Wheels of Warning

[deck]Ghost bikes have become ubiquitous memorials in cities around the world. [/deck]

[cap]B[/cap]lurred crowds whip around the stationary skeleton. Its stark white bones are bare, contrasting sharply with the colorful figures around it. Chained to a street pole, a lone sign dangles from its angular neck, reading, “A cyclist was killed here.” The ethereal frame may not be a human body but it represents one to many, and those who pass it are unlikely to forget its message.

On the site of a cycling accident, this painted white bicycle has been erected. Its red lettering stands out from the sign like blood against a sidewalk. It’s called a ghost bike, and many other surreal frames like it sit on sidewalks across the world.

When 47-year-old Marcellus Tryk was killed while trying to swerve out of the way of an open car door last July, his friends and family decided to set up a ghost bike in his honor. A few days after his death, the bike was placed outside the restaurant Cornucopia in Eugene, near the spot of the accident. His family visited and maintained the bike constantly, decorating it with artwork and notes.

“It’s a place to go to remember Mars and to leave tokens, but the bigger issue is certainly bike safety,” his mother, Ann Tryk, says. “One of the few things we could take out of the tragedy was to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Flanked by Mars Tryk’s two young children, Ann sits feet away from a small collection of paintings and photographs of her son. A small boy with piercing blue eyes stares out of one frame, while a bald middle-aged man flashes a happy smile from another.

“My dad came to me one day, and he said that he was growing older and might not be with me as long as I thought he would,” Tryk’s 10-year-old son Coltrane says solemnly. Then he trails off, “I was thinking like 30 years.”

Long before her brother’s death, Donna Tryk had realized the strength ghost bikes have in promoting road safety. She vividly recalls the first time she saw one off a busy highway in California’s Bay Area: “It was so sad and frightening to see that huge, huge road and that little white bike, and to me it was a very powerful message,” she says. When tragedy struck her family, they embraced the idea, and hundreds of friends gathered at the bike’s christening in lieu of a funeral for Marcellus.

The concept of ghost bikes was born ten years ago in St. Louis, Missouri. Adopted as an unconventional roadside memorial, something akin to the white crosses that caution drivers of the dangers of the road, they rapidly spread throughout the country. The bike’s message is universal, though open to continuous interpretation by every passerby. To the victim’s family, a ghost bike might be the place they feel closest to their deceased loved one: the a place trapped between life and death, but more personal than a hospital room. To bikers and drivers, the memorial is a constant reminder to be aware that no one is safe on shared roads.

As these white frames sprouted up around the world, supporters rallied around them, caring for the bikes and organizing events. Four years ago, the environmental activism group Times Up! collaborated with an art group called Visual Resistance to erect the first ghost bikes in New York City. Bill Dipaola, the director of Times Up!, says the bikes are so striking because passersby aren’t accustomed to seeing memorials in the middle of a city.

Their presence may not be a welcome sight to everyone, though. According to Dipaola, New York City isn’t a fan of the trend that appears to serve as a spotlight on its faults. “The city is terrified of these bikes because it makes them look bad,” he says.

Today, the NYC Street Memorial Project looks out for the city’s ghost bikes with care and tradition. After finding an old bike to paint, the group’s members ride together to the accident site. There they silently raise the frame over their heads in a “bike lift” before attaching it to a street sign or lamppost. These moments are made all the more poignant since many participants are complete strangers to the victim they’re honoring. Anonymity plays a large role in caring for the bikes. While family and friends look after some, others are maintained by volunteers in the bicycling community. The kindness of these strangers contrasts harshly against the fact that the car driver who hit the bicyclist was likely also a stranger.

Every January, as the snow piles up in the city, the NYC Street Memorial Project pays tribute to fallen cyclists with its Annual Memorial Ride. Bikers gather in three of the boroughs to walk or ride together to their local ghost bikes before converging in a Manhattan church to pay their respects to the victims of accidents. In 2008, hundreds showed up to ride in solidarity, chaining an emotionally and politically charged bike outside the City Hall. “In 2007, at least 23 cyclists were killed in New York City. This ghost bike is a memorial for nine cyclists whose deaths never made the news,” it stated. The bikes reach more than just those close to the victim—this simple project has the incredible ability to unite a community as large as New York City. The entanglement of the political and personal is what makes the ghost bike a unique kind of memorial. In this sphere, they merge to become one piece of artwork, a protest, a place of grief.

“I think they’re an outstanding statement that continues to foster awareness,” says Brian Echerer, an avid cyclist and co-organizer of Portland’s annual Ride of Silence, an event that takes place in cities across the world to commemorate fallen cyclists and pedestrians. “There was a tragedy here. Let’s do something about it.” Though he fully supports the effort and effect of ghost bikes, he admits they make him uncomfortable. But he cites this discomfort as a key factor in their effectiveness, though it also may undermine their good intentions. “They can have a negative effect,” he says. “Less and less people are likely to ride a bike because they don’t feel safe.”

According to Echerer, the message is clear: you have a responsibility when driving a vehicle, and your life is not the only one at stake. To him, ghost bikes aren’t about those who were killed in crashes, but about bicyclists still peddling around cities across the globe. “It’s not about dying, it’s about keeping people alive,” he states firmly.

Occasionally, when people misinterpret their meaning, controversy plagues the symbolic bikes. Since the response had been overwhelmingly positive, the Tryks were shocked to discover that one day the decorations had been unceremoniously stripped from the bicycle and put in a box behind the restaurant. An employee told them people in the neighborhood had felt uncomfortable with its placement, and one nasty letter left at the site even blamed the biker for his own death. About two months ago, the Tryk family moved its bike from Cornucopia, and it’s currently in limbo while getting repairs. “To have it be controversial when it’s supposed to be something positive for everybody is just a real shame,” his sister Donna says.

The ghost bikes come and go from cities’ corners, but each stage of their lifespan has a powerful meaning to someone. “At some point people heal, and removing it can be part of that healing,” says Greg Raisman, a traffic safety specialist with the Portland Department of Transportation. Occasionally bikes get removed for other reasons, like blocking pedestrian zones, he says, proudly adding that in the past decade, Portland, one of the nation’s most bike-friendly cities, had five consecutive years with no bicycle fatalities.

A few cases of negativity haven’t dissuaded the Tryks, who believe the ghost bike represents an invaluable message about safety for drivers and bikers. “The reason we have this up is to be helpful, not for people to find it offensive,” Coltrane says. When it stood outside Cornucopia they visited often and were constantly stopped by people telling them how moved they were by the bike. Now, they are determined to keep the memorial standing as long as it’s serving the community. “It’s a reminder about how fragile you are on a bicycle, how vulnerable you are, and how careless many bikers are,” Ann says.