Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The spectral memorials that haunt our roads

with 7 comments



The Observer

They started in San Francisco, spread throughout the States and are now appearing in cities worldwide ghostly white bikes adorned with fresh flowers that mark the spot where a cyclist has been killed. As they begin to appear across Britain, Geraldine Bedell talks to the creators of these poetic shrines and the victims families.

I have yet to see a bike painted white used here as a memorial – but perhaps you have?

At first blush this seems likes a good idea especially if it is true that ” the effect [this] seemed to have on drivers: they were slowing down, taking notice”. But while not bikes, informal roadside shrines at collision sites seem to be commonplace. Most seem simply to be sheaths of flowers taped to hydro poles, and most do not last long. They also seem to be so ubiquitous that I doubt that anyone these days, apart from those who knew the victim, pays much attention.

There are other more permanent markers. At the bridge where I work, a cross was put up by the family of the person who missed the bridge and drove at speed into the water. At one time it was quite elaborate, and had a Scots flag hung from the cross as well as flowers. Over the last couple of years the flag grew tattered and has not been replaced. Two small potted plants remain. While there is a 30km/hr limit on the bridge, it is observed only intermittently.

The sad thing is that somehow we accept the casualties on our roads as being somehow inevitable. The use of the word “accident” and the phrase “the vehicle lost control” seems safely neutral. The simple facts that people drive when they are impaired, distracted, drive too fast, are impatient and also unaware of the own limitations as much as those of the vehicle they are driving do not seem to be under anyone’s control. Collisions involving other forms of transport are much more carefully examined, and steps taken to try to prevent similar collisions. In the case of roads we often know what should be done – better speed infraction enforcement being the most obvious, but also better junction design – but take no action for fear of political unpopularity.

The point about the British campaign is that there needs to be more and safer cycling facilities. And if that happens, even if it does seem to create the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it is, that to my mind is worthwhile. We certainly need to strike hard at the complacency of traffic engineers and their political masters who still do far too much to speed up traffic in general and not nearly enough to make walking and cycling safer and more attractive.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 5, 2008 at 8:36 am

Posted in Road safety

7 Responses

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  1. I like the idea, but I’m not sure how you make the white bikes fit, in locations like my commute, which goes over the Granville St. bridge.
    I would be interested to know how many cyclist deaths there have been on this bridge, especially in the southbound lanes where cyclists need to merge across two lanes of freeway-speed traffic.
    While a number of white bikes at one location might lead to improvements in the crazy-dangerous areas for cyclists, I can’t see where the bikes would go?


    October 5, 2008 at 11:33 am

  2. There’s a photo at this Seattle PI article.


    October 5, 2008 at 2:55 pm

  3. The article you quoted included a link, but I think this one is more salient:


    October 5, 2008 at 6:28 pm

  4. I don’t think an increase in facilities (which would make more safe places for people to use a bike) will make people think it’s dangerous. From what I’ve seen this increases subjective safety and increases cycling. Either way we need more of them, and if they slow cars down by making streets narrower, so much the better.

    Andy in Germany

    October 6, 2008 at 5:15 am

  5. I believe that in some US states have, or did have laws mandating white crosses on highways where people have been killed in auto accidents. I remember some time ago in Montana, on a mountain highway, scores of white crosses and when we stopped for gas were told that “it was the law’.

    Malcolm J.

    October 7, 2008 at 8:26 am

  6. In Portland, where I grew up, the past year has seen a number of fatal bike-auto collisions, and many of the sites are marked with these ghost bikes. To me, it definitely gets the tragic point across, but as a cyclist myself I’m primed for empathy with the bikers. Cities could use more public memorials, in my opinion, and I’m glad they’re being erected for these incidents.


    October 7, 2008 at 10:22 am

  7. Yes, Montana standardized on the same style cross for all accident markers…. even for non-Christians!


    October 7, 2008 at 12:11 pm

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