In Defense of Ghost Bikes


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

  • I think the point about pedestrian deaths is important as it shows solidarity with all victims of car vs. person violence (accidental or not). At the pedestrian memorial on 96th and Park, Bette Dewing, a long-time pedestrian advocate attended. She has no love of bikes and saw cyclists as more of a foe than friend from her past writings. I think that event helped spark her awareness that pedestrians and cyclists have more in common than not – and that they are human and care about the world, not just a bunch of selfish renegades causing chaos.

    Many times the only interaction pedestrians have with cyclists is to see them flash by, much like cars. I encourage folks when they are stopped at red lights to use that opportunity to smile at folks and say “hi”. And use your bell, often the simple problem is that pedestrians don’t see you. When I ride, I used my bell A LOT, especially when I have the light but there are pedestrians are starting to cross because the cars have all past. People don’t mind as long as they know you are there.

  • da

    Beautiful post, Charlie.

    For those of us who weren’t around then, or who weren’t paying attention… what happened back in 1987?

  • Da — In the summer of 1987, when Mayor Koch announced a pending ban on cycling on 5th, Madison and Park Avenues, the cycling community responded with a series of creative, uproarious, bike-messenger-led actions that turned public opinion against the ban and even helped break the prevailing fever (that metaphor again) of cycle-loathing. Cyclist Mary Frances Dunham published a beautiful account in LAB’s “American Bicyclist” mag which we reprinted in the Bicycle Blueprint. The link is

    Glenn — as you may know, over the years Bette Dewing and I have reached out to each other and bridged some of the “bikes-vs.-peds” divide. Bette attended Right Of Way street memorial events on the Upper East Side in 1997 and 2003. I invited her to join us on Sunday at Park/96th and appreciated her solidarity.

  • AD

    Charlie, wonderful, fantastic post.

  • Thanks for all your efforts Charlie – you are a wonderful inspiration.

  • Steve

    Thanks, Charlie. Your post reminds me of something that happened last fall.

    I was headed to Union Square with my son on September 29, traveling down the West Side Greenway. We suddenly noticed that the bicyclists’ signal was red–a bit late–but in time to stop. Another father carrying his daughter in a seat on the back of his bicycle waited for the light to change next to us. While we were waiting, a sanitation truck crossed the bike path. I then realized where we were.

    I pointed out the Carl Nacht ghost bike to my son. I explained to him what had happened to Dr. Nacht and the importance of being safe, audibly so the other Dad could hear. He acknowledged me with a nod, and then my son and I pedaled off. I was surprised, and glad, to see that other Dad at Union Square later that night. We didn’t ride that night, but he did.

    There is no greater fear that those who bicycle with their children have, than that their child will become the next victim. Safety is an overwhelming factor that keeps most parents and children off their bicycles in New York. I understand this reaction, but as Charlie (via Camus) explains, we must resist: it is our way of being human. As parents, children, and lovers, we must resist what is wrong–polluting the earth, objectifying and endangering others on the road, closing ourselves off in glass and steel compartments from the joys and miseries of urban life–even when doing so puts us and those we love in danger. The ghost bikes remind us that we must.

  • Grace L

    A well-reasoned post, Charlie. For me, “The Memorial Ride promotes cyclist solidarity” was the most important message I got from Sunday’s ride.

  • Rich

    I take strong issue with Aaron’s concern that Ghost Bikes will “scare people away from cycling.”

    It’s worth looking at these things from all angles–but not to succumb to the siren song of giving in to status quo and hopelessness–and I mean Aaron, and not the two who chose not to ride.

    Should we forego ALL effective means of raising consciousness among friends, allies, and the wider community??? Resume our docile, drab resignation to the deaths of our friends and fellow free spirits? Learn to forget them entirely?

    Those two may choose not to ride. But they’ll be thinking about it–and they’ll come to realize their reaction is irrational–or indicative of a scared, anxiety-ridden existence.

