Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Are we really haunted by ghost bikes?

A dozen ghost bikes are sadly scattered about Portland streets, and if you are reading this blog you undoubtedly see them. But does your boss? your neighbor? your boyfriend? your wife?

They always cause me pause when we cross paths. I do think of the rider(s) senselessly consumed in the impatience we inflict on our daily lives, and how often on my daily rides I have had these moments, swishes of passing danger, my presence less valuable, less important, less respected because I'm not cocooned in a four, five or six thousand pound beast that can ignore my relevance. I travel in the urban-otherland. I wish I was as secure as a side-walk bipedal, they have six or so feet of clear sailing and at worst only collided with creatures roughly their size and speed.

"My" lane is also the curbside recycling strip, delivery truck double-parking way, construction ahead sign corridor, the movie company dolly-track sector, the taxi wait station, and always, the car door opening lane. (BTW - a century plus ago ‘bipedal’ was one of the original concept names for what is now bicycle - we should have hung on to it, we might have our own six foot wide lane now!)

The Guardian news in the UK recently asked in a web clip - "Ghostly all-white bikes appear by roads where a cyclist has been killed following an accident. Do these monuments make the roads safer for other cyclists? Or are they simply tragic street art?"

I wonder the same. Do these ashen spirits of our most livable city whisper to any passersby except those that push pedals? Sure I notice, I'm on a bicycle virtually every day in one capacity or another – so that means I also engage with motorists in one capacity of another.
Do visitors to our city notice? Do police notice? Do pedestrians notice? Most importantly do those who matter most notice – drivers?

And if not, then what?

How do we signal our fragility?

Perched a top less than 30lbs of steel, aluminum or carbon, we are no match for the steel leviathans of Detroit. More importantly we are no match for the attitudes wheeling the Detroitasauruses about.

So how do we get safer?

Like most solutions, one is short term, the other systemic. We need to all put our heads together on it, not just attorney Ray Thomas, Del Sharffenberg and a few others. We already have what it takes; we have a higher percentage of people who bike to work than any other large American city; we have nearly 20,000 everyday folks come out and ride the bridges every August, that’s an army; Portland is already widely considered one of the country’s most bike-friendly urban centers. That means there are a lot of people out there to work on solutions – a start is join BTA (Bicycle Transportation Alliance) and get involved beyond wearing the t-shirt or getting your 10% off at the local bike shop. There’s a lot of lip-flapping from the saddle, but not often enough do they flap their way to a transportation hearing or local council meeting.

We need more ideas like those Big Green Bike Boxes, believed to be the first such to be put to use by any city in the country, but we need to encourage Portland police to be as vigilant about warning drivers who blunder into the boxes as they do passing out stop sign violation tickets to cyclists behind OMSI.

Long-term, education – again get involved. Folks like the Community Bike Center and BTA have safety programs for kids, lit’l Newbees, and they need your passion for the bike to help these kids learn and grow into adults who both drive with respect and believe cyclists of every ilk deserve a piece of the road.

But finally it may also rest with us – the one’s on bikes – starting with “Do unto others…” We need to obey the road rules, until We change them (see article link under Legally Speaking over on Bicycling Northwest). Stop signs mean stop – period! Red lights are for us all – period! I know it’s shitty to have to unclip, kill the momentum, but motorists don’t get us, they don’t know what we’re doing (hell, neither do we half the time), and bottom line – those Detroitasauruses can kill us.

No more ghost bikes, no more ashen art pieces – let's work together for solutions or park the cars and the bikes until we do.

The First Ghosts Were Seen…

The ghost bike idea seems to have originated with a project by San Francisco artist Jo Slota. Slota began the original ghost bike project in April 2002. This was a distinct, purely artistic endeavor. Slota was intrigued by the abandoned bicycles that he found around the city, locked up but stripped of useful parts. He began painting them white, and posted photographs on his website, As the idea was taken up for different purposes, Slota faced a dilemma. San Francisco is one of the safer U.S. cities for bicyclists, but memorial ghost bikes sprang up there as elsewhere, changing perceptions of his project.

The first ghost bike memorial project was in St. Louis, Missouri, United States in October 2003. After observing a motorist strike a bicyclist in a bike lane on Holly Hills Boulevard, Patrick Van Der Tuin placed a white-painted bicycle on the spot with a hand-painted sign reading "Cyclist Struck Here". Noticing the effect that this had on motorists in the area, Van Der Tuin then enlisted the help of friends to place 15 more "ghost bikes" in prominent spots in the St. Louis area where cyclists had recently been hit by automobiles. They used damaged bikes, in some cases deliberately damaged to create the desired mangled effect.

Today the general meaning is a ghost bike or ‘ghostcycle’ is a bicycle set up in a place where a cyclist has been hurt or killed by a motor vehicle, as a memorial and as a reminder to passing motorists to share the road. A junk bicycle is painted white, with a placard attached, and locked to a suitable light pole, post or object close to the scene of the accident. These memorials are mainly a political statement – aiming to make a wider point beyond personal loss. Not all ghost bikes commemorate real casualties: some merely reflect indignation at near-misses by careless drivers, or even protest against a poor road surface.

Portland’s ghost bikes began appearing in the summer of 2005. Similar projects began in Pittsburgh in 2004, New York City and Seattle in 2005, and Chicago in 2006. London Ghostcycle was active in 2005 and 2006. There have been similar projects in dozens of other cities worldwide.

Above photo courtesy website

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