background image, Florida intersection with Smart Car and Wells Fargo building in the background

In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

— Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
background image, Florida street scene with mail truck


Gainesville ghost bike

Figure 1: This ghost bike was installed in Gainesville, FL, to honor the memory of Abigail Dougherty, who was killed after being struck by a garbage truck at the intersection of University Avenue and NW 17th Street on October 28, 2016.

The sight of ghost bicycles is increasingly common on city streets and country roads. We see them locked to a lamppost or a street sign and wonder what they are. Their tires are flat with dry, rotted cracks, chains decaying with rust. Spray-painted white, they strike us as out of place, as ghastly objects, and we might wonder what they mean. If we do know what they signify, they speak to us on a subtle, emotional level. At once, they seem to suggest the passage of time, and yet they are motionless.

Ghost bikes are memorials put in place by cycling activists: repurposed broken bicycles that become monuments at locations where a cyclist was seriously or fatally injured. Ghost bikes are bicycles with no riders. They point to a rider who is not there, creating a material trace of their absence. These memorials serve many roles: They serve as a space for private remembrance, as a place for the public to mourn the loss of a citizen, and as a cairn making dangerous locations visible to other riders.

The vast majority of cyclist deaths are a result of collisions between riders and motorists. This webtext examines ghost bikes as rhetorical intersections between automobile culture and bicycle culture. To locate the rhetorical role of ghost bikes, we read the memorials using the feminist methodologies of intersectionality, a term originally espoused by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) to describe the way that “multilayered and routinized forms of domination … often converge” in the intersections of race, gender, and violence toward women (p. 1245). Likewise, this webtext reads bicycle fatalities as a combination of attitudes, including racism, which contributes to white flight and urban sprawl, petrocentric automobile culture, and unflinching reliance on fossil fuels. Through these ghost bikes, which make visible the true costs of human life in road design, activists espouse a bicycle countercultural critique and advocate for the displacement of petrocentrism.

As rhetorical objects, ghost bikes invoke pathos by visualizing the death of a cyclist, ethos by demonstrating support from larger cycling communities, and logos by calling attention to unsafe environments. These modes are placed within a kairos of accelerating climate change, science skepticism, and fossil fuel dependence. Ghost bikes engage the public as an object to be seen, and thus operate as visual rhetoric. However, because they are chained to specific locations, they also operate as a kind of interventionist architecture. Drawing on Walter Benjamin, W. J. T. Mitchell (2005) wrote that “architecture is not primarily about seeing, but about dwelling and inhabiting” (p. 260). We take an architectural approach to the ghost bike as a rhetorical object, acknowledging its multisensory effects upon people and spaces. Ghost bikes are not only seen; they are felt as objects of haunting personal stillness and social advocacy within a mundane public space.

Ghost bike rhetorics critique petrocentric spaces. As such, they are less like rhetorical objects to be examined and analyzed and more like ambient forces to be inhabited and felt. Indeed, Thomas Rickert (2013) posited that ambient rhetorics are unpredictable and emergent: they “[generate their] own landscape that in turn contributes to the always ongoing reshaping and revealing of the world” (p. 29). Ghost bikes embed themselves within the architectural rhetorics of public life, initiating ambient effects within a space and the publics that circulate through it.

Petrocentrism is a monocultural dependence on fossil fuels, or as the University of Alberta research group Petrocultures (2015) defined it, “the social, cultural and political implications of oil and energy use on individuals, communities, and societies around the world” (para. 1). Petrocentrism can be contrasted with pluralist polyculture, which advocates for multiple perspectives, and, in the case of travel, denotes a host of alternative means of transportation that stand outside of, even in opposition to, the single-passenger, commuter automobile. This is not to set up a motor/non-motor binary in this value system. Recreational cycling is arguably part of petrocentric systems, as pedalcyclists who bike for the sole purposes of recreation, exercise, or sport may still consume and take part in petrocentric systems. Even the commuter cyclist is implicated in the massive fossil fuel infrastructure through the styrene and butadiene in their tires, brakes, and other components. Bicycles as well as their riders are unquestionably dependent on fossil fuels. Yet, through the act of commuter cycling, they also advocate for polycultural values and the displacement of petrocentric values. Likewise, public transit options might be included as part of a polycultural system, even though they often rely on fossil fuels, since they provide energy-efficient ways of moving through and inhabiting spaces, as do motorized bikes which allow users to move swiftly but with a lower carbon footprint. Ghost bicycles advocate for non-petrocentric attitudes by revealing the true cost of vehicular transportation.

This webtext employs the concept of MEmorial, which Gregory Ulmer (2005) introduced in Electronic Monuments. According to Ulmer, MEmorials are not intended to condemn or pass judgment, but instead visualize the invisible sacrifices made on behalf of certain cultural or national values (p. xiii). When confronted with the visibility of these losses, argued Ulmer, if we do not see such sacrifices as worth the cost, then we must change our values and attitudes. Examining the 2013 Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Plan (State of Florida Department of Transportation, 2016), we argue that traditional public advocacy, while important and even necessary in immediately reducing deaths and injuries, cannot eliminate these deaths because they are part of a system dependent on petrocentric values. This state-sanctioned plan identifies cyclists and pedestrians as “vulnerable road users,” placing them in a position that naturalizes the automobile as the only safe means of conveyance (p. 1). We contrast the concept of vulnerability with Jacques Derrida’s (1993) concept of armor. Petro-armor protects, covers, and abjects other ways of traveling. If we cannot accept the deaths of cyclists as necessary sacrifices to petrocentric attitudes, then we must be willing to make drastic changes to our values. If we are unwilling or unable to make these changes, then we should acknowledge and MEmorialize these tragic deaths instead of ignoring and abjecting them.

Ghost bikes function as MEmorials, or a public acknowledgement of the unspoken costs of petrocultural values. However, ghost bikes are temporary monuments: they are often stolen or taken down by public authorities within just a few days or weeks after their installation. Indeed, in the city of Jacksonville, Florida, one of the most dangerous places to ride a bicycle in the United States, not a single ghost bike remains. As a way of addressing the physical vulnerability of ghost bikes, we designed the location-based, mobile augmented reality experience “Death Drive(r)s: Ghost Bike (Monu)mentality” as a way of educating and informing the public about ghost bikes as a form of public rhetoric and social activism. Augmented reality refers to computer-generated data overlaid with a live-camera view of physical space. When users travel to specified intersections and roadways in Jacksonville, they can view digital ghost bikes overlaid within the physical spaces they once inhabited. These digital ghost bikes invoke a “spatial dissonance” within the user’s perception of the mundane public space of the intersection (Levine, 2014, p. 144).

Sean Morey’s (2017) webtext “Roadkill Tollbooth” adopted Ulmer’s MEmorial method to reveal the abject sacrifices necessary to support petroculture. Morey’s webtext is a proposal for a toll station pre-paid for by the abject deaths of the animals killed by the BP oil spill, and it takes the form of an interactive online map with multimedia icons scattered across the actual route of the Florida Turnpike. Morey identified the “Roadkill Tollbooth” project as an “attempt to make conscious the BP disaster as a hyperobject.” The term “hyperobject” refers to Timothy Morton’s (2013) work in Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Hyperobjects, such as global warming or even racism, are temporally and spatially vast, making them ubiquitous, sublime, and difficult to observe even with the aid of technology. Morey has framed the BP oil spill as itself a hyperobject.

Like Morey’s example of the oil spill, hyperobjects collapse our sense of distinct topoi. The spill is not reducible to a single, finite location or action. It is not simply the point where oil floods from the ground and mixes with saltwater. As Morey demonstrated, the oil spill is a symptom of the larger hyperobject, our cultural dependence on fossil fuels. As Morey asserted, the oil spill is “created by the consumption of oil that makes such a hyperobject possible.” The oil spill occurs through space (both on the road where drivers navigate and in the deep waters of the gulf) and time (both in our present moment of environmental awareness and in our ideological history we interact with in spaces designed for automobiles). City design often intersects attitudes like racism and fossil fuel dependence, such as in Jacksonville, where urban sprawl is inextricable from white flight.

Hyperobjects connect topoi such as race and environment by encompassing them. Morton (2016) expanded on the concept of the hyperobject in relation to speciesism and racism in Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. Morton has examined petrocentric ontologies and their relationship to racial categories:

There is such a thing as the human. But human need not be something that is ontically given: we can’t see it or touch it or designate it as present in some way (as whiteness or not-blackness etc.). There is no obvious, constantly present positive content to the human. … Racism exists when one fills out the gap between what one can see (beings starting engines and shoveling coal) and what this human thing is: the human considered as a species, that is, as a hyperobject, a massively distributed physical entity of which I am and am not a member, simultaneously. … The racist effectively erases the gap, implicitly reacting against what Hume and Kant did to reality. Since their age we have thought it sensible that there is some kind of irreducible rift between what a thing is and how it appears, such that science handles data, not actual things. (pp. 15–16).

