- The Observer,
- Sunday October 5 2008
- Article history
The bike was hanging off the railings, a metre or so above the ground, gleaming spectrally in the dusk. It was painted white and its luminosity emphasised the simple sweep of the frame, the elegance of its engineering. Only up close could you see that it looked so stark and sculptural because all the extraneous bits - chain, brake cables, the rubber on the handlebars and pedals - had been stripped away. It was only the skeleton of a bike and there was a plaque hanging off the crossbar: 'In memory of Smudge, 1971-2008.'
When I first noticed it, I had no idea this bike was part of a viral campaign of memorialising that had started five years earlier and has since surfaced in more than 50 cities, from Vienna to São Paulo, Whangerei to Toronto. But in subsequent weeks, I spotted two more skeletal white bikes within a few miles of the first, commemorating the deaths of cyclists on the streets of London.
In the past year, ghost bikes have appeared in Wales, Oxford, Brighton and York, as well as in the capital. Many are the work of cycling groups that want not only to remember the dead, but to draw attention to the vulnerability of cyclists; bikes as both a shrine and a political statement. Not all cyclists are in favour, however; some argue that they give the impression cycling is more dangerous than it is.
Within half an hour's bike ride from my house, I can see three, which seems a scary amount of death on two wheels. Yet that impression is not borne out by the facts, even taking into account two highly publicised fatalities in London in the past fortnight. (Both involved lorries, which are implicated in the overwhelming majority of cycling deaths in the capital.) Since 2000, cycling in London has doubled, but there are 19 per cent fewer deaths than in the mid-1990s, an average of 20 a year. Nationally, 136 people were killed cycling in 2007 and 146 the year before.
Some ghost bikes are temporary - the Oxford and York bikes have gone and one in Greenwich Park, south east London, was 'reluctantly removed after a month' following discussions with the Royal Parks. Some local authorities are more tolerant - the Brighton bike has been in place for nearly a year, while Transport for London, which controls the major routes in the capital, says: 'We wouldn't expect to be asked permission for a ghost bike and we wouldn't seek to remove it.'
The ghost bike for Smudge was locked to the railings on the corner where he died by friends, who tend it with fresh flowers. A laminated order of service is attached to the frame and a photograph to the front wheel, from which you learn that Smudge's real name was Antony Smith, that he came from Clitheroe, Lancashire, and had a nice smile. They played Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' at his funeral. On the front of the order of service, it said: 'You hold your child's hand for a while, but you hold his heart for ever.'
Other ghost bikes are left by family, like the one in north Wales that Peter Cawley set up recently to commemorate his brother Barry, 37, killed by a speeding car in July 2000. Some are installed under cover of darkness, as if they had washed up through the traffic of their own accord; others with a small ceremony, as when Greenwich Cyclists, which is campaigning to ban cars in Greenwich Park, kept a minute's silence for Lennard Woods, killed there in June 2007, which was attended by his wife and daughters.
The dispersed, viral and largely spontaneous British ghost bike phenomenon has its origins in St Louis, Missouri, where, in 2003, a young man called Patrick Van der Tuin saw an SUV hit a woman in a cycle lane. Later, under cover of darkness, he placed a white bike at the scene with a notice saying: 'Cyclist struck here.' Passing it each day, Van der Tuin was impressed by the effect his installation seemed to have on drivers: they were slowing down, taking notice. So, one Sunday night, he and a few other enthusiasts set out after dusk with 15 twisted cycles on their bike racks. Stopping at intersections where they knew cyclists had been hit, they locked them to street lamps and signposts and moved on.
The idea of the white bike as a haunting symbol was already in the air: in April 2002, San Francisco-based artist Jo Slota had begun painting abandoned bikes he found on the streets, documenting the results on his Ghost Bike website. Between 2002 and 2005, Slota painted 23 broken bikes - sometimes a complete frame, sometimes a lone wheel left pathetically propped in a rack. 'I see them as "dead bikes",' he said, 'and paint their remains to emphasise their ghost-like quality.' Initially, he resented cycling activists appropriating his guerrilla art tactics and ghost bikes name, although he now feels flattered that his idea has proved so potent and adaptable.
The bikes arrived in Britain when Steve Allen, a website designer and keen cyclist, heard that 23 activists in Seattle had spent three months collecting online submissions of cycling accidents, not necessarily fatalities, and had mapped them on a website. In August 2005, the Seattle group placed 40 ghost bikes at the worst locations, each with a notice saying: 'A cyclist was struck here.' They refused to reveal their identities, claiming they wanted to keep the focus off individuals and on road safety.
Allen developed a UK version of the site, with the initial aim of mapping dangerous intersections and marking them with white bikes, rather than commemorating the dead ('We don't put out the bikes; other people do that'). But the focus of the website has since shifted, mainly in response to the impact of ghost bikes in New York.
There, a group called Visual Resistance, which specialises in politically engaged street art, started creating ghost bikes to mark the 20 deaths on average a year in the city. Their campaign was aided by tolerant city authorities and 45 ghost bikes are still in place in New York's five boroughs. They have now become the responsibility of the Street Memorial Project, a coalition that also campaigns for pedestrians.
'The instinct has been to treat these crashes as akin to weather, as something we can never change,' says spokesman Wiley Norvell. 'Ghost bikes defy that convention. They make people aware of the individual who has died. And they work as visual, artistic traffic calming.'
