RALEIGH, N.C. — When Timur Ender learned a fellow cyclist and father of three was struck and killed by a semi-truck along a busy North Carolina highway, he decided to place a white “ghost bike” at the scene as a memorial.
But when Ender took the old bike he’d spray-painted to the spot, he found a white 10-speed bike was already standing unchained along the side of the road.
Such memorials are showing up around the world, with one website listing about 600 of them in more than 100 U.S. cities and two-dozen countries.
The bikes are as varied as the people they memorialize. The smallest listed on the website is 2 inches long. Most are a ghostly white, but at least one is bright pink. Some are smashed with sledgehammers to signify wreckage, and in South America they like to hang them off the ground. Those memorialized by the bikes are as young as 6 – a boy killed by a car in Philadelphia.
The ghost bikes are meant to both as remembrances of the dead and reminders of the struggle to share the road. Perhaps nowhere is that struggle more apparent than New York City, where more than 100 have been erected. The city is also home to a group of cyclists that maintains ghostbikes.org, a site dedicated to cataloging the memorials and the closest thing the movement has to a hub.
“I was one of those people who very much thought bikers have the right of way, and these trucks need to yield to me,” said 41-year-old Ryan Kuonen, one of about 10 volunteers who maintains the site. “But now I just slow down and let the truck go because I know how many people have been killed. Sometimes the law may be in your favor, but I tend to rather be safe than sorry.”
Overall, hundreds of cyclists die and thousands are injured in accidents each year in the U.S. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 618 cyclists were killed and 52,000 injured in crashes with motor vehicles in 2010, the most recent year for which those statistics are available. The deaths accounted for about 2 percent of motor vehicle-related fatalities. More than 70 percent of cyclist fatalities happened in urban settings, about 30 percent took place at intersections and more than half happened between 4 p.m. and midnight.
Ghostbikes.org is filled with links to stories about the victim and a photo of the memorial. The people who create them are usually anonymous. The volunteers typically vet submissions with news stories or obituaries of the dead. The site is the most comprehensive list of the ghost bikes, but its organizers acknowledge that there could be many more ghost bikes that aren’t reported to them.
Kuonen and others say the idea appears to have originated about a decade ago in St. Louis, after Patrick Van Der Tuin witnessed an SUV drift into a bike lane and strike a cyclist in the fall of 2003. The biker lived, but Van Der Tuin was moved to create a reminder of cyclist’s plight.
“It was one of these subject matters people didn’t want to talk about,” says Van Der Tuin, executive director of BWorks, a nonprofit group that helps low-income children earn bikes, computers and literacy skills. “That was the most frustrating part, that no one wanted to discuss it.”
Van Der Tuin placed a junked bike near the scene of the accident. He painted it white, simply to increase its visibility at night.
More than a dozen of the bikes sprung up in St. Louis in the next few months, he said. The idea slowly spread to other cities.
By 2005, ghost bikes began appearing in New York after Kuonen says artists there were inspired by what they’d seen in St. Louis. Now, Kuonen and her friends hold volunteer days to create memorials out of donated bikes.
“You can’t ever describe it as a fun project to be a part of,” she says. “It has its rewards, but it’s emotionally taxing.”
Her group has been adding dozens of posts to the site in each of the past few years, including a peak of 106 in 2008. They are considering letting visitors to the site update the pages themselves to keep up with the pace of the additions.
Cities’ attitudes toward ghost bikes vary. In Austin, Texas, which prides itself on its bike-friendly culture, supporters have even cemented bikes into the ground. Barring complaints, the city has permitted them. The organizers of the ghost bikes web site are aware of at least eight there.
“We kind of have the stance that there’s no ordinance prohibiting it and no ordinance supporting it, and as city staff we leave them alone,” said Sara Hartley, spokeswoman for the public works department.
In San Diego, city government spokesman Bill Harris said government workers systematically remove them. He said the memorials violate two state codes and local right of way regulations.
“You don’t want to put something that blocks a wheelchair access ramp on a sidewalk for instance,” Harris said. “If they’re distractions – they are ornate and ghostly like– it’s our policy to remove them.”
In Raleigh, the memorial to cyclist Steven Jordan has stood in the grass beside the busy, six-lane highway since his death on July 4. The truck driver involved in the crash was charged with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle and failure to reduce speed to avoid a collision.
Ender helped organize a memorial ride involving about two-dozen cyclists to honor of the 49-year-old Jordan, who was the head of the state’s mental health division.
While he never figured out who placed the ghost bike in honor of Jordan, Ender hopes drivers will slow down to take notice.
“I think ghost bikes aren’t only a memorial but art,” Ender said. “Whenever I pass one I have a moment of silence – they’re a reminder of how fragile life can be.”
Allen Reed can be reached on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Allen–Reed