In Defense of Ghost Bikes

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Aaron’s piece questioning the memorialization of bike fatalities reminds us that cycle advocacy is rife with paradoxes. Drawing attention to cycling deaths and injuries can be powerful politically and symbolically but may also scare off would-be riders. Moreover, cycling is safer for all when there are more cyclists.

We’ve all wrestled with these contradictions and trade-offs, some for longer than others. I helped originate the Street Memorial project, which from late 1996 to early 1999 created some 250 "Killed By Automobile" stencils around NYC (plus several dozen since). I assisted Peter Jacobsen in his Safety in Numbers work. For years I publicized the 1998 Toronto Coroner’s Report, helping lay the ground for the recent NYC multi-agency study of 1996-2005 cyclist casualties.

There’s no a priori answer to the question of whether the Ghost Bikes and events like the Jan. 7 Memorial Ride harm cycling, on balance, by discouraging it. While I strongly suspect the answer is "No," I will argue here in favor of them on existential rather than pragmatic grounds.

  • The Ghost Bikes memorialize people who deserve to be remembered for their bravery, both physical and cultural (subverting the dominant paradigm).
  • They are an antidote to the sad, ordinary fate of deaths by automobile — to"flicker briefly across the city’s consciousness and then flutter away, leaving in their wake only grieving families and friends," as we wrote in Killed By Automobile.
  • The Ghost Bikes are authentic, artistic and poetic. They are perfectly proportioned to the story they seek to tell.
  • They grew organically out of a specific instance and need (as Visual Resistance noted in its post yesterday) rather than from some grand design. Their vernacular expression is an implicit rebuke of standard, corporatized "art."
  • The Ghost Bikes and Memorial Ride create an opportunity for victims’ families and friends to engage publicly and politically. Witness the active presence Sunday of Mary Beth Kelly (wife of Dr. Nacht), Rachael Myers (fiancee of Peter Hornbeck, who was memorialized with other pedestrians at Park and 96th), the family of Shamar Porter on Linden Blvd., Keith Porter’s wife in Canarsie.
  • The Memorial Ride promotes cyclist solidarity. Sunday’s ride reached further across the multiple tendencies and factions in our movement than I’ve ever seen, including the magnificent 1987 bike ban protests.

True, none of this refutes what Aaron wrote. Perhaps it’s more about me than about the issue he raised. I’ve been a full-fledged cycle activist for 21 years now (including a long stint as TA president). Most of the time I’ve let myself be guided by an existential sense of struggle – What Would Camus Do?

In "The Plague," Camus’ alter ego, Dr. Rieux, led the resistance against the deadly virus, not for strategic reasons but in order to remain human. The virus we face now is the destruction of the environment and the dehumanization of life via automobiles. The Ghost Bikes simultaneously memorialize and resist. They are our way of being human.

Photo: Galvoguy on Flickr

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