The logic of fossil fuel dependence naturalizes these ideologies into the built environment. Morton argued that “the user of Anthropocene is saying that humans as a race are responsible, and while this really means white humans, whites go unmarked” (p. 15). Through ghost bikes, these marks are made visible in the landscape. The deaths of pedalcyclists and pedestrians stand as the violent, material intersection of massively displaced attitudes and designs. In “Roadkill Tollbooth,” Morey visualized these intersections by making the invisible visible, advocating for widespread change in cultural values.

Morey insisted that the MEmorial is not parody, that the “overall intent is serious,” and that “the Roadkill Tollbooth would not be a parody of other tollbooths.” Yet, we must acknowledge that with our current value system, this proposal will most likely be rejected by lawmakers as such and abjected by many as parody. Morey asserted that “[n]othing would please me more than to have this monument physically installed along the Florida turnpike, a reminder to all motorists that routine actions can have large-scale repercussions.” However, it can be said that his project is conceptual in nature, given the unlikelihood that it would ever be built in our petrocentric culture. Instead, Morey used digital media to visualize “The Roadkill Tollbooth” independent of current cultural value structures in order to bring our attention to the hidden costs of those values. MEmorials such as “Roadkill Tollbooth” are vital rhetorical tools for reconceptualizing petrocentric cultural values. Although the digital component of our project has a similar goal to that of Morey’s, we extend it into the material landscape by utilizing the mundane public spaces of petroculture as rhetorical elements of the critique.

We created the mobile augmented reality experience “Death Drive(r)s: Ghost Bike (Monu)mentality” to visualize MEmorials of ghost bikes digitally. The project was built as a mobile ARC (augmented reality criticism) through the TRACE Innovation Initiative, a digital humanities organization at the University of Florida. When viewed through a smartphone or tablet camera, the application overlays a digital ghost bike within the physical space of a cyclist’s death. Ghost bikes already exist as public monuments, and our application seeks to extend these physical memorials into the digital realm.

Augmented reality image of ghost bike superimposed over pedestrian crossing sign

Figure 2: Ghost bike augmentation at intersection of 3rd St. and East Coast Dr. in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Thus, unlike Morey’s Roadkill Tollbooth, our project combines Ulmer’s (2005) instruction to “design an electrate commemoration—a MEmorial—for a disaster” (p. xxxiii) with Jenny Rice’s (2012) claim that the existing discourse practices of a community are “the best sites for making interventions into material spaces” (p. 7). Through this methodology, our application aims to catalyze a shift in the public discourse about mundane public spaces. Mark Sample (2014) argued that mobile technologies can be used to connect personal histories to public spaces. Creating a network of diverse voices within a public space, posited Sample, converts the public’s perception of a space from mundane to haunted thereby illuminating the “layers of hidden experience” interwoven in our day-to-day material realities (p. 72)., an organization devoted to raising public awareness of these roadside memorials, uses mapping technologies to pinpoint locations where fatalities have occurred, thereby preserving the memory of the person and the memorial. However, the use of mapping relies on a topos-driven logic, accessible as an isolated incident, but divorced from the physical location. In order to endow the space with the quality of being haunted, the augmentation requires the user to move through the areas in which these crashes occur. As Ulmer (2005) asserted in Electronic Monuments, “individuals may not want to wreck their cars, but nations do” (p. 35). While does the important work of collecting, archiving, and preserving the individual incidents, the “Death Drive(r)s” MEmorial replaces these objects back into the physical environment with the intent of integrating them back into our day-to-day realities.

white-painted ghost bike chained to a lamp pole

Ghost Bikes: History & Culture

Ghost bicycles are monuments made from repurposed bicycles. They designate a place where a cyclist was seriously or fatally injured. These memorials unite cycling communities around the topoi of an individual’s death. They participate in the complex social roles that bicycles have played since the 19th century. Ghost bikes emerged out of the radical cycling cultures of the 1970s and 1990s in the United States, and they extend a long tradition of the bicycle as a mode of travel for many social groups.

This section explores the cultural history of ghost bikes and their connection to vélorutionism, a movement which transformed a bourgeois toy into a revolutionary object. In the 20th century, cycling went from a leisure activity to an essential means of conveyance for the working class. Bicycles likewise played an important role in women’s suffrage in the 19th century. They provided women with mobility, independence, and agency. In Claiming the Bicycle: Women, Rhetoric, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America, Sarah Hallenbeck explored the role of the bicycle in women’s movements in the 19th century. Hallenbeck referred to its role in suffrage and its connection to women’s mobility. This new technology opened radical possibilities for numerous groups of people. Ghost bikes continue this tradition, making countercultural rhetoric visible to numerous passenger groups.

What is a Ghost Bike?

A ghost bike is a derelict bicycle that has been spray painted (most commonly white) and installed near a road where a cyclist was hit by a vehicle. These bicycles are usually either sourced from frames and parts which no longer work, or they are purposefully broken before being installed, to reduce the likelihood of their being stolen. Like the lost lives they represent, these repurposed objects would otherwise be discarded and forgotten by society. Of course, like the bicycle from which they are (de)manufactured, ghost bikes serve a host of purposes and are sourced with whatever materials are available at the time. If the rider’s bicycle survives, it may be reused as the ghost bike. Some ghost bike materials are purchased new and thus require the resources of producing a bike for the sole purpose of creating the monument.

The dangers of riding a bicycle on roads made for automobiles are visible and apparent in the roadside markers known as ghost bikes. Ghost bikes, also known as WhiteCycles, are a type of memorial unique to bicycle culture. These memorials first appeared in the early 2000s, emerging out of San Francisco from the work of artist Jo Slota, who painted mangled bicycles white. The first recorded ghost bike memorial appeared in St. Louis, Missouri, when Patrick Van der Tuin—a frustrated cyclist turned activist—placed mangled bicycles where he knew cyclists had been killed by motorists, according to Peter Walker and Vicky Lane's (2011) article in The Guardian. The ghost bike as we know it emerged from New York City soon after, popularized by activist organizations like

white-painted ghost bike with sign reading 'in memory of Chastity Rettinger; watch for bikes' and live flowers decorating

Figure 3: This ghost bike was installed in downtown Jacksonville to honor Chastity Rettinger, who was killed after being struck by a vehicle on Old St. Augustine Rd.

Though ghost bicycles appear internationally, they are very much an American phenomenon. When the German bicycle manufacturer Ghost brought its brand to the US through REI, many cycling advocates were outraged. The controversy is rooted in REI’s decision to bring the brand over without considering the meaning ghost already carried in American bicycling lexicon.

image contrasts 'real' ghost bikes with marketing, and reads in part: 'Hey REI: a ghost bike is not a brand'

Figure 4: Online cycling communities express their frustration with REI’s appropriation of “ghost bike.” Courtesy of

A similar situation occurred when DKNY placed orange-painted bicycles across New York City as part of a guerilla marketing campaign. Advocates thought this dishonored the ghost bike memorials throughout the city (Furness, 2010, p. 160).

NYPD Van with five orange DKNY bikes on the back

Figure 5: The New York Police Department removes DKNY’s inappropriate bike installations. "The orange bicycle DKNY.Com Guerilla marketing scheme," courtesy of Rollingrck at Flickr.

These markers serve many roles. Primarily, they are a memento mori for the public and a memento vitam for the family and community. They are monuments celebrating and commemorating those who have been injured, and reminding both cyclists and motorists of the importance of remaining vigilant on the road. In cases where negligent motorists collide with cyclists, the cyclist is by far the most likely to incur severe injury. Likewise, the many unsolved hit-and-run bicycle deaths each year underscore that motorists are not held liable for negligent actions, reinforcing petrocentric attitudes. Ulmer (2005) provided a succinct description of this attitude when he wrote that the automobile invokes a public subject that demands the right “to drive wherever I want, whenever I want, for whatever purpose, in whatever manner I choose, so help me God” (p. 49), making the connections between ghost bicycles and MEmorials abundantly clear.

Chained to fixed structures, ghost bikes designate tightly confined topoi. They point indexically to the death of one person, the loss of an individual. Yet, ghost bikes likewise connect the individual to larger collectives and topoi: passengers, members of the regional communities, cyclists, and even activists. Ghost bikes take on further intersectionality as they literally represent the collision of ideologies and public and private lives in spaces where those lives were forced to stop moving in any direction. The bicycles are themselves broken, purposefully unusable fixtures, remnants of destructive, useless loss. These monuments, however, make these abject losses visible and thus repurpose them. They communicate and memorialize private losses in a space available to the public imagination. They are vivid because they represent an individual’s death, not just an impersonal statistic in a spreadsheet.

