Ghost bikes make a fitting memorial in London

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Evening Standard

Published: Apr, 14 2011 (...)

It is late
afternoon at Dalston Junction. Traffic is rumbling past, anxious
commuters peeling left and right at the wonky crossroads, bikes
skittering across the Tarmac, pedestrians perched impatiently on the

Everyone is in a hurry.

A car rolls up to the
crossing in the right-hand lane, and makes a sudden decision to hop
lanes and turn left - too late to clock the cyclist on his inside - and
suddenly there is a screech of tyres, a bang as the cyclist hits the
car, and a hail of abuse.

"Fuck's sake man, get a life!" shouts
the rider, straightening his hi-vis jacket, somehow still standing. Joe
Saunders turns to me, the colour drained from his face, visibly shaken.
"You don't know how dangerous it is," he says.

Joe's reaction is
understandable. He is the best friend of Dan Cox, the 28-year-old
gallery assistant who was killed at this very junction on an afternoon
in February. A lorry attempted to turn left from the right-hand lane,
didn't see Dan in his blind spot, and knocked him off his bike, crushing
him under its wheels.

Joe, a
28-year-old student, has brought me to the crossroads to show me the
memorial he and his friends have made for Dan: a bike locked to the
railings which has been spray-painted white and plastered in colourful
tributes from friends.

This is London's
newest ghost bike: a tribute to a fallen cyclist - and a warning to
other road users - that is an increasingly common sight across the city.

The trend began in San Francisco
in 2002 as a guerrilla art project but was quickly appropriated by
cyclists as a way of commemorating friends. It has since spread slowly
across the world. Not every death on London's roads has resulted in a
ghost bike; however, there are currently at least 10 of the white
skeleton cycles scattered across the city.

For Joe, creating the
bike was a cathartic experience. The loss of his best friend spurred him
into action, and he spoke to a few close friends about a memorial for
Dan. "We kind of thought, we need something manly to do; we need to
build something to get Dan's friends together," explains Joe. "So we
thought we should build a bike."

The project quickly snowballed
as more and more people asked if they could get involved, and on the
Sunday after the accident about 20 friends, male and female, assembled
in Dan's house.

"To say it was a fun day would be the wrong
word," says Joe. "But we had tea and crumpets coming out, and there was
paint everywhere."

Joe and his friends customised an old bike,
spray-painted it and decked it with tributes - "I usually think ghost
bikes are quite tasteful, with the exception of the one we've
constructed," he laughs. Later that day they gathered at Dalston
Junction, locked it to the railings and doused it in champagne. It was
an emotional farewell to their friend.

Dan Cox was the first
cyclist to be killed in the capital this year but he was never going to
be the last. On Tuesday last week, 20-year-old student Paula Jurek was
killed after a lorry knocked her off her bike in Camden Town.

2010, 10 cyclists were killed in accidents across the city, many of
them involving heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). All too frequently, cyclists
get stuck in the blind spot of an HGV - often when it's turning left -
and are hit by the vehicle.

It is a trend that Kate Cairns, 39,
is trying to stamp out. In February 2009, her sister Eilidh, 30, was
crushed under the wheels of a lorry that simply didn't see her. It was
travelling at 8mph in Notting Hill.
Eilidh, who was on her morning commute in rush-hour traffic, was
dragged for more than three metres before the driver stopped.

death had a profound impact on her family, and spurred Kate on to start
a campaign to reduce the number of cyclist deaths on London's roads.

This began with the installation of the city's first Boris Johnson-approved
ghost bike in Notting Hill. After the removal of a commemorative pair
of pink wheels by the council at the site of Eilidh's death left Kate
"utterly bereft," she contacted the Mayor to request that a ghost bike
be chained to railings at the site of the accident as a permanent
memorial. He agreed.

"For me it is a symbol of remembrance and
respect for my sister. It is a symbol of heartbreak. Of utter emptiness,
of grief, of cruelty, of pointlessness, of pain and of waste," says
Kate, an independent sustainability adviser. "We want everyone to take
notice. To keep this image in their minds as they rush to work. To
remember that every act has a consequence, and nothing is worth this."

bike, however, was only the beginning. Kate began a campaign to equip
HGVs with sensors and cameras that would effectively eliminate their
blind spots. The See Me Save Me campaign won the support of MEP Fiona
Hall, who helped Kate take a written declaration to the European Parliament in Strasbourg this February. By March 7, Kate and her supporters had collected 401 signatures - enough to drive the declaration to the European Commission,
who must now come up with proposals to improve the current law to take
before the European Parliament and Council. It is a breakthrough moment
for Kate but it has been a life-consuming campaign.

"It could easily be a full-time job," she says.

Nevertheless, she has never thought about quitting.

"You can't put it down," she explains. "Because you think, if I stop, somebody else will be killed by a lorry."

Eilidh's ghost bike has become more than just a memorial: it is a Mayor-approved symbol of the See Me Save Me campaign.

not every bike has Boris's protection. Rebecca Goosen was crushed to
death in April 2009 by a 32-tonne cement mixer as she turned left from
Old Street into Goswell Road, Islington.
The 29-year-old architectural assistant was on her morning commute. Her
colleagues were left distraught by her death, and decided she too
deserved a ghost bike.

Lilli Hoika, a close friend and colleague of Rebecca, came up with the idea.

a very keen cyclist myself, so I know what the ghost bikes are, and if I
see one I make sure that I'm extra careful in that junction," says the
41-year-old from Clapham.

Lilli and her friends chained the bike
to the junction where Rebecca had died. Two months later, however, they
were furious to discover that somebody had removed it.

"I emailed
the council who got back to me straight away," says Lilli. "They said
it must have been an 'over-zealous' council worker."

The removal
of ghost bikes remains something of a grey area. Boris Johnson's support
of Eilidh Cairns's bike has helped raise awareness among councils but
there is no law protecting them and they tend to be removed after a
number of years.

A spokesperson for Hackney council, whose
borough has one of the highest concentrations of the bikes, says that
they do not "routinely remove ghost bikes" but in the event that they
decide to do so, it is done "in consultation with the family of the
deceased, wherever possible".

When Lucinda Ferrier, a 32-year-old
HR assistant, was killed by an HGV early one morning in June 2008, it
wasn't her family who created a ghost bike in her memory but London's
cycling community. Her partner Stuart Jones, a 41-year-old computer
consultant from Haringey, was browsing the internet for news about
Lucinda when he stumbled across a chat room where cyclists were
discussing whether or not it was right to place a ghost bike in her
memory. Stuart intervened and said that he would approve a ghost bike
for Lucinda on the proviso that it "wasn't too garish or galling or

"I talked to the chap who did it two days after Lucy died, and within the week it was up," he says.

at Dalston Junction, Joe Saunders is taking me through some of the
tributes to Dan Cox that are attached to the bike - a hotchpotch of
books, handwritten notes, a leopard-print boa and coded messages from
ex-girlfriends. It is colourful and haphazard and painfully intimate.
Joe agrees that building the bike was very much a cathartic experience
for him and his friends. But he hopes that the bike will be more than
just a roadside shrine.

"Everyone knows that cycling in London is
dangerous and that there are these deaths with heavy goods vehicles but
it's a statistic until you can see that it happens to someone who means
a lot to other people," he says, his eyes fixed on the gleaming frame.
"It's a tiny silver lining."