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Unfortunately, you’ve probably seen a bicycle painted white sitting on the side of the road or chained to a light pole on the corner of a city block. They are eerie yet all too common. While many people understand that these “ghost bikes” are meant as a marker, not everyone knows what they’re for or how the tragic makers came to be. 

a ghost bike is a bike painted white
A white ghost bike – White painted bike that does not ride – but remember. |Horst Galuschka/picture alliance via Getty Images

What does a white bicycle on the side of the road mean? 

The bicycles painted white are known as “Ghost Bikes.” Throughout the past decade, ghost bikes have become part of a unanimous ritual of witnessing and marking cycling deaths. The all-white bikes get placed at locations of fatal crashes. These public markers not only act as memorials but also as a quiet yet powerful act of protest against the struggles of keeping biking commuters safe in cities. 

Where did the white bikes start?

Vigil for killed cyclist
A so-called “ghost bike” stands at a vigil | Jonas Walzberg/picture alliance via Getty Images

According to Bloomberg, the eerie memorials began after biker Jeffrey Hammond Long was struck by a turning truck while on his bicycle in downtown Washington D.C., in 2018. Long died the next day due to the injuries sustained by the collision. Long was the second biking death in D.C. that week, reports Bloomberg. Nineteen-year-old Malik Habib was killed only a couple of miles from Long’s crash site. 

Matthew Sampson, a local artist, heard the story and was saddened and angered by the senseless loss of life. “It’s made me angry because I should be safe biking around here, and I’m not,” Sampson said. “This should be a safe intersection, but it’s not.” 

With his anger and sorrow in hand, he took to Twitter to ask if anyone had a bicycle to donate for a project. After finding a donor, Sampson painted the bike completely white and secured it to a nearby post where the crash happened. Bloomberg points out that while Smapson’s work is typically playful pop-street art, this project was clearly different. This piece would become the first Ghost Bike, a loving tipping of the hat that would eventually span the globe. 

“Ghost Bikes make the invisible visible”

Ghost bike
At a vigil for a female cyclist who died | Paul Zinken/picture alliance via Getty Images

The week that followed Long’s death, 100 cyclists joined in a silent memorial ride at rush hour in D.C., reports Bloomberg. Sampson’s Ghost Bike was the destination for the rolling memorial. Once the riders arrived, all 100 riders layed their bikes on the ground in front of the pale bike. The congregation sat in silence for about 20 minutes, sources say, while friends of the fallen cyclist laid “grave” offerings of photos, flowers, notes, and other sentimental items on the bike. It’s worth mentioning that the majority of the bikers in the protest ride had never met Long. 

“Ghost bikes make the invisible visible,” says Reverend Laura Everett, who has a liturgy for dedicating ghost bikes in her book, Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels. 

“They force us to notice that we are passing by a place where someone has died, to acknowledge that our roads are often places of violence and that we are vulnerable and fragile humans, and we can do something to make sure we all get home alive.” 

While the practice began as a loving yet subversive act, often quickly removed by city officials, the placing of a ghost bike today is widespread and common in the aftermath of such a tragedy. 

At the risk of stepping outside of my journalistic objectivity, the next time you see a bicycle coated in white, take a moment to acknowledge it and refocus on your own driving habits: Pay attention. Slow down. Open your eyes. 


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