In communities across America, bicycles are placed in static display along roadways to mark the locations of tragic transpirations that resulted in the death or severe injury of a cyclist. Painted uniformly white these bicycles contrast starkly with the surrounding environment to draw the eyes of passersby — motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists alike — to the exact spot where previously, tragically, a motorist’s focus was not drawn and which, at that time, was occupied by the victim. These markers are evocative, but the evoked response is unique to each observer and likely incongruous with the intended message.
Life is characteristically prismatic. Objective events are diffracted by our cumulative, markedly unique yet remarkably similar life stories to create the spectrum of human experience. For every event experienced or observed, internal dialogue works to erode the rough edges of objectivity so that each meshes comfortably and precisely with our existing perceptions, thoughts, and opinions. A passing motorist may look upon a ghost bike and observe a deserved and likely outcome, a confirmation of their perception that cycling is dangerous, a reinforcement of their preference for motorized transport, or simply an unsightly blemish on an otherwise beautiful roadway. A cyclist may see a monument to marginalization of non-motorists, a reminder of the perilousness of legally utilizing grotesquely inadequate transportation infrastructure, a renewal of solidarity with other cyclists on the road, a deepened hatred of motorists’ entitlement, or simply a memorial to a dead friend. A statistician may see a data point, a thief an opportunity, a lawyer a plaintiff, a doctor a patient, a theologian the work of God. What few see is a manifestation of a passionate, warm cultural embrace of mediocrity and systemic encouragement of self-importance.
Cyclist and pedestrian deaths, and, by extension, commemorative ghost bikes, are eventualities of a transportation system in which the de facto mode of utilization is the personal automobile. A system that does not viably support multi-modal transportation inherently prioritizes motorists’ needs above all others. This prioritization demonstrates that the collective benefits of walkable and ridable transportation designs are secondary to the needs of motorists; a distinction that is made without critically examining the validity of those supposed needs. A simple cost-benefit analysis of this arrangement generates much disdain among those who value independence, health, mobility, and financial freedom over the convenience of shoveling nutritionally deficient food products harvested with zero energy expenditure through the window of an idling vehicle into a wet, toothed recess resting atop labyrinthine folded jowls. Considering that errands as superfluous as fetching fast food constitute a significant subset of the set containing all trips made by car, it is easy to see why marginalized road users, cyclists and pedestrians to be specific, are so rightfully incensed. The passivity with which drivers submit themselves to the abortion of a design that is the traffic system in the United States gives perspective on just how warmly society has embraced mediocrity.
The traffic system was designed to minimize impediments to motorists, a byproduct of which is the maximization of impediment to cycling and pedestrian utilization. The tragedy of this is that the transportation infrastructure as presently realized was designed by paid, professional engineers who intentionally disregarded non-motorized transportation in their work. Roadways are designed and built on the assumption that cyclists will not be using them despite legislation that specifically grants them the right to do so. Following construction, the peripheries of the roadways are adorned with decorative signage and painted symbols reminding everyone that cyclists are legally, but not culturally, allowed to utilize the roadway. The failure of designers to include, and legislators to mandate provisions for cyclists shifts the burden of safety from themselves to motorists, an unconscionable act given the cultural intolerance of non-motorized road users among drivers. To experience this intolerance first-hand, simply mount a bicycle, ride to the nearest sharrow-marked traffic lane, exercise your legal right to occupy it fully, and enjoy the ensuing verbal and gestural assaults from the first motorist who feels a modicum of inconvenience as a result of your having done so. It will not take long; it’s a war zone.
Not all cyclist-motorist incidents are the result of motorist negligence, incompetence or hostility. A weary touring cyclist riding late into the evening may momentarily swerve into the traffic lane just as a motorist is passing. A cyclist on a remote dirt road may drift too wide around a blind corner and be struck by an oncoming vehicle. The glare of early morning or late afternoon sun in a windshield may briefly and unexpectedly blind a motorist to the presence of a cyclist in the road. A cyclist riding against traffic on a sidewalk is not seen by a motorist waiting to turn right into traffic. There are innumerable scenarios in which a cyclist is at fault in an accident and dies as a consequence, unfairly burdening the motorist with the associated sense of tragedy. In all cases, fault is assigned in the context of the transportation system and blame is never assigned to the inadequacy of the system itself. Adequacy of the infrastructure is assumed, the designers absolved without questioning, and blame is laid accordingly. A police investigation into a fatal accident will never lead authorities to the desk of an engineer for an inquiry into the details of the specific safety considerations incorporated into the design of the roadway for non-motorized users. The designers are nameless, faceless, guiltless individuals who are absent from the scenes of the accidents, but were facilitators of the accidents nonetheless. It is the inadequacy of the infrastructure that places cyclists and pedestrians in the aforementioned wrong places at the wrong times resulting in their deaths.
Ghost bikes impress upon observers that cycling is dangerous, which it is not. The safety of cycling is a bivariate function of the adequacy of the infrastructure and the empathic capacities of motorists, varying in direct proportion to each. Inadequate infrastructure alone will not kill a cyclist, but it will routinely present the opportunity to do so. These opportunities, presented to an unsympathetic motorist, may be seized upon. This creates a hostile environment for cycling and walking to the broader detriment of society. These factors impede the adoption of cycling and walking as transportation, working to reduce the number of cyclists and pedestrians on the road. As fewer people walk and cycle, the environment for doing so grows increasingly dangerous as motorists grow decreasingly accustomed to, and less anticipatory of cyclist and pedestrian presence on the roadways. This self-reinforcing cyclical diminishing of non-motorized transportation options underpins the foundational goals of this blog — to initiate changes in transportation culture, to demand accountability in infrastructure design, and to increase the legitimacy of bicycling as transportation.