The informant (J) is a 22 year old college graduate who just started his first real job. He got into bicycling during the summer of 2012 when he was renting a room in Sunnyvale, California near his summer internship. Though he had had bikes prior to that summer, he began to rely on his bike exclusively for the 8 mile round-trip to his workplace from his rented room. He borrowed a bike from his mother’s friend but eventually bought his own once he got his first couple paychecks. He purchased a mid-end road bike and quickly got wrapped up in the biking communities on sites like reddit.com/r/bicycling. Though his commute was short, the threat of being hit by cars is always on the top of serious bicyclists’ minds, especially when cycling in the street. I first asked about his biking knowledge when I encountered a white bike chained to a pole near Union Station in Los Angeles, California. He learned about this from the people he talks to on the internet about biking, since none of his real-life friends like to ride in the same way he does. He had heard of the practice before he saw his first ghost bike. The following is a paraphrase of the information he gave me regarding the practice.
“The white bikes are called ghost bikes. They get put up when a cyclist dies on the road. They just find a bike and paint it white before chaining it to a pole or something near the spot the cyclist was killed. They usually get put up by the friends of the cyclists, if they know about the ghost bikes, but they can also be put up by random cyclists if they hear about the accident and are familiar with the idea. At first, there are usually pictures and candles and stuff along with the bike but the bike usually stays there longer than all that stuff. They do have to chain the bike to something or assholes will steal the bike even though it’s basically like one of those crosses they put on the side of the road when some dies in a car accident or a shooting or something like that. Luckily, I’ve never known anyone personally who died while cycling so I haven’t had to put one up, but I definitely notice when I see one. It’s a little weird to see one. It’s supposed to tell the drivers to be careful and watch the road”
The practice of putting up ghost bikes highlights the struggle felt between drivers and cyclists. There is tension between the two groups because a little tap won’t hurt a car, but can kill a cyclist easily, a fact that is often forgotten by those driving cars. Often, cars don’t even STOP when they hit a cyclist. The ghost bikes are a reminder that cyclists do get killed when drivers aren’t careful, both to the drivers and to the cyclists. It seems like a reminder to cyclists that even if they do everything “right,” things can still go very, very wrong. I think it unifies the cyclists under the pretense that they need to raise awareness so that other cyclists don’t suffer the same fate. The people who put these bikes up identify themselves as cyclists and the use of the bike to remember the death is representative of that. Though putting up a ghost bike is not something people want to have to do, it can serve to honor the life of the deceased by existing long after their death.