Memorializing Killed Cyclists: Is it Good for Cycling?

cyclist_memorial_ride2.jpgYesterday, scores of cyclists took to the streets in a memorial ride for the 14 bikers and 134 pedestrians known to have been killed by motor vehicles on the streets of New York City in 2006 (photo, right). I didn’t get to go on the ride but I heard from some who did that it was a moving and affirming event. All of the city’s major dailies covered it — headlines below.

Times Up and Visual Resistance, the makers of the Ghost Bike memorials, have done a lot of work to raise consciousness about the dangerous conditions that New York City cyclists face on a daily basis. Likewise, here on Streetsblog we spill a lot of ink over motor vehicle carnage. and spend plenty of time and energy publicizing how dangerous it can be to ride a bike in New York City. A recent conversation made me question whether that’s a good thing.

My friends Carl and Tia, a husband-and-wife documentary filmmaking team, live in Park Slope and work in a converted warehouse building in the Gowanus. They — literally — have bike lanes running door-to-door along the entire one mile route between their home and office. But Carl and Tia walk to work every day. I asked them if they ever thought about biking to work and Tia said it scares her too much. Why?

"I walk past that Ghost Bike on Fifth Avenue every day where that woman was killed," Tia said.

That woman was Elizabeth Padilla and her Ghost Bike is on Fifth Avenue and Prospect Place (photo, below). It is a Ghost Bike that, for all of the good intentions of those who installed it and maintain it (myself included), has convinced at least two people not to commute to work by bike.

bike_memorial_padilla.jpgGranted, my two friends do not comprise a scientific sample and there may be others who are inspired to ride by the Ghost Bikes. What science does tell us, however, is that one of the most important bike safety measures of all is safety-in-numbers. As Transportation Alternatives Magazine reported, a mounting body of research conducted in a wide range of cities, intersections, and time periods proves that, as the number of cyclists on the road increases, the chance that a given cyclist will be struck by a motor vehicle decreases.

The safety-in-numbers rule is also called "P.J.’s Law" after Peter Jacobsen, the California engineer who documented it in the journal, Injury Prevention in 2003. Jacobsen found that doubling the number of cyclists on the road tends to bring about a corresponding one-third reduction in cyclist crashes with motor vehicles. By the same token, tripling the rate of cycling cuts the crash rate in half. In other words, if you want to make cycling twice as safe in New York City, just triple the number of cyclists on the city’s streets. Conversely, discouraging people from riding bikes makes a city’s streets less safe for all cyclists.

New York City’s bicycling advocates have made great headway in the last few years. Last fall a multi-agency task force issued an unprecedented study examining all of the reported bike fatalities and injuries on New York City streets between 1996 and 2003. The city also committed to building out more than 200 miles of new bike lanes in the next three years. For all of the trouble that the NYPD and various individual motorists give cyclists, bike safety issues are clearly moving up on the civic agenda.

With a new year having just arrived, perhaps it is a good moment for bicycling advocates to take a step back and ask what our goals are and whether heavily publicized memorial rides and prominent Ghost Bikes are helping to achieve those goals. Is there a way to advocate for bike safety improvements and acknowledge cyclists’ deaths and injuries without sending the message to potential new cyclists that New York City is too dangerous to try biking?

 Photos: Both photos taken yesterday. DrewVigal on Flickr, Stu_Jo on Flickr

  • liz

    if you read the coverage, you can see that the messages were clear: keep riding, bicycling is good, bicycling is safe but could be a lot safer.

  • Ghost bikes make the point that cycling can be unsafe. What you do with that information is another step in the logic that GBs don’t necessarily address (or have to frankly).

    If the GBs were not part of a coordinated strategy to make biking safer, then they wouldn’t be terribly effective. But that is exactly why it is important to incorporate messages about how cycling fits into building a sustainable and heathier city in any media coverage. I think everyone did a good job of that yesterday.

  • Clarence

    I think the video I did on the Eric Ng memorial (if enough people see it ) shows the solidarity of the biking community and\ how we intend to continue riding and fighting for improvements.

    VIdeo is here for those who missed it:

  • Jake

    Maybe we should have heavily publicized memorials for car drivers killed in crashes, in the hope of discouraging driving.

  • Steve

    Aaron, I see your point. The problem is that the bicycling community has limited opportunities to make its presence known, much less raise the issue of car violence. A memorial ride can be accomplished without ghost bikes or other haunting reminders that might scare of bicyclists, so it is unobjectionable on these grounds (and effective, as the wide and favorable coverage indicates).

