Memorializing Cyclists: The Ghost Bikes Project

The Street Memorial Project honors cyclists and pedestrians who have been killed on New York City’s streets. Ghost Bikes seek to cultivate a compassionate and supportive community for survivors and friends of those lost and to initiate a change in culture that fosters mutual respect among all people who share the streets. The Street Memorial Project was developed in 2007 to incorporate all the volunteers involved in creating ghost bikes and to include pedestrian memorials and an international web site. Through the project, individuals work together to construct the memorials and organize memorial rides and walks to highlight safety issues on our streets and remember those killed. By 2015, 150 ghost bikes will have been placed in New York City.

WHAT IS THE GHOST BIKE PROJECT?

Ghost Bikes are dignified and somber memorials for bicyclists killed on the streets. A bicycle painted all white is locked near the crash site accompanied by a small plaque. Ghost Bikes strive to recognize every cycling fatality, but limited news coverage, changing statistical counts, and the lack of publicly available information make it difficult to learn about every death. As part of our annual Memorial Ride and Walk, they install a ghost bike in remembrance of all the individuals whose names never made the news.

Each installation is meant to be a reminder of a tragedy that occurred on an otherwise anonymous street corner and a quiet statement in support of cyclists’ right to safe travel. The first bike memorials were created in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003, and the idea has since spread to over 200 locations throughout the world. The first New York City ghost bikes appeared in June 2005.

Creating and installing a ghost bike is a sad and moving process. The death of a fellow bicyclist hits home, since we travel the same unsafe streets and face the same risks; it could just as easily have been one of us. Each time we say we hope to never have to do it again – but they remain committed to making these memorials as long as they are needed.

ghost bike memorial in new york city

WHAT DO GHOST BIKES WANT?

Ghost Bikes want a change in culture.

To encourage mutual respect among all street users. To instill in each person the responsibility we share to look out for each other. Ghost bikes want to incite more humanity in this city.

To assure that every person is remembered.

To build solidarity among non-drivers and create a space for mourning and support. To acknowledge each death as a tragic, but not isolated, event. To recognize the ripple effect that one person’s death has on their family, neighborhood, and community, and to acknowledge that the loss of one life affects us all.

Ghost Bikes want improvements in policy.

To make the City follow through on necessary improvements in engineering, enforcement, and public education. To compel the City to conduct full investigations of crashes and their causes and to take action to improve safety.

Ghost Bikes want outrage that makes a lasting difference.

To encourage the media to report on all deaths in a sensitive, educated manner. To hold the City accountable for street safety issues and to force each agency to respond to these preventable tragedies. To inspire all New Yorkers to be grieved and angered when someone is killed.

They want to stop having to do this.

memorializing cyclists with a ghost bike

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

How many ghost bikes are there? How many fatalities each year?

By 2015, 150 ghost bikes will have been placed in New York City. There were 24 cyclist deaths in 2005, 18 in 2006, 25 in 2007, 26 in 2008, 12 in 2009, 18 in 2010, 22 in 2011, 18 in 2012, 12 in 2013, and 20 in 2014 according to media and DOT reports. At least two people have been killed thus far in 2015. In 2006, 166 pedestrians were killed and over 10,000 were hit. At least 136 were killed in 2007, 156 in 2009, 151 in 2010, 134 in 2011, 136 in 2012, 168 in 2013, and 144 in 2014.

They make ghost bikes for as many crashes as they can obtain information about. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to get this information, and there may be many more crashes than those that they commemorate with ghost bikes, simply because they are not able to find out about them. There have been 54 cyclist deaths since 2005 for which they have no information about the individual killed or the crash, and they remember these deaths each year on our Annual Memorial Ride and Walk.

How do you make the bikes?

Ghost Bike memorials are very easy to create and require only basic supplies available at any hardware store. They try to salvage as much material as possible, paying only for paint, a lock, and a chain, with a total cost of up to $50 per memorial. Theye usually get free “junk” bikes from bike repair shops or friends’ basements. They strip each bike of non-essential parts (cables, grips, brakes) and recycle them; this makes it easier to paint and also less attractive to thieves.

There is a very detailed guide to painting bikes at WikiHow, but the basics are: degrease and clean the bike before painting; apply primer; apply 1-2 coats of flat white spray paint; let dry for 24 hours. Most groups use stencils to create plaques, but painting by hand, silkscreening, and other printing techniques can also be used. Most hardware or art supply stores sell pre-cut stencil letters. In New York, they work with local artists’ group Bushwick Print Lab to screenprint our plaques. In New York City, street signs are on nearly every corner and are perfect for installing plaques. We bolt the plaques into place using ¼” bolts and nuts and lock the bike in place as if it was a functioning bike.

Does the city take the bikes down? Are ghost bikes meant to be permanent?

Though most of the memorials can still be found at the crash sites, some ghost bikes have been removed. Often, this happens when a memorial is in a less public location or a park. Private business owners have also removed ghost bikes that were near their property.

