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Ghost Bikes
Alex Steffen, 8 Aug 05

Riding a bike can be dangerous. It's even more dangerous when local streets are poorly-designed to meet bicyclists' needs, and when local driving culture encourages oblivious attitudes on the part of motorists.

Seattle-based Ghost Cycle and similar organizations in other cities are making a new form of activist art that challenges both design and attitudes. They chain up bicycles painted a ghostly white to mark the spots where bicyclists have been killed or injured in accidents, often with signs telling the unfortunate biker's story.

Powerful symbols. While it's not neccessarily true that bright green cities are car-free cities, it is true that any sustainable transportation system I can imagine will need a mix of ways of getting around, and that means that cars must share the road. Yellow bikes, bike stations, bike trees and better planning are all great (even needed) ideas, but changing public perception is just as important.

And when it comes to getting people to listen, sometimes the dead speak louder than the living.

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The thing to remember about drivers is driving is soo boring most people are on automatic as it saves mental energy and lets thier minds rest.. very vital frankly... Well... people on automatic can do a ton of amazing things react faster then people who arnt on automatic and drive better too.. but... the unexpected causes em to wake up and in that split second as they come out of it... your street pizza.

Posted by: wintermane on 8 Aug 05

That's at least partly true, which is why both good design (slowing cars down in residential areas, clearly marking pedestrian crossings and bike paths, etc.) and behavioral change (getting drivers to acknowledge that certain places are better than others to be on "automatic") are important if we're goiing to have a healthy transportation mix.

We all drive on autopilot at least some of the time, but good design and education can remind us when to pay a little more attention, is what I'm saying.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 8 Aug 05

Unfortunetly as america depends on tons of trucks driving LONG duration runs it also depends on certain roads being automatic driving friendly as the truckers come first second and last... You do NOT wana ride a bike on a road designed for truckers.

Posted by: wintermane on 9 Aug 05

Alex, how eerie to see that image on WorldChanging, first thing this morning. I walked by that very spot a few weeks ago here in Brooklyn. The Ghost Bike is an evocative memorial -- sculpture, shrine, and protest. Seeing it made me quite sad.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 9 Aug 05

Thanks for this post, Alex. I agree that changing public perceptions is an important part of the process, but doing so has a push-pull relationship to public policy. Most Americans consider the bicycle either a toy (like the unsafe bicycle-shaped objects sold for fifty bucks at big box stores) or a piece of fitness equipment. Few consider it a legitimate form of personal transportation, let alone one that will play a key role in our energy-challenged near future.

I have ridden a lot in Europe, where most drivers will slow down and wait until it is completely safe to pass a cyclist. In America, drivers rarely do so. In many European countries, the legal penalties for motorists who hit cyclists are severe. Here traffic judges often take the attitude that the cyclist is automatically at fault, and motorists often go unpunished. A change in the traffic laws would go a long way toward altering motorists' perceptions. Not to mention, of course, an aggressive plan to build bike paths, lanes, and other infrastructure to make cycling safer and more convenient.

Maybe some of those white bicycles should be chained outside of traffic courts.

Posted by: John Baxter on 9 Aug 05

The ghost bikes remind me of the numerous little (doghouse-size) temples I saw along a winding mountain highway in Chiapas, Mexico. Each temple marked where a fatal traffic accident (usually going off a cliff) had occurred. Of course, I saw many of them as our van driver was passing on a blind curve at 70 mph.

Posted by: Bob on 9 Aug 05

We should have these in London!
In their well meaning effort to improve roads for cyclists some areas here have created new hazards. For instance Camden council has build two-land bike paths into the side of many two-lane roads. So Imagine it - you're driving along (on the left mind you) and want to turn right. You've got the oncoming traffic to contend with and as soon as you get a gap you turn, but bang! you smack a cyclist coming from Behind you. It's a mad system. I've almost hit a couple of bikes already and almost been hit by cars a few times.

Posted by: Paulo Nery on 9 Aug 05

Yeah, I got hit TWICE biking in London. Once by a truck and once by a double-decker bus. Both times, I saw it coming in time to jump off of my bike to safety as my primary mode of transport was trampled under the wheels of a LARGE vehicle.

If this makes folks think about watching for cyclists, it's definitely a good thing.

Posted by: Edgy Mama on 9 Aug 05

Riding a bike is not dangerous. Per hour of activity, your risk of serious injury or death is about the same as driving. Activities with a higher rate of injury include walking, swimming, and basketball. Almost a thousand people die in the U.S. every year while cycling. About 500 people die every year from food poisoning after eating a hamburger, but most of us don't consider hamburger ingestion a dangerous activity.

The number one cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease. Strokes are number 3 and diabetes is number 7. Regular excercise, such as cycling, can mitigate the risk for these other causes of death.

Please do not promote the myth of cycling as a dangerous activity. It's fun, enjoyable and safe for everybody.

Posted by: Frtiz on 9 Aug 05

It's also important for bikers to realize that they can be in the wrong as well; not every accident is the fault of the person driving the car.

That said I do my share of biking to and from work - I'm just not studly enough to ride to work in the middle of a Wisconsin winter.

Posted by: Brian on 9 Aug 05

Thats because fritz most bike riders dont ride near cars;/ But of the ones who do the death rate soars...

Posted by: wintermane on 9 Aug 05

fritz, i don't think you've ever tried biking in nyc. cyclists are legally bound to ride on the street however motor vehicles treat them as obstacles. they turn in front of you, park in the bike lane and rarely give more than a foot of clearance when passing. beyond motor vehicles, pedestrians stand in a bike lane waiting for a light or cross against a light when only a cyclist is approaching. then you also have to watch out for doors opening and people crossing between cars. to claim that biking is safe and enjoyable for everyone is the myth.

Posted by: hijiki on 10 Aug 05

And then there is the fact that some people want to kill people and the perfect murder is to accidentaly run a biker down and clain you didnt see them. That happens in china now and it happens in brazil too... Remember while not everyone is out to get you enough people are to manage the job if you let em.

Posted by: wintermane on 10 Aug 05

Wired (I think) had an interesting article about road planning...they had a design that took out the curbs and "clear markings" because they have the opposite effect from what's intended-they make drivers feel 'safe' when they shouldn't. So they take them out, curves the road around, and put the pedestrians and the cars in the same space (colored pavement is the only indicator) and the accidents plummet, because suddenly the drivers have to be hyper alert because the safety blanket is gone.

Posted by: balzac on 10 Aug 05

Yes the article was in Wired and this innovative road design was done in Holland. Fascinating stuff and worth a read...

Posted by: Cordelia Lindgren on 11 Aug 05



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