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Guardian sparks ghost bike debate

An appropriate way of commemorating the fallen, or a distraction and deterrence to would-be cyclists?

National newspaper The Guardian has ignited a debate by posing the question of whether ghost bikes, now employed around the world to mark the spot where a cyclist lost their life and acting as a memorial to them, may deter people from riding bikes by giving the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it is in reality.

One of the most recent ghost bikes was installed close to the newspaper’s offices in London’s Kings Cross following the death last month at the junction of York Way and Pentonville Road of 24-year-old student Min Joo Lee.

According to the blog Cycling Intelligence, the bicycle, sprayed completely white as all ghost bikes are, was prepared by James Thomas, who had expressed his wish in a comment to an article regarding her death on the website to put it up in her memory.

The phenomenon itself dates back to 2003 when the first ghost bike was erected in St Louis, Missouri. The website now lists 25 countries in all continents other than Africa where the memorials, which are typically fixed to lampposts or railings and carry the cyclist’s name and date of their death, have been recorded.

The Guardian says that the first documented example of a ghost bike in the UK commemorates James Foster, an Australian national who worked at Mosquito Bikes in North London. James was killed in Islington in April 2003 when he was struck by a vehicle driven by a drunk driver who was also speeding.

Colleagues at Mosquito Bikes put up a ghost bike on the fifth anniversary of James’s death, which would have been in 2008, although itself suggests that the custom was becoming established in London as early as 2005; the picture accompanying this article, meanwhile, shows a bike installed in Oxford in 2007 to commemorate Malaysian student Tsz Fok.

However, The Guardian reports that Mosquito Bikes’ director Gill Ord is now uncertain about the value of such memorials, saying, “Even though the shop has this personal connection with James, we've got mixed feelings about them.

"Personally, I'm not sure other riders pay much attention, and there's a danger they can put people off cycling."

Chris Peck, policy co-ordinator of national cyclists’ organisation CTC is another who believes that in commemorating cyclists who have died while riding their bicycles, ghost bikes can deter others from taking to two wheels.

"While ghost bikes may help ensure road users pay more attention to one another, they make give the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is," he explained.

"Cyclists in general live two years longer than non-cyclists and are in general healthier – even in heavy traffic, a three-mile ride to work is healthier than driving to work every day and failing to get any exercise," he added.

In June 2010, the New York City Department of Sanitation announced plans to remove some 50 ghost bikes that had been installed around the city.

As a result of the furore that caused, it backed down and said it would only remove those that had fallen into a state of deriliction – most, however, are lovingly maintained by friends and family of the rider commemorated.

So, are ghost bikes an appropriate way of commemorating fallen cyclists, or do they put people off cycling and perhaps even act as a potential distraction to motorists and cyclists? Let us know your views in the comments below.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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Pjrob | 12 years ago

I have seen little crosses and bunches of flowers sometimes accompanied by a photo of the deceased in many places around where I live in the state of Victoria and are so often beside a tree on a straight road. These ones do their job easily because they tell you a story that it was highly likely to have been fatigue or alcohol.
I would hope that a ghost bike commemoration helps to remind drivers of their responsability rather than frighten riders off.
Whats important is that polititians see them also and act correctly.
By this I mean that they act to limit the freedoms of motorists around riders and also divert road funding into separated lanes rather than abdicating responsability by bringing in compulsory helmets as happened here.
From the evidence these do a far better job of sending out an incorrect message that cycling is dangerous than ghost bikes have ever done.

Katsdekker | 12 years ago

Yes - the ghost bikes initiative is a very appropriate way of showing the injustice of the road, and give dead cyclists the 'last salute', commemorate them as extraordinary people and remember their lives.

Hopefully, over time we will get some justice.

Every cyclists' death should be investigated, fairly scrutinised and lessons must be learnt: cycle provision must improve.

This is currently not happening at any meaningful scale. It is shameful to local authorities, transport authorities, the legal system, the government.

With every cyclist's death they are all bystanders.

zanf | 12 years ago

Well, then lets get rid of all war memorials because, face it, its been decades since end of either of the European civil wars and if we keep the memorials up for soldiers that have died in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan, then it could put people off joining the armed forces.

For cycling advocates to come out with, what is basically a lot of shit, they should hand in their cycle clips, stop referring to themselves as cyclists and fuck off onto public transport.