Vélorutionaries and Petroculture

Zack Furness’s (2010) One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility explored cycling as a radical form of political expression and an increasingly “more attractive mode of urban transportation due in part to longer traffic delays, wildly fluctuating oil and gas prices, and the increasing costs of owning and operating a car” (p. 3). However, he asserted, it remains “not only a fringe mode of transportation in a country with more vehicles than licensed drivers; it is a form of mobility rendered virtually obsolete by the material infrastructure and dominant cultural norms in the United States” (p. 4). Furness described how the bicycle became “the centerpiece of an emerging critique of the automobile and car culture” throughout the 1960s and 70s (p. 47). Known as “vélorutionaries,” (“velo” is French for “bicycle”), cycling activists began to leverage the rhetorical dissonance of the bicycle to challenge the “ideological, spatial, and environmental tensions of car culture” (p. 47). As a cultural icon increasingly associated with values such as environmentalism and conscientious urban planning, the bicycle served as a natural foil for the insidious, carbon-based impacts of an auto-obsessed culture. Cycling activists’ placement of ghost bikes emerges out of what Furness (2010) called an “intense frustration with a car culture in which the rhetoric of the freedom of the road often replaces the actual right to freely use the road” (p. 9).

The constitutional “right to travel” is not actually part of the protections that allow for the use of public space for recreation, exercise, walking, or socializing. Historically, this constitutional protection only applies to the right to travel between states through the Interstate Highway System. Because interstate travel is a protected method of state-to-state travel, where non-motorized vehicles are prohibited, this provision does not protect cycling as a basic right. In 1975, a federal judge examined the use of public space for non-motorized purposes, determining that the use of space for these reasons were a “basic value” which was protected insofar as the use “does not interfere with other persons’ rights” (Justia US Law, 2017a). The right to travel locally was actually decided to be part of freedom of speech, protected in the First Amendment in 1990. This means that it can be regulated in limited degrees, according to the time, place, and manner of use (Justia US Law, 2017b). Thus, commuter cyclists exercise their freedom of speech every time they get on their bikes to ride to work. Ghost bicycles arguably extend this freedom, but no case has yet been heard (to our knowledge).

US Interstate Map

Figure 6: After WWII, the federal government subsidized the interstate highway system, forever linking the constitutional “right to travel” to the automobile.

Chaining ghost bikes to a fixed public structure reflects their MEmorial status, as bicycle deaths are inescapably attached to a culture that does not take non-motorized transportation into its spatial design. Such a MEmorial does “not advocate or condemn the social commitment to the automobile, but only makes it recognizable as a specific kind of value, belief, commitment, with the purpose of helping the public understand itself in its collective identity” (Ulmer, 2005, p. 50). Cycling deaths are what Ulmer referred to as abject sacrifice: those deaths that we do not recognize as sacrifices made for our freedoms (p. 134). The values of a petroculture, such as the freedom to move at extremely high speeds in enormous metal objects, are supported by these deaths. Unlike F. T. Marinetti, father of 20th-century Futurism, who drew inspiration from the speed of the bicycle, ghost bikes inspire through their motionlessness. Spray painting the bicycle memorials white originated as a theft deterrent, but it also suggests that these monuments are in a sense devalued—repurposed waste of an abject remnant—which paradoxically allows them to remain visible by keeping them from being stolen, but it also causes them to be seen by some communities as an eyesore. These haunting objects that result from this process speak to motorists who might not otherwise share a discourse space with cyclists. They are a memento mori in a literal sense, calling out to us, “Remember you can die.”

Reading ghost bicycles as a critical response to petroculture, it becomes obvious that these discarded objects, this repurposed waste, comes to signify resistance and counter-narratives. While automobiles tell us we can go anywhere and be anyone while hidden in their anonymous hulls, these narratives of loss insist on the personal. The grief they mark is that of the community. The people who die are remembered and celebrated in the object. In Heuretics, Ulmer (1994) asserted that if “in commodity or consumer culture human relationships have been displaced into things, then these same things, taken up into the details of a diegesis, become places of passage” (p. 127). These object-signified locations act as public discourse, speaking on behalf of cyclists to the community at large. These memorials help us as a community to honor their memories, but they also serve as a reminder that we must travel with vigilant awareness and care. They speak not just to motorists—reminding them that operating a vehicle means taking lives into one’s hands—but also to other riders—fostering solidarity and resistance to the grand narrative of automobile culture. They remind us that roads are public spaces providing many points of contact, many avenues for interaction and intersection.


Jacques Derrida’s (1993) concept of armor, which he developed in Specters of Marx, helps to explain how automobiles work to conceal the social, cultural, and material impact they have upon the urban landscape. Derrida asserted that armor

covers the body from head to foot, the armor of which it is a part and to which it is attached. This is what distinguishes a visor from the mask with which, nevertheless, it shares this incomparable power, perhaps the supreme insignia of power: the power to see without being seen. (p. 8)

As motorists move through the streets, their vehicles function in this way, protecting them, isolating them, and endowing them with this power. It is difficult to hear the counter-narrative of a silent ghost bike through the roar of an engine; it is harder still to see from high in the cab how petroculture locks us in unsustainable spaces by design. Automobiles themselves can be seen as an iteration of topos logic. They are closed off from the outside, isolated and protected by a clearly demarcated space. Anyone who has ever commuted by bicycle on a hot or rainy day will know the feeling of envy that accompanies looking into a vehicle’s cab to a passenger who is cool and dry. As we explain in the video below, automobiles are deeply intertwined with American ideology. They work to protect, and, ultimately, alienate us from the immediate material impacts of our actions.

Figure 7: Ulmer explained that the automobile perpetuated the technological alienation initiated at the start of the Industrial Revolution. [Transcript]

The idea of exposure explains why victim blaming often occurs in the wake of a bicycle death. Petroculture encourages us to think of road biking as taking our lives into our own hands. This kind of thinking insists that cyclists don’t die because of a system that does not support multiple kinds of transportation, but instead because they placed themselves in a perilous situation without proper protection—the petro-armor of the automobile. Cyclists might, however, rightfully respond that bicycling shouldn’t be punishable by death. In Daniel Duane’s (2013) article “Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?” he argued that

cycling isn’t skydiving. It’s not just thrill-seeking, or self-indulgence. It’s a sensible response to a changing transportation environment, with a clear social upside in terms of better public health, less traffic and lower emissions. The world is going this way regardless, toward ever denser cities and resulting changes in law and infrastructure. But the most important changes, with the potential to save the most lives, are the ones we can make in our attitudes. (para. 15)

Ghost bikes call to us to make these attitude changes. They show the true costs of petroculture’s reliance on the automobile grand narrative. They are on the front lines, closer than advertisements, articles, or protests. They remind us that negligence on the road can, and does, mean death. In 2013, Michael Dumas conducted an poll in response to three pedalcyclist fatalities in the same area of Mobile, Alabama, in a single week. In response to the question “are ghost bikes a fitting tribute or pointless vandalism?” one user, RobnDobbie (2013) responded:

Maybe when the streets of Mobile are lined with white memorial bicycles the MPO [Metropolitan Planning Organization] will start to consider the bicycle and pedestrians in the design and rehabilitation of Mobile’s streets. Take for example the busy intersection on the Hank Aaron loop at Beauregard Street and Water Street. There is not a single pedestrian cross walk. This is 2013. Transportation Planners know better.

Thus, as this frustrated Alabamian writer noted in the comments, these monuments serve as a location for public advocacy. The material bicycles occupy petrocentric space, revealing the disconnect between public, legal forms of transportation and the dangers posed by using them. The bicycle visually speaks on behalf of groups who are often not taken into consideration by community planning committees, and who cannot be heard by motorists traveling at high speeds in large, enclosed vehicles.

Although motorists cannot hear cyclists, they can see them. Ghost bikes act on drivers from their very presence, as defined by rhetoric scholars Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca (1971) in The New Rhetoric (pp. 115–120). “Presence” refers to how an image moves to the foreground of the observer’s consciousness. In his chapter “The Psychology of Rhetorical Images,” Charles A. Hill (2004) referred to the psychological relationship between images and “developing or revising one’s beliefs based on [these mental] images” as vividness (p. 31). Vividness, according to Hill, is a major quality that contributes to the object’s power of presence. He offered a continuum to define the concept of vividness, ranging from most vivid information—“actual experience, moving images with sound, static photograph”—to less vivid information—“line drawing, narrative, descriptive account; abstract, impersonal analysis; statistics” (p. 31). While motorists are isolated from sound by the automobile itself, these bicycles operate somewhere between static photograph and actual experience, since they are in a sense experienced, and encountered as the driver moves through physical space.

