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Guardian sparks ghost bike debate

An appropriate way of commemorating the fallen, or a distraction and deterrence to would-be cyclists?

National newspaper The Guardian has ignited a debate by posing the question of whether ghost bikes, now employed around the world to mark the spot where a cyclist lost their life and acting as a memorial to them, may deter people from riding bikes by giving the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it is in reality.

One of the most recent ghost bikes was installed close to the newspaper’s offices in London’s Kings Cross following the death last month at the junction of York Way and Pentonville Road of 24-year-old student Min Joo Lee.

According to the blog Cycling Intelligence, the bicycle, sprayed completely white as all ghost bikes are, was prepared by James Thomas, who had expressed his wish in a comment to an article regarding her death on the website to put it up in her memory.

The phenomenon itself dates back to 2003 when the first ghost bike was erected in St Louis, Missouri. The website Ghostbikes.org now lists 25 countries in all continents other than Africa where the memorials, which are typically fixed to lampposts or railings and carry the cyclist’s name and date of their death, have been recorded.

The Guardian says that the first documented example of a ghost bike in the UK commemorates James Foster, an Australian national who worked at Mosquito Bikes in North London. James was killed in Islington in April 2003 when he was struck by a vehicle driven by a drunk driver who was also speeding.

Colleagues at Mosquito Bikes put up a ghost bike on the fifth anniversary of James’s death, which would have been in 2008, although Ghostbikes.org itself suggests that the custom was becoming established in London as early as 2005; the picture accompanying this article, meanwhile, shows a bike installed in Oxford in 2007 to commemorate Malaysian student Tsz Fok.

However, The Guardian reports that Mosquito Bikes’ director Gill Ord is now uncertain about the value of such memorials, saying, “Even though the shop has this personal connection with James, we've got mixed feelings about them.

"Personally, I'm not sure other riders pay much attention, and there's a danger they can put people off cycling."

Chris Peck, policy co-ordinator of national cyclists’ organisation CTC is another who believes that in commemorating cyclists who have died while riding their bicycles, ghost bikes can deter others from taking to two wheels.

"While ghost bikes may help ensure road users pay more attention to one another, they make give the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is," he explained.

"Cyclists in general live two years longer than non-cyclists and are in general healthier – even in heavy traffic, a three-mile ride to work is healthier than driving to work every day and failing to get any exercise," he added.

In June 2010, the New York City Department of Sanitation announced plans to remove some 50 ghost bikes that had been installed around the city.

As a result of the furore that caused, it backed down and said it would only remove those that had fallen into a state of deriliction – most, however, are lovingly maintained by friends and family of the rider commemorated.

So, are ghost bikes an appropriate way of commemorating fallen cyclists, or do they put people off cycling and perhaps even act as a potential distraction to motorists and cyclists? Let us know your views in the comments below.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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