Do Ghost Bikes Help or Hurt?

At the bike summit on Saturday, there was an interesting comment in the “Why People Don’t Ride” session.

Ghost Bikes scare people.

The white bicycles, placed at locations where riders have been killed are (as I understand it) intended as a combination memorial and reminder to our leaders that we need to make conditions safer.

But the implication from the person making the comment was that they remind people that they can get killed riding a bike.

Yes, I know that it’s getting safer every year, and you can get killed riding in a car as well, but the question still remains. In the context of getting more people to ride, in the trade-off between goading improvements in safety and scaring potential riders, are Ghost Bikes a net positive or a net negative?


24 responses to “Do Ghost Bikes Help or Hurt?”

  1. is this a poll? net negative. i carry an emergency contact card in my wallet. at the end is “did i die on a bike? there are worse ways to go.” i think i’ll amend to: “organ donor; no ghostbike please.”

  2. I haven’t even seen a ghost bike, but yes, it would scare me even more. Fact is, every close friend of mine who rides has had a serious accident. That’s enough for me, ghost bike or no. The trick is getting scaredy-cats like me out of cars and on to public transportation (I already am, no worries there), because it’s going to take a *lot* of change to make us confident about biking to work.

  3. They’ll mean different things to different people. Is think the goal of Ghost Bikes is to increase awareness with motorists, not to necessarily encourage more people to ride bikes.

    But this idea of unintended consequences of bike activism is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    Some actions, like Critical Mass, Ghost Bikes, and the Ride of Silence, while exciting and empowering for the activists involved, have a net negative impact on the greater population.

    In other words I think they are sort of self-serving to some extent.

    Activists get seduced by the romantic allure of their activism and are more concerned with the act itself perhaps than with thinking about its impact on society.

    Critical Mass can be argued to be a net negative (at least here in Portland). A great thing for the activists involved…but it hurts us politically, scares away many would-be cyclists, and is a divisive issue even withing the bike community.

    Did you notice the Ride of Silence coverage in the media focused on how dangerous bicycles were and told stories of tragedies and made it seem like every time you ride you are at risk of dying. Is that the type of PR organizers wanted?

    I think all these actions have both positive and negative and it’s a worthy debate to weigh both.

  4. I tend to see them as a negative as well. After being a serious cyclist in my teens and twenties, I got doored and spent a summer unable to walk. It took me about 15 years to even think about cycling regularly again and bike lanes next to parked cars still give me the heebee geebees.

    The vast majority of folks that I know who don’t cycle do so because of fear. I don’t think people see that being in a car is dangerous, unless you’ve just had a bad accident. And the ghost bikes are much more visible, it seems, that the cardeath memorials.

    So while I understand it, I agree: it’s another reminder of the danger of commuting. It’s not helping our cause.

  5. While these memorials may not help dissaude some people from their perception that the dangers of cycling are too great, doesn’t offering a reminder of the current state of cycling safety also help raise people’s awareness that safer measures are required?

  6. I like the ghost bikes, I find them to be no different then the crosses w/ flowers reminding cars of a auto fatality, or memorials reminding people not to drive drunk.

    It’s a good reminder to be careful. I don’t want to forget about the fatalities on Belmont, or Sandy blvd and I want to remind cars of their potential harm every chance I can.

    Turn the news on and we hear auto fatality after auto fatality on our highways, yet still people drive.

    We have a couple of bikes painted white and this is keeping people from riding?

    To myself, who has only been riding a bicycle for about 4 years (I was driving for over 10 before I kicked that habit) the positives of saving money, exercise and enjoying the environment around me outweighs any negative reminder of our mortality on the road. And I should ad I’ve been involved in two accidents with cars. Fortunately I’m still around to ride:)

    Cars scare me, not white bicycles.

  7. In the face of all this negative feedback about ghost bikes, I’d like to stick up for them.

    Sure all actions are going to have multiple impacts, you can not control all of them – the best you can do is try to focus them.

    I see all these things, ghost bikes, the Ride of Silence ect. as places where (like it or not) a marginalized group comes together as a community and builds those connective bonds. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and in fact I think its a good thing and important.

    This cry of ‘it doesn’t help our cause’ smacks of the kind of self censorship common to marginalized populations everywhere, women, people of color queers ect.
    The ideal is if the group will self-censor internally, then the status quo doesn’t even have to expend much energy to avoid them.

    Sure those people that view cycling as dangerous fail to make the connection that, as car drivers, they *are* the problem they’re complaining about.
    If there were fewer car drivers there would be fewer cars and hopefully those out there would also be cyclists and transit users and carry that perspective with them when they drove.