    The ghost bikes might perhaps be questioned on the ground you raise, but they also serve the important function of warning those continue bicycling in spite of them (obviously, the majority) of the danger of bicycling in the city, and of the injustice of car violence. That is a good everyday message for the bicyclists (and whoever else sees the ghost bikes, if they “get it”). Plus, to me, ghost bikes help build a sense of community by claiming parts of the urban landscape for bicyclists play an important community building role, even if they alienate some. As for Carl and Tia, I couldn’t tell from the post whether they bicycle at all; do they?

    Your post led me to check out the “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” website to see if that somewhat analogous organization uses visual displays akin to ghost bikes. They apparently do not, and focus their efforts on prevention among populations deemed likely to drink and drive, like college fraternity members. The target motorist population for the memorial ride may be too diffuse and expensive to reach through means other than a cost-free on-site installation like a ghost bike.

  • moocow

    “…for all of the good intentions of those who installed it and maintain it (myself included), has convinced at least two people not to commute to work by bike…”

    Give me a break Aaron! Are you trolling your own Blog?

  • I think this article raises signficiant questions. Honestly, though, I imagine that for many people, like the couple referred to in the article, believe first off that cycling is dangerous. The only graphic evidence that they can point to is the ghost bike. It’s not that the ghost bike gave them the idea that cycling is dangerous, but became a representation.

  • P

    Brilliant idea, Jake.

    Perhaps a commemoration of the 100’s of pedestrians who have been killed by cars. Presumably we can trust that they won’t choose to drive to the bodega.

    All in all, I agree with Ian- your friends likely weren’t going to bike, ghost bike or not.

  • mfs

    we definitely should do the pedestrian memorial thing. I’m getting the exact details wrong, but in Bogota there is a whole campaign to paint a spot where a pedestrian is killed. And now there is a PSA that says something like “don’t become a spot”. It’s supposedly pretty effective.

  • I couldn’t disagree more with #8 – seeing Liz’s ghost bike actually made me (a casual/infrequent rider) want to ride less, but it also made me more conscious of cyclist issues. I love the project – the ghost bikes are very moving and yet clearly position those deaths as a political issue.

    Has anyone ever done a study on the number of people who *would* bike in NYC if it were safer? Whenever biking comes up in conversations with friends, they usually cite safety as the reason they don’t ride.

  • Honestly, I am not sure I believe that people don’t bike due to safety, perceived or otherwise. I suspect safety is a convenient excuse (not that someone needs an excuse to choose to take mass transit over biking) and that the real reason is they just don’t feel like it. I could be totally wrong??

    Either way, I feel the ghost bike’s do make a good political statement.

  • David Chesler

    Jake, there are less-publicized memorials for victims of car crashes. (I could post some photos of some near me, if it matters.) When my father saw them outside Ft. Leonard Wood half a century ago his takeaway was “These are some dangerous, twisty roads.” Around here I think the reaction is “Oh, that’s where that girl died when her boyfriend was drunk and driving 90mph on this twisty street.” (One memorial made news a few months ago when the person on whose land it was said “I said you could keep it up for 2 weeks, it’s time to take it down.”)

    Most people think of driving as being as natural as breathing or walking, so the memorial might be a reminder not to get drunk and speed, but it is not a message to avoid driving all together, since they can’t think of an alternative, certainly not a safer alternative.

    Bicycling is not the default for most, and people perceive bicycling as dangerous. (There are certainly risks, and risks out of our control. Every car that passes at speed, an error of a few inches could be fatal; that’s not the case in a car.) So I don’t think the analogy holds in the mind of the beholder.

    Has anyone ever done a study on the number of people who *would* bike in NYC if it were safer? Whenever biking comes up in conversations with friends, they usually cite safety as the reason they don’t ride.

    A distinction should be made between what would make it safer (education, enforcement) and what is perceived as making it safer (bike lanes.) Also a distinction should be made between what people say they would do “but for” and what they actually do.

    I like the Ghost Bikes. Let the public know that people in cars and trucks are killing people on bicycles, and something should be done. And remember the riders.

  • P

    I suspect people refuse to bike because of a _perceived_ lack of safety. We’ve discussed in other threads the fact that bike lanes are not necessarily safer than taking a lane in the street- but they feel safer and that encourages novices to start biking.