    OTHERS, though, will see it as a constant reminder to ride more safely, to press for complete streets and separated bike lanes, and to drive more carefully.

    And that’s the point. Ghost Bikes can reach those who remain completely unaware of those we’ve lost, of the bikers at risk, and of the overall conditions humans must negotiate every day.

    It’s foolish to needlessly yawp about one negative side-effect of a brilliant campaign that cuts through the ALL the white noise, public service messages, street demonstrations, policy pronouncements, statistical analyses, the information overload, the constant carping of concerned citizens when the average Joe doesn’t have an easy answer or any power to act on it if he did, not to mention the barrage of news blips, the arc of tragedy, or an exhausted workforce beseiged by bills, hassles, and mundane chores.

    If he had ANY sense of perspective, Aaron would not be worrying about the cautionary note evoked by Ghost Bikes–that’s a good reaction. He’d be dancing naked in the street under the full moon, bodily relieved and buck naked that they’d had any effect at all.

    I lost my friend. A Ghost Bike is the least and most humble marker of what she meant to the people around her. It’s not much. But it is also the most.

  • Steve

    Rich, as Sblog readers know, I am not one to defer to Aaron on an issue I care about. However I do think in the instance of Aaron’s post on the “pros and cons” of ghost bikes, he was trying to frame an issue so that people could react (his job as editor), rather than advocating against ghost bikes. He may have needed to stretch a bit to come up with a “con.”

    I would venture to guess that there are plenty of people out there who think the ghost bikes are an eyesore, in bad taste, and should be removed. To me, that’s not a reason to oppose ghost bikes, but its certainly a topic for discussion. Even if the bicycling community is unified in support of ghost bikes, it should be aware of and concerned by what others think. It was in that spirit that I took Aaron’s post.

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli

    Here here. Or is it hear hear. I’ve never been sure.

    Regardless, as I know I’ve pointed out to you before, ad nauseum I suppose, death, and auto violence will not discourage most New York bicyclists. Most New York bicyclists are hungry young latin american guys trying to save a couple extra dollars to send home to their mother. They won’t see the ghost bikes on the bike path or the bike lanes because they are taking the shortest route between the pizzeria and the delivery, or the shortest route between the fruit and vegetable stand and home.

    I personally love the ghost bikes but have grown children.

  • Zizzle

    I was going to buy a bike until I signed up for the Transportation Alternatives email list and started getting regular reports of people being killed. Now it seems insanely dangerous to me to ride a bike in nyc. I’m not willing to give my life for the cause, however worthy it may be.

  • P

    Better stop walking too- 10 times as many pedestrians are killed each year as cyclists.

  • Steve

    P, while I share your skepticism of any rational basis for Zizzle’s claimed choice, we all know that there are a lot more pedestrian-trips than bicyclist-trips–my understanding is that only ~1% of all trips in NYC are made by bicycle. Of course there is the added complication of weighting trips by length which makes comparison almost impossible, but I think it is safe to say that NYC pedestrians probably have a lower risk of death by car than NYC bicyclists. It is not *necessarily* irrational to avoid bicycling in NYC based on that risk differential.

    However it would be foolish to do so and to continue riding in cars, as Zizzle may well do. Many, many more motor vehicle drivers and passengers are killed and injured as a result of motor vehicle collisions in NYC than bicyclists are, and I would suspect that even weighted by trip length, motor vehicle use in NYC is much more risky than bicycling. So if Zizzle has already cut motor vehicle use out of his or her set of risky behaviors (and doesn’t smoke, use drugs, engage in unprotected sex, etc.), then perhaps Zizzle enjoys a meaningful increment of added personal safety by not bicycling. But if Zizzle is engaged other relatively risky behaviors such as those–especially motor vehicle use–s/he is kidding him/herself to think that avoiding bicycling is meaningfully reduces his/her overall personal risk. My advice to Zizzle, if s/he is not leading the nunnish/monkish existence in which avoiding bicycling is a meaningful step to diminish personal risk, is: have fun while you still can and do something positive for the environment–ride a bike.