    The real solution that I see is education – an expansion of people’s world view that happens one person at a time when we, together or singly, speak up from our our perspective instead of staying silent.
    And yeah we won’t always agree, but I think the dialog is worth it

  8. THANK YOU, Emily, and I wanted to write that some people don’t seem to be seeing the whole picture. People are going to hear about deaths of cyclists caused by motorists with or without the Ghost Bikes, yes? Well, one purpose of the memorials is to remind motorists of the deadly consequences to careless driving, that automobiles kill. This is just one part of an overall strategy to improve traffic safety. With enough improvement in safe driving and riding, cyclists would no longer be killed, and the Ghost Bike memorials would be just a quaint reminder of a time when people in general were careless and dangerous, and deaths occurred. I’m not naive enough to think that traffic fatalities would ever be reduced to zero, barring a miraculous overhaul in consciousness society-wide, but that is the ideal we’re shooting for, and the closer we get to that the less would-be cyclists are going to hear about (through the media, friends and relatives, or any other source) cyclist fatalities. The less they hear about them, the more they will perceive riding as “safe” and be compelled to ride. So, Ghost Bike memorials or none, fatalities are going to be a deterrent for some people and the purpose of GB is to try to reduce those fatalities.

    If you have a useful suggestion for Ghost Bikes, you can contribute to the discussion on the email list here:

  9. They scare you? GOOD. Now what are you going to do about it? It’s not the bike that killed these people, it was the car. So you are going to climb back into the vehicle that killed these people, shut your door, and turn up the radio and drive along your merry way, blissfully down the road and heaven forbid you see anything that may displease you or pop your blissful bubble. I hope I would never have to paint another one, but I will continue to do it, whether it is scary to you or not. I just wish they were more noticeable to car traffic.

    I don’t ride, because a Ghost Bike scared me. That is lame excuse. Every time I swing my leg over the top bar I know this could be my last ride ever. I ride knowing the dangers and feel that makes me more aware. Ghost Bikes serve as another reminder.

  10. why do ghost bikes scare you?
    why does a bike scare you?
    the cars are the ones that killed the cyclist being memoralized. one of those supposed ghost bikes was my savior. if “X” hadn’t looked behind him while we (him, my daughter, and myself) were riding, guaranteed all three of us would be dead. so yes, i am going to put up a BIG memorial for him since it was under a streetlight, AT a PEDESTRIAN CROSSWALK!!! you know the cars that blow through the crosswalk while pedestrians are waiting. we were cycling with traffic and entering the crosswalk (not to cross but cycling through that portion) he looked and instructed me to get on the sidewalk three seconds before he was hit. so, yes, you can die…yes, that is scary…yes AUTO FATALITIES ARE ALWAYS HAPPENING TO MOTORISTS AGAINST OTHER MOTORISTS…why are you still secure in your car? i still bike – my only form of transport, with my daughter. i just wish motorists would be more focused while driving and not view it as the armour against all, and the “right”…ghost bikes are like the crosses with flowers…but also reminders to please drive responsibly and focused.

  11. My bike has a black ribbon tied on the handlebar to remind me every time I ride that bicyclists have been slaughtered by motorists too drunk or too busy to care.
    It reminds me that every motorized vehicle is a deadly matter…”trust no car” is a motto from my motorcycle days that I repeat to myself while riding my bike.
    The real shame is that the Police Bureau wastes precious resources ticketing bicyclists who coast thru stop signs while they should be ticketing the vehicles that can kill…speeding cars, those that run red lights, etc.
    I’ve been riding a bike for 50 years, I love it and will not give it up.

  12. I can’t say whether I think Ghost Bikes are a net negative or positive. For cyclists, who view ourselves as a community, the bikes serve as a way of remembering and honoring a fallen member of our community. For non-cyclists, they have a different role, reminding people of the dangers of cycling, and most likely contributing to the wild exaggeration of the dangers of cycling, common in the media and also among cyclists.

    The Ride of Silence, which I attended in memory of a good friend who was killed on his bike, had exactly the same effect. I was of two minds as to whether to attend the Ride, because I was aware of this dichotomy, but in the end I decided to go, because I wanted to honor my friend.

    I do think that Ghost Bikes are a very small example of a larger problem, in which bicycle advocates present a mixed message. I mentioned this when I spoke up at the Summit workshop mentioned above.

    On the one hand, we say bicycling is good, you should do it, it’s healthy, and so on.

    On the other hand, we constantly remind drivers, and ourselves, how dangerous cars are to cyclists. The deadliness of cars, specifically to cyclists, seems to constitute a large part of cyclists’ anti-car rhetoric.

    And as Jonathan noted, the media loves to jump on this whenever possible, as they did after the Ride of Silence. Yet I have to disagree with Phill — I don’t see the media doing anywhere near the scare tactics about auto fatalities as they do about bicycle fatalities. There are multiple auto fatalities in Oregon nearly every day, buried neatly in the back of the Oregonian’s front section, and if they got as much sensationalistic, front page, ominous-music-accompanied media attention as the rare bicycle/auto fatality, I really do think it would affect how people think about driving.