    In my opinion the polling numbers of people who _say_ they would ride if it was safer are very unreliable. TA uses the numbers in their advocacy- and I don’t blame them- but asking people if they would do something virtuous like exercise more frequently if it wasn’t for some excuse is bound to get a very inflated number.

  • P

    Is anyone aware is the spraypainted memorials of killed pedestrians are still being made? I was astonished to hear that over one hundred and fifty pedestrians are killed each year. If the locations of these crashes for, say, the last ten years were noted it seems like the average person would see at least one every day.

    There needs to be a fundamental shift in the attitude of drivers. If we can get them relating to the plight of pedestrians when they aren’t in their cars perhaps they will take this when they are behind the wheel.

  • Mitch

    It’s undoubtedly true that memorials scare some people out of biking, but I think they’re necessary; you need to remember fallen comrades, and let people know there are problems on the street that *can* be solved.

    But there are ways to encourage biking, and make it safer, even if the government drags its feet. To create safety in numbers, a bike group in Sydney, Australia, organizes “BikeBuses” — groups of riders who follow a fixed route and schedule every day. See their website for details. A BikeBus has some resemblance to Critical Mass rides, but it’s smaller, explicitly organized, and completely legal — even in New York.

  • We had a ride in Chicago last Thursday, January 5th.

    Here’s the local NBC coverage:

    We rode to remember the 12 cyclists killed on Chicago streets in 2006.

  • Mitch

    Another way to encourage people try overcome their fears and start biking is a “Bike Buddy” program, which matches novices with experienced bikers, who can teach their partners where and how to ride safely in the city.

    The San Francisco Bay Area has a bike-buddy program, which seems to have government resources behind it. Seattle used to have a program, until their grant ran out.

  • Mitch, the “Bike Buddy” idea sounds like a really good idea. Would love to see something like that here in NYC.

  • Good topic. Memorials can help to empower present active bicyclists, by helping us understand that we’re not alone, but are part of a caring community. Prospective bicyclists _might_ be put off by the reminder of danger; which is why we need to emphasize that bicycling is healthy and fun, and safe–especially if one is sober, mature, and riding effectively.

  • Yeah, “Bike Buddy” sounds really cool especially if it has some type of financing behind it.

  • You can count me as one person who stopped riding regularly due to safety. Really. I used to commute to work (Brooklyn –> Manhattan) by bike but stopped after one too many near-death experiences. Of course, what people say in polls isn’t necessarily reflective of what they *do,* but there are a lot of people out there like me — folks who biked BEFORE moving NYC but are too freaked out by traffic here to bike in the city.

  • We’ve gotten this response a handful of times in the past. One of the risks of making art is that people interpret it in all sorts of ways, including sometimes the opposite of your intention.

    The ghost bike project started as a quiet and personal response to the death of Liz Padilla. In the past year and a half, it has grown in ways we never expected.

    I think yesterday’s memorial ride showed that the ghost bikes are only a small part of a diverse movement towards bike and pedestrian safety, sustainable living, and a better city.

    The ghost bikes only call attention to the true source of non-cyclists’ fears: unsafe streets.

  • RE: #16

    Good to see that your NBC affiliate gave you airtime!

    Interesting to compare the numbers: NYC, with its much larger population and presumably larger cycling population, only had 1 more fatality in 2006 than Chicago.

    (Note: though we rode for 14 fallen cyclists yesterday, Noah at TA got a call today from one of the “dead” cyclists, Ivan Morales, who was thankful that we remembered him even though he wasn’t quite dead. He was pronounced dead at the scene of his crash but was revived in the ER – one example of the divergent numbers of fatalities that different city agencies list. According to Noah, Ivan is back on his bike.)

  • Mark

    If we put up ghost pedestrians, as well as ghost bikes, it would show that no one who ventures outside is safe from motor vehicles. Hundreds of ghost pedestrians all over the city might really get peoples attention.


  • Riding on the highways around Tulsa, Oklahoma, I see roadside memorials for dead cagers, like so many Arlington Cementaries. There’s a whole lot of them.

    But, do the memorials convince anyone not to cage?

  • rachael

    (Full Disclosure: I helped organize this event and I might be biased.)

    I don’t think anyone who attended on Sunday would say that the Memorial Ride is bad for cycling. More cycling groups participated in this ride than in any other NYC bike ride in recent history. It was incredible to see the vast diversity of cyclists- messengers, activists, recreational cyclists, pedicab drivers, commuters, young, old- everyone was working together and supporting each other. It was an amazing day.

