A white cross on the side of the road is a universal message of a fatal car crash, but, in Austin and several other cities around the country, a white painted bike is a memorial used to represent the death of a cyclist. Lately, these memorials are at risk of being taken down.
These white painted bikes are called “ghost bikes,” which serve as a memorial for those cyclists who were hit and killed by a vehicle. The placement of these bikes is a worldwide movement that works to raise awareness of cyclist fatalities.
Within each city, groups independently contribute to setting up ghost bikes through local organizations and anonymous donors. Since 2006, Please Be Kind to Cyclists, a local Austin organization dedicated to the awareness and education of cyclists, has been displaying ghost bikes along the crash sites.
“[Ghost bikes] are a symbolic memorial,” said Alvaro Bastidas, founder of Please Be Kind to Cyclists. “We not only honor the lives of those we lost but also create a symbol of hope that drivers become aware of the lives we lost from a preventable crash.”
This organization alone has mounted nine ghost bikes around Austin and in nearby cities. Each time a fatality occurs, the group responds within days by holding a memorial for the cyclist, inviting family and friends to attend the ceremony.
While these bikes are intended to commemorate the death of a cyclists, the process can take a toll on the individuals putting up the memorials. Danny Gamboa, filmmaker and a member of the Ghost Bike Los Angeles Team, sees about 75 bikes placed annually. This has inspired Gamboa to make a hour-long documentary about the ghost bikes and the impact placing the bikes has had on the
“When I put up a ghost bike, I put myself into the person’s shoes,” Gamboa said. “It could have been me or my partner. It could have been someone I know, and, the thing is, it is somebody’s partner. It is somebody’s friend. When I put up a ghost bike for a little boy and I have a little boy myself, it hits me.”
Each time the ghost bikes are put on display, the bikes are decorated with flowers and pictures from family members of the victims.
In 2010, Genea Barnes saw one of these ghost bikes after visiting New York, sparking a small project of documenting the bikes that expanded once her Kickstarter campaign succeeded. Since then, she’s photographed 66 ghost bikes and personalized each image by photoshopping images of individuals related to the victims into the bike shots.
“The ghost bike represents the worst outcome of people not being conscious of other people,” Barnes said. “I feel like you can walk by a memorial every day and you don’t feel the impact of it anymore. You notice it once or twice, but then it goes to the background. I want to put a reminder that ghost bikes are real, and these memorials represent real people that are gone.”
Many ghost bikes are noticed initially but are forgotten after a period of time. For some bikes, all that’s left of the memorial is a white tire or frame because of the lack of attention and maintenance the bikes are given over the years.
In response to the lack of maintenance, many cities have decided to start removing ghost bikes. This has upset ghost bike organizations that debate that ghost bikes hold emotional ties and, when removed, a memorial is removed.
In Austin, Bastidas is working with the Texas Department of Transportation to find a compromise for creating memorials for cyclists. Within the City of Austin, different ordinances are in place, allowing the placement of ghost bikes, but, along the federal highways, where many fatalities occur, ghost bikes are removed.
“If they’re too close to the roadway, they fear that someone driving is going to hit the bicycle,” Bastidas said. “The metal from the bike can go through the windshield and injure the driver.”
About six of the nine bikes that have been placed around Austin have been removed by the city for this reason. In order to reach a compromise with the Department of Transportation, Bastidas will be hosting a ride this Saturday. During this ride, the first ghost bike placed for Gay Simmons-Posey will be taken down.
Along with the ride, Bastidas will be creating a sculpture made of bike parts as a fundraiser for the maintenance of the ghost bikes around the city.
“The person that represents the ghost bike was loved by somebody, was somebody’s friend and was somebody’s neighbor,” Bastidas said. “That person had a family, went to school, and went to work, so for us to completely dismiss that is out of our human capacity.”