    I have a little theory about this. My theory is that people do know how dangerous driving is. Yet if they acknowledged this in a real way, they’d have to stop driving. (Kind of like if they acknowledged how awful factory-farming was, they’d have to stop eating at McDonalds.) So instead, they project all of their fears surrounding the danger and destructiveness of automobiles onto a few handy activities: cycling, kids walking or cycling to school, and so on.

    The truth is that cars aren’t that dangerous to cyclists. They’re much more dangerous to drivers and their passengers. Cycling is not very dangerous as a form of transportation, and it’s much, much safer than most other forms of outdoor recreational exercise.

    Cycling in traffic is scary sometimes. It is very unpleasant sometimes. Close calls can be very very scary. And of course, cyclists do sometimes get killed by cars. But I think we cyclists often tend to confuse “scary” or “unpleasant” with “dangerous.”

    What I said in the workshop was that I think that we as advocates need to think about the message we’re sending. We need to promote bicycling as an excellent and sensible transportation choice.

    Just after I made my statement, someone else stood up and demanded that in order for more people to start cycling, auto drivers must be properly prosecuted for all the cyclists who are injured and killed. I agree with this. But it also demonstrates my point: we talk about getting people onto bikes as a great alternative to driving, in the same breath as we talk about how deadly bicycling is.

    Given the choice, I’d keep the Ghost Bikes, and the Ride of Silence, but I would ask us all to avoid kneejerk responses to cars as “dangerous to cyclists.” I need to follow this advice myself. It is a tough habit to break.

    Remember this: Cars are more dangerous to the fabric of society than they are to individual cyclists. Cars, and the infrastructure that supports them, are what have killed our cities, our family structure, and our ability to live with one another in communities of proximity. It’s much easier to claim that a damned crazy cyclist is “gonna get killed” by a damned crazy motorist, than to comprehend (or communicate) the mass destruction that cars and car-impacted urban design has caused to this country. Yet I think that this destruction is what we’re all trying to change and repair in one way or another.

    For more thoughts on this, read John Forester’s writings on the Bicycle Inferiority Complex in his book Effective Cycling. I think the Danger of Cycling complex is a very similar phenomenon.



  13. just sickens me when people are opposed to this type of memorial…its a white bike for all they care…what about other bikes scattered around town with missing wheels that have been there for awhile? collecting dust (i actually feel bad for the bike not getting the love it deserves, but) they don’t hollar around that…but, to remember a fallen cyclist by the direct hand of someone driving, they are opposed to seeing that…where did humanity go? where did respect for life go? (not only the cyclist but also the driver should have enough respect for themselves to pay attention when operating so many poundage of metal)…argh…having to discuss this before, during, after putting up ghost bikes, to discuss WHY the need to put up a memorial…really, does there have to be an explanation? this person died on a bicycle, not in a car, but a bicycle, BY a car…it’s permanent, not just a traffic infraction…therefore, a memorial (such as a funeral) is permanent, hopefully…just as “X” will never be forgotten by my daughter, our friends, and I, these others will never be forgotten…but it can be prevented for others if drivers will start growing some responsibility for their vehicle…so many people talk on the phone while driving, and almost hit my daughter and i IN THE BIKE LANE! really, the things people do while driving; putting on make up, eating WITH BOTH HANDS, bending down to get something, drinking, and yet, we are so concerned about the white bikes that are memorials…come one…disgusting!

  14. In survey after survey, we hear the top concern preventing people from discovering the joys of riding a bike is a concern about safety. Two-thirds of Portlanders say they would walk or bike more if (they felt) it was safe.

    There are lots of ways to go about addressing that. Some are perception (misestimating risk is a fascinating human trait, and the media don’t help), some are real (slowing cars), some are skill (most adults never even think of taking an effective cycling class or getting tips from a friend).

    So, we’ll go after the skill with bike buddy efforts, and we’ll go after the real concerns with laws, engineering, and facilities like bicycle boulevards.

    The perception challenge is, as this post notes, a sticky one. Whenever the media talk to me post-crash, I have to remind them not to oversensationalize — that biking in Portland is getting a lot safer over time as more people bike — while emphasizing that we have to do more to prevent tragic bike deaths.

  15. I’m for the memorials, when I see them they remind me of how vulnerable I really am, which makes me slow down and think.

    I also believe the memorials make automobile drivers slow down and think.

    It is my hope that the fallen cyclists will be able to save lives long after they have lost theirs.

    I’ve gotten several of my friends to start biking and I think a certain level of fear is a healthy thing.

    We would be guilty of misrepresentation if we tried to get lots of newbies on bikes by taking down the ghostbikes and things that ‘scare’ them and promoted it as safe transportation. In the end I would rather have fewer folks on bikes than more dead cyclists.