    Furthermore, we really made an effort this year to involve families of the victims in this ride. I cannot tell you how grateful they are that this whole community honored their loved one in this way. Particularly when the rest of the city doesn’t pay adequate attention to their loss. One person that we honored this year, Jamel Lewis, was an African-American man killed in Harlem on November 30th. His death was never even reported in the press. Almost none of these drivers were held responsible for their actions. I think it’s important for these families to know that there is a huge community of people who are there to support them.

    Regarding pedestrian memorials, this year was the first year we included pedestrians in our memorial ride ( We are all volunteers and work with almost no budget and therefore could not install individual memorials for all 134 pedestrians killed in 2006. We installed a memorial at Park Ave. and 96th that honors all pedestrians killed on the streets. It is my hope that a group with more resources will step forward to honor all the pedestrians killed on the streets. The Black Star program ( an earlier commenter mentioned was paid for by the government. Obviously that isn’t going to happen here, but it would be great if a group would step forward and take that on.

  • as a member of one of the organizations who helped to organize sunday’s event, my views may be biased. that said, i think the worst thing we could do as a cycling commyunity is ignore these deaths. these memorial rides, and the ghost bike project started out as a way for cyclists to support each other, so that we don’t get scared from the streets. i think of a memorial ride as a cathartic process, much like a funeral. the ride helps the collective mourning process. by comming together we are able to move forward. and work together for safer streets. for example everytime a tow truck driver goes in or out of the tow pound on 38th and west st, he or she sees dr. nacht’s ghost bike, and is reminded of how dangerous thier vehicle is.

    we have talked about a similar project for pedestrian deaths. . .we came up with white shoes. as part of our ride, we attempted to memorialize the 134 pedestrians who perished on the streets of nyc in the past year, we didnt have the time or volunteer power to get 134 pairs of white shoes to 134 yet unknown locations around nyc. but if we did, would that discourage people from walking?

    i encourage anyone who can to go to Bogota, and check out the black spot(star) program. it is a similar project that is completely publicly funded and run. imagine if bloomberg’s administration considered death in traffic a problem and put a mark on the street, anywhere someone died in traffic (pedestrain, cyclist, motorist, or passenger).

    aaron, i dont think you personally believe the ghost bike project or a well publicized memorial ride to be bad for cycling? i think you were just playing devil’s advocate, and making brief point about how people can interpret art. also, you had to know that the organizers of sunday’s event would read this, since we read streetsblog quite religiously

  • P

    Devil’s Advocate or not, I think this thread has emphasized the importance of the creation of pedestrian memorials. For one, pedestrian deaths are ten times more frequent than cyclist deaths. Second, no one can seriously argue that people would be dissuaded from walking by seeing these memorials to those killed by automobiles.

  • Ellen

    I also helped organise sunday’s ride. It was great to see everyone on the ride. Yesterday reminded me that when we get on our bikes and out into these streets we are part of a robust, strong and loving community. This community was in beautiful diversity yesterday, kids, parents, messengers, spandex clad weekend warriors, slightly wobbily occasional riders, angry hard core bike activists, ect…ect… of all colors and walks of life– united against the violence in the streets and tied forever with those that loved these victims of it.

    This makes me feel more protected than ever out there, cause I know you all got my back, front, sides and my heart.

    And Ill get off my bike and walk in any action to memorialize the far too many pedestrians who died last year.

  • ddartley

    Good point, P, and if cyclists were involved in making such ped memorials, it might help ease the unfortunate tensions between them and peds. P and I are agreeing on some things these days, even though P is the one who assumed, a couple months ago, that I was a New Jerseyan SUV driver (because of a comment I made on a BRT story). I’m getting over it, but barely…

    Seriously, though, to Visual Resistance or any artists out there thinking of starting such a project, keep victims’ families in mind–what I mean is, most seem to agree that ghost bikes are a gentle and respectful, if remarkable, image. I hope artists keep that model in mind. Certain families of peds killed by cars might get very upset by an image that’s much more jarring or shocking than ghost bikes.

  • There will definitely be more pedestrian memorials in the months ahead.

    There are two design challenges in coming up with an appropriate marker. The first challenge is that there is no obvious icon (like the white bike); the second is that due to the frequency of pedestrian deaths it would have to be something very simple so that anyone could take it on.

  • P

    Aww, ddartley, I didn’t _really_ mean to imply you’re from NJ (not that there’s anything wrong with it).

    But I’m glad to see the good feelings all around these days…


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