Ghost Bikes and the Value of Human Life

One year ago today I attended the dedication of a ghost bike honoring Alex Cordero, a seventeen-year-old who was killed when his bicycle was struck by a tow truck. I had seen ghost bikes before, and even helped maintain a couple by clearing weeds and touching up the paint, but this was the first time I’d attended a dedication. Alex was the sixteenth cyclist killed in New York City last year; ultimately there would be twenty-nine deaths. [Note that the link indicates 28. Even transportation-safety minded journalists had a difficult time keeping up. There’s a note at the end of the article that it was updated to show twenty-nine deaths.]

2019-09-05 Ghost Bike Dedication - Alex Cordero SAM_2980
I didn’t realize it when we assembled for the dedication but I was standing near Alex’s aunt (the woman in the grey t-shirt holding a bouquet). Photo © 2019 Karen E. Lund

I was drifting off to sleep the night before, thinking of the day’s news and of my plans for the dedication of the ghost bike to honor Alex. Half asleep, my mind attempted to find a connection between the previous weekend’s gun violence (nine people had been killed in Dayton and twenty-three in El Paso) and Alex’s death while riding his bicycle.

Eventually it fitted together. Not with an answer, but with a question: When did we decide to give more rights to steel than to human flesh? Was it a conscious decision? (Probably not.) Who decided?

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, in his 1942 story “Runaround,” posited three laws for robots. The first of those was:

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

How is it that, seventy seven years later, as we see the invention of self-driving automobiles and artificial intelligence, humanity still hasn’t figured out that we need to protect our own fragile flesh from the hazards of machines? Is it our technology or our moral courage that is wanting? 

2019-09-05 Ghost Bike Dedication - Alex Cordero SAM_2973 - Edited
Across the street from the Ghost Bike a wreath of yellow flowers and two candles mark the intersection where Alex was killed. Note the car immediately behind the pole, which is parked in front of a fire hydrant. Photo © 2019 Karen E. Lund

Are our elected officials, our urban planners, our lawmakers and law enforcers still blind to the harm that steel inflicts on human flesh? Why do laws so often seem to “protect” cars from humans, not the other way around?

As also happens after gun violence, some people will offer “thoughts and prayers,” but thoughts and prayers cannot protect human flesh from hard steel. The Mayor may speak of Vision Zero, but vision is worth exactly zero if we are not willing to make the changes necessary to protect cyclists and pedestrians. We need laws. We need better street design. We need a change in our culture. Above all we need to acknowledge, as Asimov knew, that human life is worth protecting.

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The freshly-painted Ghost Bike honoring Alex Cordero, who was killed on July 23, 2019. (Note that this is not the actual bicycle Alex was riding.) Photo © 2019 Karen E. Lund

“A [machine] may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

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