In this sense, ghost bikes operate as a kind of camera lucida, an early optical aid used by 19th-century painters to create more realistic artworks. Like the ghost bike, the camera lucida transforms the mundane features of the physical world (landscapes, broken bikes) into a work of art. In Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes (1984) wrote of the phenomenological experience of viewing a photograph, “I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think” (p. 21). For Barthes, the photographic medium elicited a range of reactions that move from the affective and immediate to the rational and contemplative. These images occupy our imaginations with a vivid presence, forcing us to confront the cost of petrocentric values at the level of affect. In this way, the ghost bike operates as a visual “punctum,” a term popularized by Roland Barthes to refer to the small, seemingly irrelevant details of an image that nonetheless produce a strong emotional resonance within the viewer (p. 43). Barthes' use of punctum, which means any kind of sharp edge or tip, emphasized the ways that images hold the potential to “‘prick’” at the armor of entrenched ideologies, such as the values of a petroculture (p. 47). As Derrida referred to the difference between the “visor and mask," these roadside images pierce through petro-armor—through the one open space, the windshield—with their emotionally vivid presence (Derrida, 1993, p. 8).

Barthes’ Camera Lucida was (literally) bookended by death: Barthes wrote in the wake of his mother’s passing and, two weeks after publishing it, Barthes himself died after being struck by a motor vehicle. Although his death was construed as an accident, Barthes’ death could also be read as a sacrifice to a particular cultural value that was surging within France at the time (Schwartz, 1980). Indeed, France’s post-war car-obsession fueled its high traffic fatality rate throughout the 1950s and 1960s. As Robert Zaretsky (2011) wrote, “when novelists, musicians and film directors were not busy using the car and road as metonyms or signifiers, they were instead busy dying, or being maimed, in real cars on real roads” (para. 8)

Ghost bicycles challenge the rhetoric of the grand narrative of automobile culture by making visible the cost of privileging automobiles and accepting them as the natural means of individual conveyance. Covered with plastic flowers, personal messages, and faded photographs, they seek to “develop or revise” public discourse through the “vivid,” affective logic of visual rhetoric (Hill, 2008, p. 31). They occupy our streets to make that sense of loss apparent to the public.

Rickert (2007) asserted in the article, “Towards the Chōra: Kristeva, Derrida, and Ulmer on Emplaced Invention,” that “we should begin to consider media not simply the medium by which we interact and communicate with others, but in a quite literal sense a place” (p. 251, original emphasis). These ghost bicycles point to the individual place, the person and the sacrifice, and toward the ubiquitous public value for which that sacrifice was made. Each object is unique in type and size; it is covered with remnants and private memories that make the visual personal. As Furness (2010) put it:

The bicycle, like the automobile, is an object that becomes meaningful through its relationship to an entire field of cultural practices, discourses, and social forces. These linkages, or what cultural theorists call articulations, are not naturally occurring, nor are they due to the essence of the bicycle itself. Rather, they are made: people construct, define, and modify these connections by writing about bicycles, displaying them in museums, documenting them in films, representing them on T-shirts and posters, singing about them, fixing them, and, of course, riding them (pp. 9–10).

Ghost bicycles haunt the spaces they occupy, revealing glimpses of past losses and offering counter-narratives to the grand narrative of petroculture. Yet, the bicycle passes through time; it gets in the way of pedestrians; its paint chips as it whispers reminders to us on the street corner in the pouring rain. These objects are ephemeral. They are here and then gone. Because they can obstruct pedestrian right-of-way, violate encroachment ordinances, and are considered by some communities to be an eyesore, ghost bicycles are often taken down within weeks or months of their unveiling, as is the case in Jacksonville, Florida, where not a single ghost bike remains.

background image, map of Jacksonville, FL

Intersections of Petroculture

Jacksonville Florida is one of the most dangerous places in America to ride a bicycle. It stands in stark contrast to the city of Gainesville, home to the University of Florida and one of the safest places in the country to ride. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis 2013 Data Report, Florida writ large has the second most pedalcyclist fatalities of any state (National Highway, 2015). Led closely by California, the two have more than double the pedalcyclist fatalities of any other state in the US. In 2013, there were 141 pedalcyclist deaths in California and 133 in Florida, making up 4.7% and 5.5% of the total traffic fatalities in the states, respectively, with Florida having nearly double the pedalcyclist fatalities per million of even California. Texas, third on the list, had a mere 48 pedalcyclist deaths, though its total number of traffic fatalities was the highest.

Pedalcyclist Fatalities 2013

Six Highest States Ranked by Fatalities per Million Population
State Pedalcyclist Fatalities/Million Population Pedalcyclist Fatalities Resident Population (thousands) Total Traffic Fatalities % of Total Fatalities
FL 6.80 133 19,553 2,407 5.5%
CA 3.68 141 38,333 3,000 4.7%
NC 2.23 22 9,848 1,289 1.7%
NY 2.04 40 19,651 1,199 3.3%
TX 1.81 48 26,448 3,382 1.4%
PA 0.86 11 12,774 0.9% 1,208

Figure 8: Partial Table of Pedalcyclist Fatalities in 2013 (National Highway, 2015)

Yet, the 2013 Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan suggested that “the magnitude of the problem extends beyond what police reported crashes show” (p. 2). In order to encourage automobile operators to travel with greater care, the plan identified pedalcyclists and pedestrians as “vulnerable road users” (State of Florida Department of Transportation, 2016, pp. 1–2, 23). The study further noted that pedalcyclists and pedestrians are most likely to incur severe injury in crashes “because of the lack of protection in case of a crash” (p. 2). Thus, the study framed cause of death as an absence of petroarmor, not of exposure to dangerous and unusable transportation environments for non-motorists. Defining cyclists as vulnerable is, as Derrida (1993) observed, “the armor of which it is a part and to which it is attached” (p. 8). While these definitions of users are intended to help bring charges against negligent drivers who refuse to share the road, they also make evident the ways we naturalize petroculture. Ulmer (2005) remarked that “individuals may not want to wreck their cars, but nations do” (p. 35). Though we blame individual drivers for causing the death of a cyclist, ghost bicycles force us to step back and see the larger system that requires these abject sacrifices to maintain its values.

The cycling advocacy group “” has mapped locations of ghost bicycles and records fatal bicycle accidents on its website. These maps represent and preserve the locations in which a bicycle death has occurred. They make a public record of these fatalities. When possible, they have also taken pictures of the ghost bicycles themselves, preserving a trace of them after they are removed.

Figure 9: Ghost bike locations in Jacksonville, FL as documented by

All of the fatalities in the map above occurred near two of Jacksonville’s busiest roads: Interstate-10 and Interstate-95. Like the tightly interlocked roads of Jacksonville’s downtown corridor, these bicycle deaths cluster around the city center and then disperse out into the surrounding areas. However, it is difficult to grasp the rhetorical significance of these markers until you understand the material history of the spaces in which these fatal collisions occurred.

Racial Rhetorics of Space

Downtown Jacksonville sits about 12 miles west of the Atlantic Ocean along the St. Johns River. As it grew in population in the years immediately following WWII, Jacksonville residents moved east and south away from the urban core (Crooks, 2004, p. 36). In 1968, Jacksonville became the largest city in the contiguous United States when it voted to consolidate with the various municipalities of nearby Duval County. The depreciation of downtown Jacksonville continued into the late 20th century as wealthier, white residents moved to gated communities and beachfront properties outside of the urban core, leaving a stretch of busy intersections, strip malls, and unwalkable streets in their wake (Crooks, 2004, p. 217). Jacksonville has sought urban revitalization efforts since at least the 1990s; however, many of these efforts are more focused on transforming downtown Jacksonville into an economically viable sports and entertainment district than a traversable community space (Amiker & Piggot, 2015)

Florida is home to eight of the ten most dangerous cities to be a pedestrian in the United States, with Jacksonville coming in behind Fort Myers and Orlando at number three (“Dangerous by Design,” 2016). According to a recent report from Smart Growth America (2016), Jacksonville has a PDI (Pedestrian Danger Index) of 228.7 (p. ii). PDI numbers are calculated based on the number of pedestrian deaths in relation to the number of pedestrians on an average day. This helps correct for cities that have higher rates of pedestrian death but are not necessarily more dangerous. The report described how minorities and lower income households are overrepresented in pedestrian death statistics, with people of color making up 46.1 percent of pedestrian deaths despite only making up 34.9 percent of the population (p. iv). Unfortunately, because many of the metro areas cited in the report continue to rely on car-centered road design, such deaths are likely to continue.