    Not to derail this thread but their have been several mentions of cycling getting safer in Portland, these statements are contrary to the ODOT figures:

  16. Critical Mass can be argued to be a net negative (at least here in Portland). A great thing for the activists involved…but it hurts us politically, scares away many would-be cyclists, and is a divisive issue even withing the bike community.

    As someone who never road in a Critical Mass, I feel the need to say I don’t agree that it has been a net negative. Critical Mass has forced a real discussion of the role of bicycles. Some of that is negative, but the debate over whether bikes should run red lights and stop signs has virtually ended any debate over whether they belong on the road at all.

    There was a time when riding ones bike in the road was a radical stand. There was a time when taking a lane would get you honked at with yells to get out of the road. Critical Mass has created a lot of political space for “moderates” to win reforms that would not have been considered otherwise.

  17. To the issue of bike safety improving, the basic Portland stats are that fatalities are staying flat as bike trips keep increasing, so on a per-trip or per-mile basis, things are getting safer.

  18. I really appreciate this dialog, and I wonder if at some level it doesn’t come down to some questions of identity versus politics. Emily was very eloquent:

    This cry of ‘it doesn’t help our cause’ smacks of the kind of self censorship common to marginalized populations everywhere, women, people of color queers ect.

    But I don’t think of cyclists as a marginalized population. I think of us as an insurgent group working to become a majority.

    I identify myself as a pedestrian, a transit-rider, a cyclist, and, yes, a driver. And I’m a better, safer driver for the awareness that comes from all those other identities.

    Wouldn’t the best thing we can do to improve safety for bikes be to co-opt all those drivers into becoming some-time cyclists? And the research seems to be pretty clear that to do that we have to convey that cycling is safe.

    I’m not saying Ghost Bikes have to go, but I do think we need to think about how as a community we project the impression of safety commesurate with the real risks so that we can achieve our status as a majority population.

    How about we get some cars from the junkyard and plant some Ghost Cars around the city?

  19. But I don’t think of cyclists as a marginalized population. I think of us as an insurgent group working to become a majority.

    40% isn’t a majority. Perhaps the question ought to be how many people use their bikes to commute even occassionally. Once a month or once a week.

    misestimating risk is a fascinating human trait, and the media don’t help

    Perhaps creating the perception of safety even on one day a month would lead people to commute that day and more accurately evaluate their real risk the rest of the month.

  20. But a 40% mode split would probably require that more than 50% make some trips by bike. In fact, I would venture that even a much lower mode split would represent a majority making some trips by bike on a regular basis.

  21. negative impact.

    I am not particularly fond of those, or the little crosses on the road, or flowers, or whatever.

    If someone died driving their car not everyone needs reminded ALL the time about it. Same goes for bikes.

    I mean what happens with a plane crash. Do we plant a whole flower field with crosses?

    I think it is rather tasteless and not very useful.

    Just my 2 cents. I know many that complain and agree with these sentiments also.

  22. I would venture that even a much lower mode split would represent a majority making some trips by bike on a regular basis.

    I agree. I also think a goal of 50% ridership is probably easier to obtain. There are a lot of recreational bicyclists who would commute once a montht. Once you reach 50% commuting occasionally getting them to do it more often will probably be easier as well.

  23. what happened to the population? driving used to be for road trips, not everyday communte when you can easily bike it for a par tof the working community…i bike several miles a day…a lot with my daughter toting around…now driving is just a convenience factor and it’s the mindset of the driver that the cyclist should not be on the road even when there is a law saying we can…then the threatening of the vehicle…it’s these mindsets of lack of caring, lack of human respect…then when a cyclist or PEDESTRIAN gets killed by a car who’s driver didn’t have the descency to pay attention, drive sober, watch the road at all times…point is people are dying due to cars…the drivers of those cars are not being responsible…what else are you doing to do? nothing? that’s such an apathetic and passive decision…YES LET US ALL BE NUMB! again…these mindsets are horrible…

  24. I thank everyone here for the great comments. Many wonderful issues have been brought to the table. I don’t have a definate opinion on the ghost bikes (this thread has given me a lot to think about), but I would like to share some thoughts with you regarding the issue of how we speak with the non-affiliated. I told someone today as I was speaking that perception is the main issue in transportation, not reality. I told her that automobiles are the highest cause of death for children (this is an important argument, because most of them don’t give a damn about a stranger on a bike, but it’s hard to argue against safety for kids). I also said that driving a bike is twice as dangerous as riding in a car, little by little we can adjust perception. To respond to those who are scared, I have biked for two decades and I’ve never broken a bone, never been taken to the ER, and never had a serious crash. Maybe it’s luck, maybe not, but it is very possible to be safe on a bike, while it’s hard to be safe at 50mph.

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