The New York bikes have become a powerful symbol. In residential areas, they are visited every day, supplied with fresh flowers and regularly repainted. They have also become a poignant focus for campaigning. On the first Sunday in January, cyclists organise a memorial ride taking in all of them and installing new ones to mark deaths in the preceding 12 months.
The British ghost bike phenomenon remains much more diffuse and less well understood. A memorial to James Foster in Essex Road, on the Hackney-Islington border in London, has recently been vandalised; it is now missing its front wheel, pedals and handlebars and hangs off its post looking battered and lost. James's friend Sarn Baggett, who built it out of spare parts at Mosquito Bikes, where he and James both worked, says all the components were unusable. Perhaps the vandals didn't understand the bike's significance, although it is also possible that people in London are simply less civilised and sympathetic than those in New York.
James, who was 37, was pushing his bike across the road when he was hit by a car driven by 24 year-old Sabrina Harman. She was over the drink-drive limit and speeding and had a previous conviction for drink-driving. She had been banned for a year and still had not regained her full licence.
Foster was well-known and much loved among London cyclists. A tall Tasmanian, with long red dreadlocks, he shared a house with nine other Australians and New Zealanders. Baggett remembers him as 'a classic gentle giant with a massive smile', while his friend Therese Kilpatrick recalls 'a quiet, exceptional person who was incredibly generous with his time, who respected everyone'. He loved cycling and skateboarding and anything to do with adventure; he was also deeply concerned about the environment.
Steve Allen cites his death as one of the reasons why he wanted to set up the Ghost Cycle website. The idea of a ghost bike, though, was Sarn Baggett's. 'A group of us gets together for a drink every year to remember him and it seemed like a good way of marking the fifth anniversary of his death. At that stage, I'd only seen ghost bikes on websites. I built it, then painted it in a couple of afternoons.' The bike appeared on the street in July this year. When I last spoke to Baggett, he was still very annoyed at the vandalism, but thinking of rebuilding it.
Even with the long-term decline in cycling deaths, it seems likely that the numbers of ghost bikes will continue to grow, probably becoming as familiar as the floral shrines to the dead that now decorate the pavements. While campaigners are right to argue that one cycling death is too many, it would be unfortunate if the proliferation of ghost bikes frightened off nervous waverers, because there is quite a lot of evidence that the more cyclists there are, the safer cycling becomes. But if, as activists insist, white bikes grab the attention of motorists, give them pause and remind them to take care, they will mark the past and help safeguard the future.
The other reservation sometimes expressed about ghost bikes has to do with the families of the dead. It's all very well for cyclists to erect memorials to their friends, who may have been cycling enthusiasts, but some families want to be left to get on with their grieving. They don't want to become advocates for cycling safety.
Alison Swann heard about the ghost bike commemorating her brother, 'in rather an unfortunate way, through the local paper'. James Danson-Hatcher had been killed eight months earlier, at the age of 23. A keen photographer and cyclist, he had spent a spring day cycling on the Downs above Brighton and had been on his way home when he was hit by a car doing close to the 60mph speed limit. The driver was not prosecuted.
Despite this less than ideal beginning, Alison has become an enthusiastic supporter of her brother's ghost bike, both as memorial and warning. 'James was a bit of an activist. He was into green issues and he was a very proficient cyclist. My mum and sister and I all agree that he would have thought it was a brilliant idea. Car drivers fundamentally believe they own the roads. They don't have the 360-degree awareness they need. If ghost bikes can help make people more conscious of sharing the roads, they must be good. I think it's rather beautiful, actually.'
James Foster, 36
Died July 15 2003
James Foster, an Australian who had lived in London for several years, died after he was hit by a speeding car while wheeling his bike across Essex Road in north-east London. The driver had a previous drink-drive conviction and was over the limit. James, who worked at Mosquito Bikes on Essex Road, was a distinctive and popular figure, and the inspiration for the original Ghost Cycle website in the UK. His friend and colleague at Mosquito, Sarn Baggett, built and painted the ghost bike, which was installed on the fifth anniversary of his death. It has since been vandalised.
James Danson-Hatcher, 23
Died May 4 2007
James Danson-Hatcher was on his way home from an afternoon's cycling on the South Downs when he died in a collision with a car at the junction of Devil's Dyke and Saddlescombe Road. The ghost bike was placed at the scene by members of Bricycle, the Brighton and Hove Cycle Campaign Group, who had been calling for a lower speed limit on the road.
James's family welcome the bike, both as memorial and protest.
Lucinda Ferrier, 33
Died June 23 2008
Lucinda Ferrier died on the corner of Stoke Newington High Street and Manor Road in north-east London on June 23 2008. A notice on her ghost bike describes her as 'Beloved daughter of Nicholas and Mimi, sister of Olivia, Paul, Charles and Andrew, companion of Stuart, and second mother to Molly and Daisy.'
Antony Smith, 37
Died April 21 2008
Antony Smith, aka 'Smudge', was killed in a collision with a truck at the corner of Middleton Road and Kingsland Road in Hackney, east London on Monday April 21 this year. He was a graphic designer, cycling his usual route to work.
Barry Cawley, 37
Died July 20 2000
Barry Cawley died on the road between Llanwrst and Betws-y-Coed in Conwy, north Wales, on Sunday 30 July, 2000. A plasterer and a roadie for Catatonia, who dedicated their last album to him, Cawley was mountain biking with two friends when all three bikes were in collision with a speeding car. The cyclists were travelling single-file, Barry in the middle. His friends survived, but the driver of the car was killed. Barry's brother Peter put the ghost bike at the site of the crash after reading about the idea on the internet.