Due to a rising pedestrian death rate, Jacksonville was designated a “focus city” by the Federal Highway Administration in 2015, which qualified the city for special programs aided by the federal government (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2016). As a result, Jacksonville has begun to take steps to address the issue of high pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Although the city of Jacksonville is committed to a multi-faceted approach to addressing this issue, including road redesigns, part of their pedestrian and bicycle master plan has called for “policies and programs that educate and encourage safe pedestrian and bicycle activities” (Ingles, 2017). Although such a goal is certainly admirable and potentially effective at mitigating pedestrian and biking fatalities, in practice it can sometimes result in counterproductive pedestrian shaming.

In May 2016, Jacksonville launched a pilot program to install pedestrian safety warning signs at busy intersections (Johnson, 2016). The text on the sign reads “No Regrets When You Cross With Care.” This sign, and by extension the city of Jacksonville, has shifted blame onto the pedestrian, implying that more attention or care on the part of the pedestrian is sufficient to prevent further deaths. The harsh, concrete background on the sign has created an ominous backdrop for the small, vulnerable pedestrian figure in the image’s foreground. Overall, the roadside instructions seem to say to the pedestrian, “You don’t belong here.”

Public service poster instructs pedestrians in safe crossings and reads, 'no regrets when you cross with care'

Figure 10: These pedestrian instruction signs are located throughout Jacksonville.

As public schools were desegregated in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education, a vast number of white residents left city centers for suburban school systems, and moved their children into private schools. In the case of Jacksonville, the white community’s response to desegregation led to a new, spatially naturalized form of segregation through distance and automobility. Thus, as Morton (2012) noted in his exploration of racism and Anthropocentrism, these attitudes converge and intersect in the environments through which cyclists and others attempt to navigate.

Figure 11: Locations of pedestrian instruction signs in Jacksonville, Florida, as documented by News4Jax.

Pedestrian warning signs are located primarily within the inner part of Jacksonville’s I-295 beltway, which serves as the de facto boundary for the city’s urban core. The majority of Jacksonville’s black population resides west of the St. Johns River in the city’s downtown area (Statistical Atlas, 2015). Jacksonville’s large geographic size turns acceleration and speed into a commodity. As a result, communities in these areas become defined as points of passage for vehicles, locations where pedestrians and cyclists are not welcome. Thus, these signs are not only markers that perpetuate pedestrian shaming: it is an intersectional marker of race and class, a way of surveilling those who do not treat this space as a mere passage point from A to B are taking their lives into their own hands.

Petrocentric spaces enable the surveillance of the inner city. Simone Browne’s (2015) Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness has considered "blackness, as metaphor and as lived materiality, and applies it to an understanding of surveillance” (p. 7). Indeed, Browne worked “across multiple spaces,” from airports to slave ships, as a way of “[thinking] through the multiplicities of blackness” (p. 7). As Browne mentioned in the introduction, “blackness is often absented from what is theorized” about surveillance despite the fact that black motorists comprise “a disproportionate number of traffic stops” and “stop-and-frisk policing practices” (p. 13). For Browne, being black is to have already been forced into spaces and systems of surveillance.

Browne’s approach has offered us new ways of understanding the relationship between petrocentric spaces like Jacksonville, Florida, and the spatial designs that result in dangerous, racialized conditions for bikers and pedestrians. As these pedestrian warning signs attest, Jacksonville’s urban core is not only a space where petrocentricism and other modes of mobility intersect (and often clash), it is also a space “where blackness meets surveillance” as those who live and work in this space continue to be subjected to the most damaging effects of petrocentric values (p. 13).


Similar to many other U.S. cities, the busy intersections and roadways of Jacksonville are simply passage points, not sites to interact with other members of the community. A report from Smart Growth America (2002) linked suburban sprawl to four key environmental characteristics known to be detrimental to the development of a livable, traversable city space: 1) dispersed communities, 2) clear delineations between home, work, and shopping areas, 3) large, inaccessible roads, and 4) weak or nonexistent community centers (as cited in Ewing, Pendall, & Chen, p.3). Such conditions, the researchers argued, exacerbate a number of public health concerns, including increased risk of traffic fatality, lower rates of walking or cycling, and higher levels of air pollution.

Despite this, the overall goals of the “Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan” (State of Florida Department of Transportation, 2013) were to 1) educate motorists and non-motorists on “sharing the road,” 2) pursue “educational efforts to improve the safety of pedestrians and bicycles through design, construction, operation, and maintenance,” and 3) work to ensure that “all areas of Florida’s transportation system provide safe and accessible travel options for pedestrians and bicycles” (pp. 20–24). Such a strategy seems to suggest that pedestrian and bike fatalities are so high, in part, because bicycling is rapidly becoming a popular mode of transportation and of cultural expression, and it hasn’t finished establishing its voice in the grand narrative of petroculture. This plan has identified some of the risks cyclists and pedestrians face: “Florida represented six percent of the U.S. population in 2011, but accounted for 11 percent of all U.S. pedestrian fatalities and 17.4 percent of all U.S. bicycle fatalities” (p. 2). Our system is petrocentric, designed by and for petroculture. Users who step outside this system are subject to the risk of terrible injury and even death.

Like the petrocentric spaces of Jacksonville, the bicycle itself has been shaped by the attitudes and values of its users and designers. The components of the bicycle, from which the ghost bicycle is produced, consist of individual parts which retain their identity and are yet assembled into the very identity of the bicycle. Sarah Hallenbeck’s Claiming the Bicycle demonstrated the ways that, in the late nineteenth century, “Wheel Women” “collectively … contributed to the changed material environment … in which women bicyclists enacted a broad array of other changes in their lives” (p. 67). As they began to popularize the bicycle, they invented clothing and other tools to make commuting possible for women. Hallenbeck has taken an intersectional approach to reading the bicycle, explicating the material rhetorics at play in the technology to understand “rhetorics of time, space, objects and other conditions of materiality” and the ways in which these “function both to naturalize and to transform gender relations” (p. xv). Similarly, by reading the sprawled built environments which collectively compose Jacksonville, we can begin to uncover the ways in which road users navigate and even rewrite ideological and historical intersections that have been naturalized into the material rhetorics of space.

Through tracing the intersectional convergences which constitute petroculture, we are able to unearth the ideological and material strata connecting the various topoi of Jacksonville, ranging from the individual locations marked by ghost bicycles, to the municipalities of the city, and to national values supporting the infrastructures of petrocentrism. As we discussed in the Ghost Bikes: History and Culture section, the freedom to travel by bicycle is legally protected as a speech act. Attempting to exercise the First Amendment right by navigating the dangerous or unusable Jacksonville roadways brings the multidimensional and interconnected issues of racism, sexism, classism, and ableism (to name but a few) into view. Because the bicycle has a cosmopolitan history of use by numerous groups of people, the ghost bicycles in Jacksonville, Florida, reflect this diverse range of ways in which bicycles are used. Different areas of the city tend to be navigated for different purposes, and the road conditions pedalcyclists face vary on historical and contemporary ideologies, designs, and attitudes which shape the material environment.

The purpose of Ulmer’s MEmorials has been to expose the sacrifices necessary to support our value systems. This exposure forces us to question if the value is worth the sacrifice. If the value is not worth the cost, we must change our value systems. In a similar fashion, Melissa Lane’s (2012) Eco-republic used Plato to ask if in “clinging to the comforts and familiarities of our current way of life and its fossil-fuel infrastructure, despite a mounting consensus of scientific studies documenting the damage which this is doing, are we trapping ourselves in Plato’s Cave?” (p. 4). Like the prisoners of Plato’s allegory of the cave, automobiles lock us into particular ways of seeing the world. Eco-republic explored methods with which to “model a sustainable relation between what we may call” in the terms of the ancient Greeks, polis and psyche, “the city and soul” (p. 26). But like the prisoners of Plato’s cave, we must come to understand how the objects held before us, and those which contain us, help to produce the world we see as true. With this in mind, we can read these accidents as the tragic expression of the tension between petroculture—which uses as its vehicle the single-passenger automobile—and expressions of polyculture such as bicycling and walking.

