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In Defense of Ghost Bikes


Aaron's piece questioning the memorialization of bike fatalities [1] 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 [2] (plus several dozen since). I assisted Peter Jacobsen in his Safety in Numbers [3] work. For years I publicized the 1998 Toronto Coroner's Report [4], 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.

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 [8]