With its rusting chain and flat tires, some consider the dilapidated, whitewashed bicycle chained to a sign post on Chicago’s north side a piece of urban junk. Cyclists know better. Pedaling by, they pay silent homage at this memorial to George Chavez, a cyclist killed at this spot in a hit-and-run accident in June of 2006.
The “ghost bike” memorial project began in 2003 in St. Louis, Missouri when Patrick Van Der Tuin, after witnessing a vehicle strike a bike rider, placed a white-painted bicycle on the spot with a hand-painted sign reading “Cyclist struck here.” Upon realizing that motorists tended to slow down when they passed the memorial, cyclists placed 15 more “ghost bikes” in spots around St. Louis where cyclists had been hit by automobiles. The idea caught on and before long there were ghost bikes in Pittsburgh, New York City, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Chicago, London, and dozens of other cities around the world.
Debate over whether the memorials should be temporary or permanent reached a zenith over a ghost bike in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle. For more than a year, it stood just a few feet from the spot where a garbage truck struck down 22-year old Alice Swanson as she pedaled to work. In August of 2009, claiming area retailers had complained that the memorial was an eyesore, the city cut the chain and carted the bicycle away. Less than a month later, friends of the rider surreptitiously arrived one at a time, laying ghost bikes at each of the intersection’s 22 lampposts and chaining a new memorial bike to its original spot. Although participants expected the 22 unchained bikes to disappear over time, they announced their intention to replace the memorial again and again until the city relents and leaves it in place.
The burgeoning movement has sprouted websites devoted to ghost bikes and events dedicated to those who have perished, such as last weekend’s Fifth Annual Memorial Ride and Walk in New York City, and the Chicago Ride of Silence, hosted in hundreds of cities worldwide with an aim of raising awareness that cyclists have a legal right to the public roadways. In Chicago, this year’s event is scheduled for May 19, 2010 at 7 p.m.
The question of whether ghost bikes are urban trash urban art may never be resolved, but it seems certain they are raising motorist awareness for bicycle safety. And if they can have that effect, I am all for keeping them in place.
Photo Credits: Ghost Bike 1 Hryck, Ghost Bike 2 Time’s Up! Environmental Organization, Ghost Bike 3 randomduck, Ghost Bike 4 Osbornb, Ghost Bike 5 Tom T, Ghost Bike 6 ChrispyWorld, Ghost Bike 7 hogalicioous, Ghost Bike 8 mattwi1s0n, Ghost Bike 9 Tom T, Ghost Bike 10 Daquella manera, Ghost Bike 11 Carlos F Pardo
Also a tip of the hat to Heather Cowper at HeatherOnHerTravels.com, the fabulous UK travel blog where I first learned about ghost bikes.