Chôra and Topoi

Thus, the project employs chôra—a concept popularized by Plato’s discussion in the Timaeus to refer to the space inside the polis but outside the city proper—as a means of connecting the various topoi of ghost bikes in Jacksonville, Florida. Ghost bicycles are nodes of the networks of values which constitute the various places of passage that we call Jacksonville. The collective attitudes that lead to cyclist deaths are part of the system which ghost bikes help to make visible. As Ulmer (2005) denoted in Electronic Monuments, “chora mediates individual/collective identities” (p. 26). Earlier, Ulmer (1994) sketched choragraphy as both “a rhetoric of invention concerned with the history of ‘place’ in relation to memory” (p. 39) and a “method for writing and thinking electronically” (p. 45). While topos-centered methods encourage us to see these crashes as isolated, individual incidents, choric methods insist that we step back and see the larger connections that emerge out of place. Thus, the topoi of the ghost bicycles refer back to the larger, collective issues we face as a society dependent on fossil fuels, while also indexically pointing to the loss of an individual life.

Plato’s concept of the chôra—which he discusses in the Timaeus dialogue as a third kind of category, a hypokeimenon (material substratum) which connects the immaterial world of reason and the Forms (being), to the material, physical world (becoming)—has been taken up by poststructural theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Derrida. More recently, Ulmer and Rickert have connected this concept to conversations in rhetorical theory. Rickert’s (2013) compelling work Ambient Rhetoric interrogated how “much rhetorical theory still relies on a separatist mind/body/environment paradigm” (p. 43) and sought to understand how the concept of chôra reveals that “minds are at once embodied, and hence grounded in emotion and sensation, and dispersed into the environment itself” (p. 43). In this way, ghost bicycles broadcast their rhetoric across many channels, interacting with a multiplicity of passengers.

As a rhetorical practice, ghost bikes do not offer drivers statistics, facts, or abstract propositions; their evidence is affective, material, and anecdotal. Like Barthes' “third meaning,” chôra troubles simple distinctions of signifier and signified and even meaning and signification. Ghost bikes are ambient, bringing together “an ensemble of variables, forces, and elements that shape things in ways difficult to quantify or specify” (Rickert, 2013, p. 7). Additionally, Julia Kristeva asserted that “although the chora can be designated and regulated, it can never be definitively posited: as a result, one can situate the chora and, if necessary, lend it a topology, but one can never give it axiomatic form” (1984, p. 26). She has connected the concept of chôra to the embodied and emplaced conditions from which meaning emerges while troubling the connections between the inscriptions of femininity and authorship in meaning-making. When motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists pass a ghost bike, its rhetorical tactic is one of ambient, embodied influence, working to reconfigure the space of the busy intersection from a mundane element of city life into a site of tragedy and intersectional activism. We still inhabit these petrocentric spaces, but ghost bikes allow a public to be attuned to them differently.

Our personal values, what Lane (2012) called psyche, abject these deaths which are required to support the polis, our national values. Ulmer (2005) asserted that “public discussion [remains] fixed on the events, rarely reflecting on the frame of the events, never raising the structural questions that might help grasp the cause and function of private and public death” (p. 35). If we take Ulmer’s point to heart, we can see why scientific solutions will never be enough: “How to stop making mistakes? How to reduce error and eliminate accidents? These are the goals of a certain scientific method incapable of thinking wreckage as sacrificial ceremony” (p. 35). Because our roadways are dangerous by design for vulnerable road users, no amount of reciprocal change will ameliorate these tragic deaths. In light of this, we must acknowledge that public tragedy is part of private freedom, and we must ask if the deaths of these cyclists are worth the values that come with petrocentrism. As one Economist blogger D. K. (2014) framed it:

In 2012 some 120 cyclists were killed in traffic accidents across Florida. That is as many as were killed in Britain in the same year—a country with three times as many people as Florida and a lot more cyclists. … Such deaths are not inevitable: over the past few decades, traffic deaths in general have declined spectacularly–from almost 55,000 in 1972 to 33,000 in 2012. Much of these gains however have come from better-designed cars.

Because many large American cities, such as Jacksonville, sprawled out with the rise of the automobile, they have become unusable by non-motorists, unsustainable and dangerous by design. The “Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Plan” (2013) has sought to remedy this problem. The Ghost Bikes ARC project overlaps the interests of the plan, with its objective of developing and implementing “a comprehensive communications plan that will improve public awareness of pedestrian and bicycle crash problems and programs directed at preventing them” (p. 28). This program of action, like the ARC project, can remediate and reduce deaths by raising awareness. Yet, as Ulmer illuminated, these deaths will never completely cease, so long as we hold certain values in our culture. Those who have given their lives should be memorialized. By replacing the ghost bikes with digital overlays, making non-petrocentric voices heard, we call into question the values of polis and psyche, of the relationship between the values of a city or nation and the sacrifices of the individual. As we will explore in the next section, mobile augmented reality technologies make it possible to overlay digital objects within physical environments, allowing writers to replace these haunting MEmorials in the spaces where they have been removed.

augmented reality image of a ghost bike imposed over a pedestrian crossing sign

Augmented Memorialization

Locating Augmented Reality

In August 2014, the technology analytics company comScore reported that 52% of all digital media consumption in the United States took place within mobile applications, officially eclipsing the prior dominance of the traditional desktop interface. As mobile computing continues its cultural ascendance, our ability to access context-aware, digital media within physical spaces will continue to grow alongside it. Indeed, ever since the introduction of the first mass-produced smartphone, mobile device users have been able to gather unprecedented amounts of information about their physical locations, from restaurant and hotel reviews to the exact GPS coordinates of nearby friends.

As these technologies became more widespread and easily accessible throughout the beginning of the 21st century, locative media artists began to explore how mobile technologies like GPS could be used to write a space. Locative media projects incorporate specific geographical locations as non-trivial elements into a text’s discursive and/or narrative structure. As such, locative media allows writers to draw upon the rhetoricality of the user’s immediate surroundings in crafting their texts. For example, Paula Levine’s (2004) locative media project Shadows from Another Place: San Francisco <-> Baghdad transposed the locations of U.S. military strikes occurring in Iraq to an online map of San Francisco (Jethani & Leorke, 2013, p. 493). Levine’s project drew upon the rhetorical affordances of locative media—mobility, locational awareness—to convey the sense of disorientation and fear experienced by Iraqi citizens.

As Jordan Frith (2015) pointed out, location-sensitive information is not simply “exterior to the place” but rather “becomes a part of that place for the user, just as a street sign or other physical information becomes a part of a place” (pp. 24–25). Many locative-media projects are similar to geocaching in that they allow users to create digital texts that are only accessible within specific geographic coordinates. The now-defunct Urban Tapestries project, for instance, allowed users to “author their own virtual annotations of the city, enabling a community’s collective memory to grow organically” (Proboscis, 2005, para. 5). Other locative media projects provide alternative and/or more in-depth histories of physical locations. The location-based audio tour Queerstory, for example, operates as a historical audio tour of Toronto’s queer community. Queerstory showcases how communities are intimately connected to the places and spaces which they inhabit.

As smartphones became more advanced and grew in popularity after 2008, artists and activists began to utilize augmented reality technologies to create image-based critiques at locations across the world. Augmented reality (AR) technologies make it possible to overlay computer-generated data onto physical spaces and objects. For instance, digital artist Mark Skwarek and Joseph Hocking’s (2010) AR project "The Leak in Your Hometown" overlays a digital pipe gushing black oil on top of the British Petroleum logo. Created in response to the Deepwater Horizon Spill earlier that year, Skwarek and Hocking’s project serves as a reminder to the gas consumer that they are complicit in perpetuating the petrocultural infrastructure that increases the likelihood of an oil spill.

BP Logo Hack

Figure 12: Mark Skwarek and Joseph Hocking’s augmented reality intervention “The Leak in Your Hometown." Image courtesy of Mark Skwarek.

AR operates as an affective, image-based medium. Ulmer and John Craig Freeman (2014) neologized the term “ubimage” (a portmanteau of “ubiquitous” and “image”) to refer to the unique rhetorical effects of AR as a form of public discourse. Ulmer and Freeman’s theory of ubimage is derived from Proust’s notion of involuntary memory, or the “embodied trigger” of a particular place or event. They claimed that the potential of AR to participate in public identity formation requires a more affective rhetoric, or “a logic of catalysis” (p. 63). Unlike analysis, which decelerates a problem so that it can then be rationally comprehended, the ubimage speeds it up, accelerating it into higher levels of complexity and affect. AR can be an effective medium for revealing the network of conflicting issues circulating within a public space by circulating “ubimages” of previously unforeseen social links. For instance, Freeman’s powerful AR critique of the Mexico–United States border (as seen in Ulmer & Freeman, 2014) operates as a ubimage of the rising migrant death rate. The application, which overlays digital skeletons at the exact GPS coordinates of migrant remains, function as an ubimage, or cultural reminder of the price being paid for America’s economic dependence on cheap migrant labor. According to Ulmer and Freeman, Freeman’s project disclosed for the user “a kind of lasting iconic presence in an otherwise ephemeral physical environment and cultural discourse” (p. 64). Location-based AR criticism operates rhetorically not to overwhelm the user with information, statistics, and research but rather to open up affective avenues through which alternative public discourses about a location might emerge.