    How about it, Zizzle?

  • I’ve seen the claim that the health benefits of cycling are more than enough to outweigh any of the risk involved.

    This page
    cites studies by one M. Hillman — see the Wikipedia page for more info.

  • The same dilemma is raised with the increasingly popular Rides of Silence started a few years ago in Dallas after the cycling death of a prominent local athlete. I rode around White Rock Lake in Dallas with several hundred cyclists in absolute silence for about 45 minutes last May. It was a powerful and moving experience and an appropriate tribute to fallen cyclists. We encourage our affiliated bike clubs to do the ride in May – and for many its the only “advocacy” they do.

    More and more clubs are doing it – some choose not too for the reasons Aaron raises. And that’s OK. What works one place and is timely, appropriate etc doesn’t work in another. And remember, memorializing fallen cyclists is just one small aspect of all that we, and TA, and others do to promote bicycling.

    Andy Clarke
    League of American Bicyclists

  • Its been my extreme pleasure to work with Charlie Komanoff on the Traffic Justice Project this year, and part of the reason is that Charlie is so good at bringing these discussions back to their basic roots: celebrating and restoring our humanity rather than strictly fighting a numbers game. He does so again here.

    Here in New Mexico, we put up memorials at all crash sites on the roadways. It reminds us that our roads are only as safe as the people who use them, and that the casualties are our loved ones whom we memorialize with crosses and flowers. Its a poignant sight, and I wish more people would remember that if they were safer drivers there would be fewer memorials.

    Lacking memorials, people still worry about whether they will end up a statistic. I had a long discussion with a Bicycling Magazine editor on Monday where I criticized an advertisement in their latest issue that encouraged people to direct their aggression into their driving habits. Like we need more of that? I’m the chair of my county’s transportation commission as well as a longtime cycling advocate, and I can’t get die-hard USCF racers to bike to work out of a fear of bad driving. So we need to remember that it ain’t just about the memorials, its about the reality they represent.

  • Well said, Khalil. I identify very strongly with Charlie’s point about existential struggle. After working on the ghost bikes for a year and a half, my friend Eric was killed on the greenway (that’s his picture at the top).

    After making a ghost bike for Eric I’ll never think about the project the same way. I’ve enjoyed the discussion that Charlie & Aaron’s articles have provoked, but for me personally the ghost bikes are more of a heart thing than a head thing.

    That said, the ghost bikes themselves are nothing, just a bike and a can of paint. What’s important is the reaction they provoke, the stories they try to tell, and the reality they reflect. My hope is that, in addition to their role as individual memorials, they can serve to unite the usually fractious bike/pedestrian/environmental movement and inspire people to take constructive action. I think Sunday’s memorial ride witnessed this starting to happen.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I think Aaron raised some great questions, and Charlie’s post makes a lot of good points. Here’s my personal viewpoint.

    Over the past eight years I’ve gradually reduced the amount that I ride and shifted those trips to walking, bus or subway. There are several factors involved, but I don’t think that the crash reports and memorials are a significant deterrent for me.

    One of the biggest factors is my own road rage. I got so sick of being inches from speeding multi-ton death traps guided by people I don’t trust, all of whom have an inflated sense of their own abilities. I found myself shaking when I got to work. In the other forms of transportation there’s usually some refuge from the constant confrontation.

    The biggest factor happened in Albuquerque, though, in the spring of 1999 (Welcome Khalil!). You think a ghost bike is a deterrent to cycling? That’s nothing compared to seeing a shape fly across your field of vision while you’re waiting at a red light, and realizing that that was a cyclist you saw, hit by a red-light runner and now dying of head injuries in the middle of the road in front of you, with nothing you can do to save him. I didn’t ride for weeks after that.

