The very real message of the ‘ghost’ bike

The 'ghost bike' seen in Bath.
The ‘ghost bike‘ seen in Bath.

Bath is a World Heritage city with a major traffic problem. Anything that can be done to encourage people to jump on a bicycle instead of using a car has got to be good news for reduced levels of pollution and excessive and on-going wear and tear around these historic streets.

However – when it comes to sharing the highway – things do not always run smoothly between the person behind a steering wheel and the cyclist above the handlebars.

There is also friction on pavements where pedestrians have to share their walk ways with cycle paths.

It is fair to say that some users of both kinds of transport are not doing so in a way that is safe for themselves or others. We are hearing about too many fatal accidents on our roads.

While London might head the list of cycling casualties we have had our own local tragedies in Bath and the Bristol area.

Individual flower emblems for cyclists involved in fatal accidents.
Individual flower emblems for cyclists involved in fatal accidents.

Yesterday l came across my first ‘ghost bike’ – the machine painted white and currently on display in Bath  in memory of those recently killed on roads in the area. This poignant roadside memorial originated in America ten years ago and has been used in this city before.

We should all stop and think about the safety issues involved but this eco-friendly alternative to street congestion and fumes should not end up being considered too dangerous to use on our grid-locked streets. It is still one of the best answers to our inner-city traffic problems and our nation’s lack of fitness.

A flower memorial to a cyclist killed in a fatal accident
A flower memorial to a cyclist killed in a fatal accident

There must be increased safety on both sides and real, meaningful highway provision for the bicycle too. Other European countries build it into their street maps – so why can’t we?

To be truly accepted cyclists have to be more accountable and subject to some very necessary safety rules and regulations. For me that means legal requirements regarding safety helmets, reflective clothing, decent lighting and bells!

What do others think?


  1. I agree with almost all you’ve written here, with the exception of the very last paragraph.

    You wrote:

    To be truly accepted cyclists have to be more accountable and subject to some very necessary safety rules and regulations. For me that means legal requirements regarding safety helmets, reflective clothing, decent lighting and bells!

    1. Accountability

    I assume you mean testing & licensing? Wherever this has been tried in the world, it has been later withdrawn as a failure, for the simple reason that, relative to the harm posed, there is no benefit to the cost of the administration of the scheme. Cycling insurance policies that cover the rider for damage to third parties cost about £25 per year for this very reason: cycling poses very little (though admittedly not zero) harm to other people.

    2. Safety helmets

    Again, we have other countries and regions who have tried this, notably Australia and New Zealand. While the *sporty* cyclists might be thriving Down Under, the only part of Australia to have growing *utility*, everyday cycling is Northern Territory, where the mandatory helmet law was rescinded. Mandatory helmet laws have one provable effect: to suppress cycling levels, with no recorded increase in safety. The more hoops that people have to jump through in order to do an activity, the less likely they are to do it.

    This is a potential civil liberties nightmare – why should someone be criminalised for riding to the shops bare-headed? – and one Australian cyclist in particular, Sue Abbott, has been dragged through the courts for her determination to stand up to the law. Again, it is hard to see what benefit comes from Police time being spent on a tangential aspect of cyclist safety.

    There is also the issue of collisions actually being more likely when cyclists wear helmets; Bath University’s Dr. Ian Walker has studied driver passing distance related to different types of clothes/perceived gender/helmet wearing. This could be perception of competence, or perception of “otherness” & empathy variance.

    What we learn from countries where cycling is a normal, accepted part of transport & daily life: hardly anyone wears a helmet. Are they unsafe? No. Paradoxically, there is more representation in fatalities and injuries of sporty, helmeted cyclists in the Netherlands, mainly because they travel faster and possibly take more risks.

    Dutch parents actively fight against helmet promotion and regulation, saying “we don’t want our children to get fat like British kids”. They understand that the risks of even unhelmeted cycling are vastly outweighed by the personal health benefits.

    3. Reflective clothing

    Normal-looking clothes that you could wear to the pub, but which include reflectives, are available. Obviously regular hi-vis is, too, but why should someone have to dress up like a freak show? It is up to drivers to look – it is possible. What next: mandatory hi-vis for pedestrians? The biggest improvement in safety (both actual and perceived) comes from the minimising of potential conflict situations through road design, *not* by making people dress up like Christmas trees.

    4. Decent lights

    Lights are a legal requirement already; many that are “decent” don’t actually conform to the relevant British Standard, so are technically illegal even while being perfectly adequate. It’s a minefield; some have proposed that the German standard for bike lights be adopted EU-wide; this would be a good thing in my view. I also welcome Police stopping unlit cyclists and offering a set of lights in return for the fine: this makes it better as well as just being a punishment.

    Having said all that, there’s no evidence that *not* having lights was a factor in recent cyclist deaths. Again, the danger source is drivers not looking.

    5. Bells

    It used to be a legal requirement for bikes to have a bell supplied or fitted at the point of sale, but this was scrapped in 2011.

    Unfortunately, because of the bias in sales towards sporty road bikes and mountain bikes, this was never popular with some cyclists or retailers/manufacturers who are building down to a weight and price.

    I would like to see more useful town bikes sold, as in Germany, the Netherlands etc., which come as standard with dynamo/other fixed lighting, bells, rear racks, chainguards etc. – features that make for a more “normal”, relaxed style of cycling.

    One other thing, though, the cheap “ping-ping” bells that were often supplied had an unfortunately peevish tone to them; you can see why some pedestrians on shared paths thought them more “out of my way” than “excuse me please”. Sometimes you get as much grief for ringing your bell as when you don’t.

    Thanks for reading this far. Cyclists don’t need to earn respect, as if we ever could. The Most Basic Respect is already due, as human beings just trying to get from A to B.

    1. Hi Tim,
      I welcome your input and have published your comments on the Virtual Museum. If you would like to write something for the VMB or let me do a piece with you – l would be happy to ‘do business’ with you. As a cyber museum dealing with heritage and history l am keen to promote any form of transport that reduces the pressure on this World Heritage site and – in fact – allows people to appreciate their surroundings more. Well that would be the case if they were not constantly in fear of their cycling lives!

  2. You’d probably be interested in the concept of Sustainable Safety, which is the guiding principle behind Dutch road design & engineering. A British ex-pat called David Hembrow has written about it at length, and also runs study tours for people to see what Dutch cycling infrastructure means in practice. Perhaps we could send some BathNES traffic officers/planners?

    Lastly, while me might disagree on some finer points of implementation, can I just say how refreshing it is to read “we need more cycling” from outside of the usual cycling circles? Thank you for writing this post.

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