Secret history of the ghost bike

Dazed reveals the anarchist history behind bicycling's roadside memorial, the ghost bike

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Yesterday marked the fifth cyclist to be killed in London within nine days. As the city's cycling culture is brought to the forefront, we look back at the forefathers of modern bike culture as we know it: the underground 1960s anarchist group Provo. The first movement determined to change the ill fate of bikers through their White Plan policy documents, the group's teachings inspired the ghost bike – the all-white memorial to fallen cyclists that are increasingly seen on our streets. Dazed dives into the Dutch group’s influence on biking culture, the American birth of the ghost bike and the increasingly grim reality of cycling in the capital.

1965: The creation of Provo

In May 1965 Robert Jasper Grootveld along with anarchists Roel van Duijn and Rob Stolk formed the most successful countercultural movement of the 1960s, Provo. A title stemming from the Dutch word provoceren (to provoke), the rebels gathered momentum through performance art, humorous pranks and propaganda, eventually winning a seat on the city council of Amsterdam.

Provo
Provo, Amsterdam's radicals

1965 – 1966: White Plans

The same year the group began publishing White Plans, a series of policy suggestions that addressed Amsterdam’s social issues. Promoting the likes of sex education, widely distributed contraception, car sharing and the reduction of pollution – the radical’s ideology pre-empted many modern-day values, most notably attitudes to biking as espoused in their White Bicyle and White Victim Plans.

 1965: White Bicycle Plan

In late July 1965, Luud Schimmelpennink pioneered the Witte Fietsenplan (White Bicycle Plan) proposing that 20,000 white bicycles would replace all motor vehicles, in the aim of reducing pollution and advocating a safer city. Although the initiative was banned by authorities who claimed it would encourage theft, Provo’s concept of bike sharing has been adopted by cities worldwide some forty years later. 

Provo – Amsterdam's Anarchist Revolt by Richard Kempton
Richard Kempton book studying the Provo's anarchist revolt

1966: White Victim Plan

In 1966 Provo members began carving and filling the silhouettes of bicyclists killed by cars with white mortar. The White Victim Plan proposed this practice to be mandatory for anyone who caused death by driving. The victim initiative not only acted as a precursor to restorative justice, it marks one of the earliest bike roadside memorial concepts.

2002: Jo Sholam

San Franciscan artist Jo Sholam resurrected the Provo’s iconic use of white through his site, Ghost Bike. Documenting the volume of abandoned bikes in San Francisco, Sholan began painting the "dead bike" parts, highlighting their skeletal remains. Although Sholan’s project was purely an artistic endeavor, many credit him with sparking the ghost bike concept as we know it today.

Ghost Bike 1
Some ghost bikes are deliberately mangled to increase their 'shock' effect

2003: First recorded ghost bike 

The first official recording of a ghost bike used as a memorial function was in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003. A witness to the collision placed the bike at the accident scene with its plaque reading "Cyclist struck here".

2008: London’s first ghost bikes 

In 2008, London’s first recorded ghost bike appeared in Islington, commemorating the death of Australian-born Londoner, James Foster. As London’s use of ghost bikes has steadily increased, the value of them has become a widely debated issue. The 2011 King’s Cross ghost bike, commemorating 24-year-old Deep Lee, came under attack as critics claimed it put potential cyclists off choosing a healthier, more environmentally sound mode of transport as well as falsely advertising London as a more dangerous city than it is.

Ghost Bike 2
Deep Lee's ghost bike at Kings Cross

2013: Increasing cycling casualties

13 London bicycling deaths have been recorded in 2013 so far, a figure topping the ten killed in 2010. Although 2012’s Love London, Go Dutch petition boasted 40,000 signatures and was formally acknowledge by the Mayor – the Bow roundabout, responsible now for three deaths in two years, is case in point that London hasn’t come far enough in protecting cyclists from preventable death. It seems that until it does, Provo’s teachings will retain their relevance as ghost bikes continue haunting London's streets.

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