Augmented Publics

At TRACE innovation, a digital humanities initiative housed in the University of Florida English Department, we are exploring how mobile augmented-reality technology can be used as a platform for engaging publics in discourse about pressing social, political, and environmental issues. TRACE is currently developing humanities-driven augmented reality applications with the aim of disseminating access points to critical public discourse. TRACE’s work with AR and location-based criticism emerges from a broader rhetorical history of activist efforts to repurpose the images, texts, and locations of dominant cultural discourses. Since at least the 1950s, artists working out of the Letterist and Situationist movements have been appropriating the taken-for-granted materials of mass culture as sites of critique. Their primary technique, known as “detournement,” or “diversion,” is characterized by remixing cultural materials such as posters, texts, or images in order to create new and/or contradictory meanings. Contemporary iterations of detournement can be seen in the work of organizations known for culture jamming such as Adbusters and the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF).

Physical ghost bikes function as a kind of intervention into a public perception of a space, forcing those who pass by them to acknowledge the sacrifices made on behalf of petrocentric road design. Ghost bikes, like any public monument, work rhetorically to shock the quotidian activities of public life (e.g., driving), creating space for a moment of pause, reflection, and tragedy into speed-obsessed spaces. However, once they are removed, they no longer serve as cultural remembrance.

TRACE’s mobile augmented reality experience “Death Drive(r)s: Ghost Bike (Monu)mentality” seeks to promote public awareness about cycling deaths in the city of Jacksonville, FL by augmenting locations where a ghost bike once stood. As an electronic monument, “Death Drive(r)s” (re)places digital ghost bikes at the locations where they have been stolen or removed. In Electronic Monuments, Ulmer (2005) called for the creation of monuments designed to commemorate “any event of loss whose mourning helps define a community” (p. xxxiii). For Ulmer, electronic monuments have functioned as a kind of cultural pedagogy by allowing a culture to recognize the often-unspoken sacrifices (e.g., oil spills) necessary to maintain cultural values (e.g., right to own and drive a vehicle). As we explain in the video below, electronic monuments are speculative signifiers of communal trauma, and their purpose is not to produce logical arguments, but to catalyze public discourse about pressing social and cultural issues (Ulmer, 2005, p. 14, 33).

Figure 13: The augmented reality experience “Death Drive(r)s: Ghost Bike (Monu)mentality” overlays digital ghost bikes at locations where ghost bicycles once stood but have since been removed. [Transcript]

When users view these areas through the mobile AR app "Aurasma," they see a digital ghost bike appear within the physical space of the intersection along with a link to this webtext. One of the key rhetorical affordances of AR technology is the interaction between physical and digital content. Unlike virtual reality, which completely immerses the user in a digital world, AR utilizes the user’s physical context as a key rhetorical component of the experience. Ghost bike locations are typically busy intersections or roadways with little to no infrastructural support for cyclists. Site-specific augmented reality experiences like “Death Drive(r)s” operate at an affective, ritualized level for the members of a community. By participating in the material contingencies responsible for these cyclists’ deaths (e.g., broken crossing lights, poor road design), users of the application can reflect upon the broader social and cultural values perpetuated by these petrocentric spaces. Users who choose to engage with this electronic monument are participating in a practice of ritual as they move through space and honor the victims of petrocentric road design. “Death Drive(r)s” works against the normalization of dangerous roads and the pedestrian-shaming tactics of public safety initiatives. Unlike driving in a car, the public’s armor against petrocentric road design, the application forces users to “enact a different form of mobility” by “mediating their movement through mobile media and altering their sense of place” (Frith, 2015, p.46).

Auratic Design

According to Walter Benjamin (2008), the “aura” of an art object is intimately connected to place, being, and physical proximity. Benjamin wrote that reproductions of original artworks lack “the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place” (p. 21). In many ways, AR seems antithetical to the “aura” of the ghost bike: in comparison to the haunting, uninvited materiality of the physical bike, the digital bikes in the “Death Drive(r)s” MEmorial seem ephemeral and unobtrusive. Unlike the physical bike, the augmented bike is non-compulsory, users can choose to see or not see it.

To address this, “Death Drive(r)s” would (ideally) utilize push-notifications to alert anyone within a predetermined radius that there was a digital ghost bike nearby. In this way, the digital (re)placement would work in a similar way to the physical ghost bike in that members of the public could not avoid knowing that death occurred at this location. Of course, mobile device users can determine if they want push notifications for specific apps, and anyone who didn’t want to know about a cycling death at a location could simply turn off notifications or choose not to download the app in the first place. Public reaction to these hypothetical push-notifications reflect actual public reactions to the installation of physical ghost bikes: removal and silencing. Removing a physical ghost bike is like silencing the push-notifications that would alert the public to the sacrifices being made on behalf of petroculture.

In creating our application, we utilized image-based augmented reality software, which requires the user to scan some kind of image (such as a QR code, logo, or advertisement) in order to “trigger” the appearance of the digital content. In AR terminology, this scanned image is referred to as the applications trigger and the digital content as the overlay. In selecting trigger images for this project, we sought out signs and images typically overlooked or considered rhetorically mundane, such as stop signs or street names. On the “Death Drive(r)s” account page, the user can view the augmentable images associated with each location. Aurasma also allows users to set GPS restrictions on trigger images that might also appear in other locations, such as a pedestrian crosswalk sign. With this functionality, we were able to augment specific road signs even if the image also appeared elsewhere in the city.

Ghost Bike Augmentation

Figure 14: Users can access the trigger images through the "Death Drive(r)s Public Auras” page on Aurasma.

Because the trigger images for this project are attached to specific geographic coordinates in Jacksonville, you will not be able to access the digital overlays unless your mobile device recognizes that you are in that location. However, we have provided a sample trigger image below, which you can scan with the Aurasma app to view an example augmentation.

By augmenting these locations, “Death Drive(r)s” works to (re)impose an aura of death onto the routinized imagery of petroculture. Through this, “Death Drive(r)s” invokes what locative media artist Paula Levine (2014) referred to as “spatial dissonance” (p. 144). For Levine, spatial dissonance occurs “when information about [a] space stands in conflict with the local and personal experiences of that space” (p. 144). Because the digital and physical components of an augmented reality application mutually constitute one another, an element of dissonance is inscribed into the rhetorical core of the medium. The locations of ghost bikes operate on the periphery of public concern: they are only noticed when they stop functioning properly and/or change in some way (such as when a ghost bike is installed). The apparition of the digital bike augments the material rhetoric (car horns, screeching tires, speeding cars) of the city street, transforming the routine sights and sounds of a petroculture into signifiers of death.

Augmented Street Sign

Figure 15: Follow the “Death Drive(r)s Public Auras” page on Aurasma and scan this image to access a sample augmentation.

background image, Florida street scene with bikes on the back of a parked van

Social Advocacy in Mundane Spaces

Memorials as Cultural Remembrance

Walk through any major American city and you are likely to come across some kind of locational marker (a statue, an historical sign). Such markers teach the members of a community about the identity and culture associated with a specific place. For instance, visitors might look to such locational markers for answers to questions like: Who was here a century ago? What happened here in the 1960s? Where did this park get its name? Who died here last weekend? No matter the media used to augment a location—signs, monuments, statues, flyers—they come to serve as instructions for how a specific place should be read by those who inhabit it.

Figure 16: MEmorials reveal the abject sacrifices that a society makes on behalf of a shared value. [Transcript]

Physical monuments and memorials demonstrate the degree to which social and cultural memory is attached to physical spaces and objects, and that when a society wants to remember something—an event, a person, an idea—it installs material reminders of it within public spaces so that they are unavoidable in our everyday lives. They are material markers whose physical presence is not only intended to represent but to materially enact collective remembrance. In many cases, memorials are designed to (literally) get in the way of the quotidian activities of public life. The German artist Gunter Demnig, for instance, has been installing “stolpersteine” (or “stumbling stones”) throughout Europe since the early 1990’s. For his project, Demnig placed small, concrete stones outside of the last freely chosen place of residency for those sent away to Nazi concentration camps. As memorials, stolpersteine are designed to be intrusive, to carve time out of people’s habituated routes as they walk by and stumble upon them. Such memorials are designed so that the memories of events that a society would rather forget or move past become embedded into the infrastructural reality of its citizens' everyday lives.

