, but I totally see your points.

    1. Thanks. I *want* to like them too. And I like them as art projects. But I just worry they make people think cycling is inherently scary or dangerous. And no one worries about driving. If we had ghost cars, the streets would be full. So yeah…

      1. Yep, whenever people start going on about the dangers of x, y or z, I’m like, “You drive a car every day and that’s probably way more likely to kill you so…”

  6. HI Sam– thought-provoking post. I admit I’m still on the fence about ghost bikes. To me they represent a bunch of things, including the independent, activist , artistic, community spirit in the cycling world; maybe one of the reasons why we don’t see ghost cars or ghost people is that those communities don’t see themselves AS communities. But cyclists DO– and I love the warm feelings of solidarity I get just from seeing other commuters, road cyclists, etc. on the road, or even from talking to people who say they own a bike. It confers automatic membership. And I hope that the sight of a ghost bike (we have, sadly, a bunch of them in the Boston area) will remind people both to be safe and to speak out for greater enforcement of laws to protect cyclists.

    But there is this worry that ghost bikes are too scary– they’ll deter people from cycling. It’s an empirical question, and I don’t know the answer. Hey blog readers who are 1) cycling enthusiasts and 2) social scientists: here’s a nice study/survey for someone to do. And report back here…

  7. I like them. I like them because I think memorials are important and ritual–especially death ritual–is important, especially in an increasingly ritual-less world.

    I also think that it is important that we mark the deaths that occur from motorists. I agree that we maybe need a way to make it more explicit that ghost bikes are almost always marking a losing battle between cars and cyclists, but I don’t think removing ghost bikes does anything to make cyclists safer and/or drivers less dangerous.

    And my gut instinct is that people who are already afraid of cycling will use ghostbikes to stoke that fear, while those who aren’t won’t.

  8. I think of them as consciousness-raising devices, and they are similar to the roadside memorials for people who have died in car accidents – they don’t necessarily create fear in the observer. Your point about numbers of cyclists on the road is the one that needs to be made loud and often. The more cyclists, the more they will be accommodated by motor vehicle drivers. Perhaps ghost bikes just add weight to the conversation. I see they don’t seem to have many in places where bikes are more common:

  9. I don’t agree that people don’t worry about driving in cars. I don’t think ghost bikes have a different impact than roadside memorials for those who died in car accidents. As you know, I am quite fearful of riding on the road and have done a lot to address that fear (well, by a lot I mean that I’ve forced myself to do it anyway). But as with motorcycles, the fact is that if there is an accident between a bicycle and a car, the bike is likely to be the loser. Cyclists are at risk and are at the mercy of motorists. Motorists need to pay attention. And we need more cyclists on the road and more infrastructure, like bike lanes, to keep cyclists safe. And for their part, cyclists need to pay attention to the rules of the road so that their actions are predictable.

    I think ghost bikes raise awareness of the realities of bikes sharing roads with cars — you do need to keep your wits about you, have a lot of trust, and motorists need to pay attention. On balance, I would think that they raise awareness in a positive way.

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