Ghost Bikes, Urban Art

Ghost Bikes Memorialize Cyclists Around the World

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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.

Can’t view the above slide show of ghost bikes? Click here.

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.

20 Comments on “Ghost Bikes Memorialize Cyclists Around the World

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  2. Great post about a great street art project. More drivers need to be remided that their vehicle is a deadly weapon. And bad/ignorant/careless/stupid driving leads to the deaths of bikers (non-motorized & motorized) every day.

    • Amen to that K & E. Before I finally gave up my apartment in Sarasota,
      Florida, I had a bike and would have ridden everywhere rather than driving,
      but it was just too dangerous in the downtown area – no one paid any
      attention to cyclists and there were accidents all the time.

  3. As a cyclist, I think these are wonderful. I haven’t seen any in Toronto though there have certainly been cycling deaths here. In my experience, drivers need to be more aware of cyclists so if this helps, great. I should also mention that there are cyclists who need to be more respectful of drivers as well. Thanks for the post.

  4. Hello there, i am thinking of getting a new motorbike for my husband. He however is very concerned around what type of injuries could happen from biking accidents. Look his passion is sports so if he was hurt, he would likely kill himself, no laughs. Do you think motorbiking injuries most likley occur, or is it usually only death!

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  8. Barbara, thanks for educating me on this. I really had no idea. I agree with Matt; combining art and social message is wonderful – after all, aren’t they really the same thing? I will keep an eye out for them and check out the other websites!

  9. I absolutely love finding these bikes everywhere. This was a great idea for a post as my girlfriend has taken a ton of pictures of these all over China and Central Asia. I really like the idea of having memorials to them because even the oldest rusty old bike looks like art to me.

  10. What a special story. Compliments to the power of the people who have placed and maintained these memorials. In Australia, you occasionally see small bunches of flowers and a small cross, especially on the country highways whuch you know marks another death on our roads but I admire the idea of marking cyclists who sadly are more likely to pay the ultimate price if involved in an accident.

    • Jason: Thanks so much for the linkback. I checkout your bog and your photos, both are great! Barbara

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  12. I pass a ghost bike on the road near my home in Tucson. Now I know that it isn’t an isolated memorial. As cycling continues to grow in popularity, the ghost bikes are a good reminder to share the road.

  13. Wonderful post about a tradition I never knew about. In the US it seems there are so many people who would be willing to bike rather than drive but many drivers who aren’t careful or respectful of bikers. It also doesn’t help that most cities aren’t designed to handle them.

    I know that spot in Dupont Circle and if you could see the intersection, it’s a miracle there aren’t more accidents there.

  14. Reminds me of the shocking number of white crosses you see along the steep slopes of the mountain roads in New Zealand.

    I do like the idea of combining art with strong social messages. It makes it all the more eye catching in both directions.

  15. I think the ghost bikes should be here to stay – they are an important reminder to cyclists to stay safe and to drivers to take a little more care.

    In Bristol I pass a tree on the way to work where every year around this time, there’s a yellow ribbon and flowers left for someone who died at New Year.

    An in Ecuador I think they have a really imaginitive memorials in the Blue hearts that they paint on the roads for traffic accident victims. Once you know about it, you start noticing them everywhere. Most poignant are the groups of little and big ones where whole families have died.

    http://www.heatheronhertravels.com/blue-hearts-and-ghost-bikes-ways-to-remember-the-dead/

  16. Descansos, whether they are crosses or bicycles are beautiful testaments of life. They bring to mind Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time:

    “We say that the hour of death is uncertain, but when we say this we think of that hour as situated in an obscure and distant future. It does not occur to us that it can have any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance.”

    So, for me, bicycle memorials are lovely reminders to live every moment because we don’t know if today may be our last.

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