Ghost bikes are similar to Demnig’s stolpersteine in that they are designed to be intrusive and uncomfortable, inserting themselves into the mundane space of the urban intersection, highway, or county road. The “Death Drive(r)s” MEmorial invites stillness and contemplation, an affective posture in direct conflict with the material rhetoric of a busy street, which is a passageway, a space of motion, and any stillness that occurs within an intersection is forced and undesired. It seeks to subvert culturally normalized perceptions of a mundane public space. The application does not ask the user to do (or to think) a specific thing. Rather, it merely attempts to invoke a sense of “spatial dissonance” between the information provided by the digital overlays and the mundane, petrocentric spaces upon which they are inscribed (Levine, 2014, p. 144).

Emergent Public Discourse

In his foundational essay, “Publics/Counterpublics,” Michael Warner (2002) argued that authentic public discourses must contain emergent qualities, writing that a public “can only produce a sense of belonging and activity if it is self-organized through discourse rather than through an external framework” (p. 415). Because it does not exist prior to discourse, a public is less an objective entity susceptible to persuasion than an emergent network of rhetorical acts (Warner, 2002, p. 413). Of course, as Jenny Rice (2012) pointed out, public rhetorics always run the risk of devolving into more static and divisive genres of public deliberation (p. 5). This subject position, which Rice terms the “exceptional public subject,” obfuscates any clear path to effective public action and/or advocacy by residing between the boundaries of public and private life, thus sustaining a space of public discourse marked by apathy and distance.

Public subjectivities of exception are inextricable from the material structures that produce them, and, to a greater or lesser extent, all members of a society participate in this public subject position. Public spaces are sustained as mundane through discourses of exception, or an unconscious disengagement from the rhetoricality of one’s environment. As a member of a community of drivers, for instance, we might feel a weak connection to the consequences that our driving has on society as a whole, a feeling reinforced by discourses of self-exception (i.e., “I drive a fuel-efficient car,” “I vote for increased funding for public transit,” “I don’t drive under the influence,” “I have never hit a cyclist”). The problem is not that discourses of self-exception are untrue, but rather that they reinforce apathetic responses to public issues that absolve individuals from a broader social issue: I have done nothing to create this problem, therefore, I am not responsible.

The sensorial experience of mundane spaces becomes normalized through repetition, thus weakening the public’s desire and/or ability to approach these spaces as unique, significant, and capable of change. Mundane public spaces are designed according to functional concerns (e.g., driving) that override any aesthetics of dwelling. When we drive down a busy road, we perceive it in terms of its ability to help us accomplish a specific goal: moving from one place to another. The road is an interface for driving, and elements that conflict with the smooth functioning of this interface are quickly discarded and forgotten. Spacious interiors with A/C and radio insulate us from the noise and air pollution circulating within this space, shielding us from a sensorial engagement with the effects of petroculture and its material impact on public space.

In order to create a critical space through which more engaged public subjectivities can emerge, Rice (2012) argued that we must take an approach to public rhetoric that “understands publics and their discourses as the best site for making interventions into material spaces” (p. 7). To make effective rhetorical interventions into public issues, social advocacy must operate within the same discursive networks (digital as well as physical) through which disparate publics already “intersect” rather than imposing unfamiliar “external frameworks” (Warner, 2002, p. 415).


Petrocentric spaces, particularly busy urban centers, force an activist label upon cyclists. Unlike drivers, cyclists are vulnerable to even the most minor contact with a vehicle. As a result, cyclists are often forced to invoke a more aggressive attitude toward drivers for whom a minor fender bender or 15 mph crash is not a potentially fatal encounter. For a driver, this aggression is embedded into the car, which acts as an “armor” against the material reality of the road (Derrida, 1993, p. 8). The popular sketch comedy show Portlandia CITE NEEDEDpresents a parody of the cycling activist through the character Spike. In one of the more popular sketches, Spike is seen biking through the busy downtown streets of Portland yelling “Bicycle rights!” and “Pull in your mirror!” at every driver within shouting distance. Like most of Portlandia’s characters, Spike is an endearing parody of hipster subculture, poking fun at the cyclist as activist trope. Similar to the reactions of most drivers to overly aggressive cyclists, Spike’s demands of drivers seem unnecessary and overbearing, particularly when he pulls up next to a fellow cyclist who seems to be riding on the road without any trouble. Overall, the sketch paints a portrait of the cycling activist who, like Spike, is tough, loud, but ultimately harmless; in an actual battle of aggression between cars and bikes in a busy city like Portland, the biker loses every time.

An urban intersection is a continuous battle between cars, cyclists, and pedestrians as they all jockey for a transient territorial claim to this space. The affective stance of the urban intersection oscillates between attraction and repulsion: a position within this space is desired only insofar as it can be relinquished, or forgotten, as soon as possible. Because the physical infrastructure of petroculture requires the replication of the intersection across the urban landscape, this affective oscillation becomes routinized within the urban subject, and a rhetorical stance of forgetting is inscribed into the material discourse of public interaction. Consequently, the public’s predominant interactions with sprawling public spaces become unwelcome, insular experiences that allow its members to maintain rhetorical distance from the social and cultural consequences such spaces have upon the urban environment.

“Death Drive(r)s” promotes emergent public discourse through the juxtapositional logic of augmented reality. The application creates a perspectival shift for how motion and stasis interact within the public space of an intersection. Typically, when confronting an intersection, the public desires motion, and any form of stillness encountered within this space (e.g., stopping at a red light, a cyclist being struck by a vehicle) is unwanted. Whereas motion prompts forgetting and erasure, reflection prompts remembrance and connectivity. Within the public space of the intersection, stasis is error and anomaly, a temporary rupture in the incessant motion of petroculture. Conversely, “Death Drive(r)s” inverts this motion/stasis hierarchy by superimposing digital versions of ghost bikes onto the physical space of the intersection. These electronic monuments promote stillness and reflection as desired states of being within the hectic, fast-paced spaces of petroculture.

In The Ecological Thought, Morton (2012) described ecology as “all the ways we imagine how we live together” (p. 4). In ecological terms, then, the urban intersection reinforces a public imaginary that conceives of living together as a contested and isolated experience that exempts individuals from any feelings of ecological significance within this public space. “Death Drive(r)s” seeks to reshape “the ways we imagine how we live together” by providing a disjunctive space of public discourse that collapses the apathy-inducing distance between a cultural value (driving) and its effects (cyclist deaths). The application invites users to inhabit the public space of a cyclist’s death (typically a busy urban intersection) as a pedestrian or cyclist. Because they must be physically present at the location in order to access the augmentation, users of the app are encouraged to engage with the feeling of out-of-placeness that comes from traversing a city like Jacksonville as a pedestrian.

When a physical location is augmented with a digital ghost bike, both the bike and the location participate within emergent rhetorical configurations as users experiences one in terms of the other. Moreover, the virtuality of the ghost bike reflects the relegation of cyclist casualties to society’s collective unconscious; the bikes (dis)appear as a MEmorial to the public’s unconscious acceptance of death every time we get behind the wheel of a car. In this way, “Death Drive(r)s” reveals how a mundane public space like an intersection is already operating as a site of public discourse, or a material space through which a society’s values circulate. With mobile augmented reality technology, external rhetorical elements can be superimposed onto existing discursive frameworks, thus fostering an emergent level of public discourse that intervenes into the routinized rhetorical actions of mundane public spaces.

background image, sign reading 'sidewalk closed'

Dead End Streets (Conclusion)

Figure 17: "Plastic Flowers on the Highway" by The Drive-By Truckers, with permission.

Ghost bikes magnify the impact of petrocentrism by forcing a public to encounter the invisible costs of automobile culture. They challenge the core values of petrocentrism (e.g., privacy, speed, forgetting) by emphasizing public contemplation, stillness, and reflection. They deny a sense of passing through space by forcing us to recognize mundane spaces as unique locations through which ideologies and histories intersect. They use private encounters to speak to public concerns. More than statistics or advertisements, ghost bikes reach us by insisting on the importance of the personal, individual communities where they appear. They reach through the armor of petroculture at its only point of entry: affect.

The material rhetoric of the ghost bike is ephemeral. Archival websites like collect the remnants of these events, but they do not preserve the emplaced qualities of the material bicycle. “Death Drive(r)s” partners with the choric engagement of public space already present in vélorutionary culture by preserving ghost bikes as electronic monuments, thereby fostering emergent rhetorical connections between hidden public values and the material conditions responsible for producing them. Extensions of this project could seek collaborations with cycling advocacy groups in other cities where ghost bikes are routinely removed and forgotten. An inter-state network of digital ghost bikes would work to highlight the hegemonic presence of petrocentric values within America’s urban landscape, and it would move us that much closer to resisting the grand narrative of petroculture and reclaiming the idea of auto-mobility from the car industry.

background image, pedestrian crossing sign


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