Ghost bikes can last a long time if there is community and family support for them. They are likely to last longer when well-maintained and visited often. For example, City officials threatened to remove Andre Anderson’s memorial in Far Rockaway, but did not follow through when family and community members rallied to maintain it. In other cities, ghost bikes are sometimes removed and sometimes remain, depending on the situation. Different groups have found creative ways of keeping bikes intact, including hanging them off of high posts or 4 encasing a wheel in a concrete block. Ultimately, the problem ghost bikes represent is unsafe streets, and they will remain a presence as long as the problem remains unsolved.

In 2010, the NYC Department of Sanitation proposed rules to govern the removal of abandoned bikes. After a public hearing that included testimony from family members of fallen cyclists and submission of over 300 comments on the rules from community members, the DSNY amended the rules to exempt ghost bikes from removal unless they are determined to pose an immediate threat to public safety. Given our efforts to install ghost bikes in a safe and respectful manner, they do not expect the City to actively remove them.

How do you find out about these deaths?

Most of the time, we hear about crashes from the news. On other occasions, a family member or friend will contact us. Unfortunately, not all deaths are reported in the media and City data is difficult to locate and analyze. Often, we do not know about a death or will find out months later. The numbers reported by the NYPD or DOT each year do not always match up with our counts. It is possible to fill out FOIA requests to get information about crashes; unfortunately, this process is time-consuming, expensive, and slow, and reports are often incomplete. In 2011, the City Council passed the Saving Lives Through Better Information Bill, which mandates monthly reporting by the NYPD on crashes and access to data online. However, despite this bill’s passage, they still struggle to get access to updated and accurate information on crashes.

How do the families of those killed react to the ghost bikes?

Every person’s reaction is different, but the family members they have spoken to have been overwhelmingly positive. Relatives have written to thank us for making memorials and remembering their loved ones. Often, people are not named or they are unable to reach the family.

How do community members react?

They’ve found that neighbors, even those who did not know the person, are often very protective of the memorials. When Andrew Morgan’s ghost bike was hit by a cab, the owners of a local restaurant held on to the memorial until they could give it back to us. They receive updates and reports from family members or strangers, and often find that a memorial is quietly maintained by local residents. The memorials give people a place to mourn or meditate and leave a lasting mark at the site of a crash that would otherwise have been forgotten. Their presence also helps to connect families to the larger cycling community, safer streets advocates, and the media.

What is the process for installing a ghost bike?

The process and time it takes to install a bike varies. Our goal is to install a ghost bike for every death they learn about before the Annual Memorial Ride. The process of installing ghost bikes is different in each city and is determined by public support and the local project’s decisions.

Have you known someone who was killed on a bike?

The volunteers of the Street Memorial Project all have very different experiences with ghost bikes. Some have been very close to a fallen cyclist, while others simply feel connected to the cycling community and the project’s goals. Ultimately, each person killed is a member of our community and the fallen cyclists are a microcosm of the city as a whole. They feel accountable to each person and recognize that it could just as easily have been one of us. They wish to honor each person and believe that all deserve recognition, respect, and mourning.

How did you start this project?

The project continues the work of various groups and volunteers, who for more than a decade before the project began created memorials for those lost in crashes in New York City, starting with Right of Way’s memorial stenciling project from 1996. The arts collective Visual Resistance began making ghost bikes in June 2005, when a member came across the site of Liz Padilla’s crash minutes after it happened. The project was inspired by Ghost Bikes Pittsburgh, which was inspired by a similar effort in St. Louis. The act of painting bikes white originated from Jo Slota’s Ghost Bike art project in San Francisco. The NYC Street Memorial Project was organized in 2007 to bring together the people involved in creating ghost bikes and to include pedestrian memorials and an international web site. There are now ghost bikes in over 200 locations on 5 continents.

How do ghost bikes in New York City relate to those in other cities?

Ghost bikes in each city are installed with different intentions and methods. Aspects such as whether bikes are installed for injuries in addition to deaths, the type of sign, the condition of bikes, and the technique of installation may vary. GhostBikes.org documents the projects in each city and was started by New York volunteers. Some groups maintain their own city’s page, while others are completed by New York volunteers using information found in blogs, Flickr comments, and media reports. For information about a local project, They suggest you contact that city or research local cycling-related groups. They do not always have information about each city’s project, but they support the efforts of all that choose to maintain ghost bikes.

Why do you make ghost bikes?

The project started as a way to cope with these deaths but became something larger. We all have something at stake in this, whether to remember those who would be forgotten or to transform our city into the place we want it to be.

Do ghost bikes scare away would-be cyclists?

They believe that drawing attention to unsafe conditions and advocating for better cycling amenities, as well as uniting the cycling community around these issues, is the best way to encourage new cyclists. Ghost bikes don’t create unsafe streets; they remind everyone that making streets safer is a collective act and requires participation of all street users. They also make visible the cost of ignoring traffic justice issues.

ghost bike on street corner memorial

HOW CAN OUR STREETS BE SAFER?