They are all a fucking disgrace.

londonplayer | 12 years ago

Strange you should mention the ghost bike outside Mosquito bikes. On the one and only occasion I have visited that shop, I saw that the ghost bike is chained to a stand directly outside the shop. Was he killed right outside the shop? Presumably so.

I can understand the owner not wanting it directly outside the shop, even if that is where it happened.

I support the Ghost Bikes. It makes you think. And I haven't stopped cycling yet.

Paul M | 12 years ago

I think it is good to commemorate victims, for the sake of their friends and family. Perhaps the ghost bikes also put people off cycling but I doubt they make much difference: rationally speaking, cycling even in central London is fairly safe, certainly safer than many other activities which are not typically considered to be as dangerous. That does not however prevent many people from seeing it as dangerous, just as people fear flying when in fact the drive to the airport is likely to pose a grater risk. The fear may be irrational, but is real and if we believe that cycling needs encouragement for all of a long list of reasons (health, congestion, pollution, childrens' mobility, etc) we need to address it, by making it feel safer. That primarily means providing physically separated infrastructure for those who need it, and calming motor traffic for those who are comfortable with being on the road.

low-fi | 12 years ago

London can be a great place to cycle, no doubt. But there are problems. The ride this weekend touring bad junctions will hopefully highlight TfL need to do more for safety.

London is a car focussed city: the Cycle Superhighways encourage cycling, but possibly without enough training for those taking it up once they get out of the blue "safe zone" (which aren't safe :/).

stripey | 12 years ago

We have a ghost bike outside out office (Goswell Road). I have never got used to its presence and often reflect on what purpose it serves. On balance, I think its a good thing. If does provide a focal point for the people who knew that particular rider. For the rest of us it serves as a reminder about how important it is to keep the pressure on policy makers to keep make roads and drivers safer.

Als - Love the comment from VeccioJo

djcritchley | 12 years ago

I understand the need to commemorate somebody's life and a ghost bike is a good way of highlighting the loss, but how long should you keep the bike in place?

James Warrener | 12 years ago

I am not so sure, and that goes for flowers at the roadside and all of those other memorials.

A relative of mine lives in the middle of nowhere and yet a cyclist died at the end of her driveway.

It's really sad for the family of the chap and I fully understand the need of his surviving relatives to feel like they have something to remember him by and somewhere to mark his passing, I truly do.

But its not easy every time my relative leaves her house with a young daughter having to field questions about the flowers at the roadside, photos of the deceased man and bike bottles left their by friends.

Long way round of saying that its important to have somewhere to mark the passing of someone, but its awkward having to live near such a memorial.

Tough question isn't it?

Coleman | 12 years ago

Hmm, points for and against. Perhaps they should paint the drunk drivers/ speeders white and tie them to the railings. Maybe it would put people off drinking and driving/ speeding. For uninsured drivers they could crush the cars into cubes, paint them white and use them to mark the beginning of new no car zones/ streets.

STATO replied to Coleman | 12 years ago
Coleman wrote:

For uninsured drivers they could crush the cars into cubes, paint them white and use them to mark the beginning of new no car zones/ streets.

They should make adverts out of that, photo before, photo after, degected owner/idiot. Would only need to be 10seconds long and could be done cheaply.

On the subject of Ghost bikes putting people off, well quite frankly, good. If someone is put off by feeling it could be 'dangerous' then its likely they will be safer off the road. On one hand they want to dress cycling (commuting) as all la-de-dah and safe, then the next statement they release is about how its not safe and deaths are up etc.

Lets face it, cycle commuters are at risk, more so if they arnt aware of the risks (or ignore them, im looking at you MrFixie-nobrakes man!) and put themselves in dangerous situations.

And anyway, how many regular folks know what they hell they represent?! and how many people do they think are put off by the few Ghost bikes that are out there. Its not like the news isnt full of cyclist deaths anyway.

OldRidgeback | 12 years ago

I think ghost bikes are an important reminder for us all and show respect for victims. I'd keep them for sure.

People who don't cycle will always find some excuse for not cycling (rain, lack of changing and shower facilities, danger and so on), basically because they're lazy.

VecchioJo | 12 years ago

do flowers tied to lamp-posts and trees deter people from driving?

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