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?

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