  • gecko

    Ghostbikes remind me of South America and the bus rides where crucifixes are placed on the side of the road where a person dies in an accident often going off a cliff from treacherous dirt roads winding through the Andes and shrines are put up where a whole bus goes down and from passing buses someone runs out and lights a candle like in that Bunuel film Mexican Bus Ride.

    There’s the delusion that automobiles have brought us real far, are modern, are emblematic of advanced cultures. They are not and are holding us back with a mindset that is extremely regressive and destructive.

    We also need Ghostwalks.

  • Autos are like any other technological advance: a mixture of blessings and curses. What has set us back is that we did not recognize the motor vehicle as simply a tool of mobility. Instead, society uncritically accepted it as a silver bullet, and now is paying the price.

  • Hey Rich,

    Personally, I like the Ghost Bike concept. It really resonates with me. I even somewhat helped get the Liz Padilla bike on Fifth Avenue refurbished for the one year anniversary of her death.

    I am interested in ways to get new people using bicycles as transportation in NYC, especially older people and school age kids. My concern, reinforced by a conversation with my friend who is afraid to bike because of the Ghost Bike on Fifth, is that a profusion of Ghost Bikes and cyclist memorials might discourage these potential new cyclists from riding down a Brooklyn avenue to run an errand or from being allowed to ride bikes to school, say.

    But if Ghost Bikes also help build a movement and push the city to improve infrastructure, that’s a good counter-argument.

    It’s important to remember that the cycling needs and concerns of, say, a 55-year-old woman who wants to run an errand in the neighborhood may be very different than the needs and concerns of a 25-year-old guy who commutes from Bushwick to Union Square every day.

  • Sproule Love

    After reading this and Aaron’s post, I’m pretty sure we’re all on the same page here. The Ghost Bikes are a stunningly poignant and effective memorial to fallen cyclists. But we’re getting a little tangled up here because Aaron threw out a red herring. One of my main frustrations with this forum is our ability to get distracted – too many StreetsBlog threads end up in fractured niggling that dilutes our collective action change our city.

    Aaron, it’s not the Ghost Bikes that might scare off potential cyclists, but the reality they represent. Your point reminds me of the somewhat dated, but still inexplicable official TA argument against a mandatory bike helmet law on the grounds that it would discourage people from riding bikes (TA also argued that if cyclist should be required to wear helmets, so should pedestrians and motorists):

    At the risk of sounding hypocritical and sending us off on another tangent, I bring this up because just like potential riders should know the risks, they should also be wearing helmets. To not do so is insane and has a social cost. Why argue these points, when we should be rallying around brilliant ideas like Ghost Bikes? My girlfriend, whom I coaxed onto a bike despite all the familiar arguments against it, started noticing the Ghost Bikes after a few rides around her neighborhood, near Houston and Broadway. That’s when she agreed to wear a helmet. And she’s still riding.

    So much of what we discuss here, like driver behavior, consumption decisions, and whether or not to ride at all are very personal decisions. People should know what they are getting into if they decide to ride a bike in New York City. This goes for both the 25 year old and 55 year old. I just don’t see any difference. I would argue that it’s more important for the 55 year old woman to know the risks than the 25 year old, who might have better reflexes and faster legs to avoid an accident. But then again I’ve met some 55 year old riders who ride a lot smarter and faster than most 25 year olds.

    Maybe we are crazy to ride in New York City. I’ve been hit three times on my bike here, but I never once thought about getting rid of my wheels. When people close to me express concern, I tell them that I’ve toned down the aggression, I wear a helmet, and I use lights, but I do feel some of Charlie Komanoff’s existential wonder regarding what it would take to get me to stop riding here. Even if I lost my legs, I bet I would get one of those fancy wheelchair-bikes. After a lot of thought on the subject, I’ve come to the dark conclusion that only death would get me off my bicycle. And if that happens I hope a Ghost Bike goes up on the spot.

  • Steve

    Sproule-insightful, thoughtful, powerful comment.


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