Our objective is to create a culture of mutual respect for all users of New York City’s streets. They suggest that this could be achieved through methods that simultaneously improve cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, educate all road users on their rights and responsibilities, and increase enforcement of violations that put cyclists and pedestrians in peril. Improved media and government reporting would help draw attention to the need for all road users to exercise due caution and respect by emphasizing the fact that cars and trucks do not have a greater right to the road than cyclists and pedestrians. The pedestrians and cyclists they memorialize do not die as the result of “accidents” as frequently reported in the press; they are killed in preventable collisions.

They believe that our recommendations can decrease the likelihood of crashes resulting in death and serious injury of cyclists and pedestrians, and in the long term will foster mutual respect among drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, walkers, joggers, skaters, and all street users.

Improving Existing Cyclist and Pedestrian Infrastructure Improved street design is an essential key to improving safety.

A safer and less stressful environment will increase the use of bicycles for daily transportation, which in turn will make cycling safer, as drivers become accustomed to sharing the streets. While New York is a pedestrian’s city, reckless driving still results in numerous fatalities and injuries each year. The design of the urban environment affects the behavior of all road users, so all efforts must be made to improve infrastructure in ways that can protect people who walk, skate, jog, and cycle. They suggest improvements to create an infrastructure that provides:

  • physically separated spaces, including truly car-free greenways and buffered bike lanes intersection improvements, including sidewalk extensions and variations in signal timing
  • traffic calming measures
  • common sense mapping and demarcation of bike lanes and crosswalks
  • complete streets that offer integrated street space accommodating all users
  • visible and well-placed signage denoting bike routes

Enforcement of Existing Traffic Laws

The NYPD too often neglects to enforce existing traffic laws, and our legal system fails to prosecute drivers who severely injure and kill pedestrians and cyclists. In most cases there are no repercussions for drivers who kill or maim; the majority never even receive a summons, regardless of evidence or their own admission of disobeying traffic laws. The NYPD regularly fails to hold drivers accountable for their actions, not even serving summonses for the most obvious violations. Protecting cyclists and pedestrians will make New York a more livable city. In turn, cyclists and pedestrians are responsible for respecting applicable rules of the road.

They believe that the NYPD should do everything possible to:

  • discourage dangerous driving by issuing summonses to those who break laws, especially for routine violations that endanger non-drivers
  • practice active and equitable enforcement of traffic laws against all road users
  • better educate and train officers regarding traffic laws and crash response procedures
  • ensure accurate and pedestrian/cyclist-sensitive NYPD response and complete investigation of crashes

Education, Outreach, and Reporting

Rigorous ongoing outreach and education will help ensure that all road users understand their rights and responsibilities. Because of their potentially deadly force, it is particularly important that drivers of motorized vehicles recognize the rights of more vulnerable road users. In addition, the City should analyze crash data to determine what improvements to make. They suggest this outreach should include:

  • driver awareness and education, including public awareness campaigns, mandatory driver education courses for traffic violators, and bicycle and pedestrian awareness curriculum in driving tests and programs for MTA, City government, and large vehicle operators
  • 311 and 911 services for cyclists and pedestrians to report unsafe conditions and emergencies
  • accurate, coordinated, and transparent recording of summonses, crashes, serious injuries, and fatalities by all involved City and State agencies
  • analysis of reports and examination of contributing factors to crashes
  • improved data collection and public disclosure by the City regarding crashes and subsequent investigations
Media Response

In relaying information on crashes that result in deaths or serious injuries, They urge representatives of the media to discuss safety issues with cyclist and pedestrian advocates and to provide as complete a picture as possible of the incident. There is much room for improvement in the City’s reporting of crashes, enforcement of dangerous driver behavior, and implementation of infrastructure improvements. They look to the media to inform the public in a fair and balanced manner. Press can play an important role in highlighting driver responsibility and opening the discussion to safety improvements.

They propose that improvements to media reporting of crashes should include:

  • increased media access to information on deaths and injuries of cyclists and pedestrians
  • use of appropriate language in reporting on crashes, avoiding use of words such as “accident” that connote lack of culpability for the driver
  • avoidance of crash descriptions that unfairly blame the victim. Journalists often describe common driving violations that cause collisions in ways that give the impression that the cyclist or pedestrian was at fault. For example, bicyclists do not hit car doors; people open car doors into cyclists’ paths. Cyclists and pedestrians do not move into the paths of turning vehicles; drivers of vehicles do not look for cyclists and pedestrians and fail to yield to them at intersections. All of these are illegal actions, punishable under New York vehicular law.
  • focus on driver behavior rather than the presence or absence of helmets, lights, reflectors, or bells, which do not prevent collisions

For further recommendations on how to bring about improved street safety, please read suggestions from the New York City Bicycle Coalition at www.transalt.org/campaigns/safebiking/Bike safety.html

The NYC Department of Transportation released a report on traffic safety improvements in NYC that includes year-to-year data on fatalities and severe injuries: www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/safetyrpt07_1.pdf

The NYC Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene, Parks and Recreation, and Transportation and the NYPD released a joint report entitled “Bicyclist Fatalities and Serious Injuries in New York City 1996 – 2005”: www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/bicyclefatalities.pdf

This article was first published on ghostbikes.org