Ghosts of Bikers Passed
The "ghost bike" memorial to Jan Bouchal on a traffic island at nábřeží kapitána Jaroše in Prague 7.
I made a pilgrimage a few days ago.
I cycled to the intersection of nábřeží kapitána Jaroše and Dukelských hrdinů, near the Vltava River in Prague 7. I don't normally head down that way on my bike. It's not a welcoming place for cyclists. It's one of Prague's most dangerous intersections, where cars and trucks and trams converge from three different directions.
Journalist and cycling advocate Jan Bouchal was struck by a car there on January 6, 2006, as he was riding his bike home from work in Mala Strana. He died in hospital six days later.
A "ghost bike" memorial has been set up in a traffic island at the intersection in Bouchal's honor, to let drivers and passersby know that a tragedy occurred there. I visited in bright daylight, but the memorial still left me feeling sad and unsettled.
I didn't know Jan Bouchal, but by visiting the site I somehow felt a connection to him, and to all cyclists who've been killed while riding.
I did know Brian G. Bourke. I worked closely with Brian at the Syracuse Herald-Journal in Syracuse, NY. I was the Arts & Entertainment Editor. Brian was the newspaper's music writer and critic. He was as passionate about cycling as he was about music.
It was September 1992. Brian had just finished a hard summer's work of writing and reviewing and decided to take a biking holiday. He chose to ride from Syracuse to Kentucky, if I remember correctly, to visit friends. I shook his hand, told him what a great job he'd done all summer, and wished him a safe journey.
A few days after he left, I got a call at work from the Pennsylvania State Police. Brian had been hit by a car. I had to tell his mother that her son had been killed. He was 30.
Brian wasn't wearing his helmet when he was struck by that van. Because of Brian, I never go on a ride without mine on.
I've tried to do some research about Jan Bouchal's accident (that's him at left), but I haven't been able to find out very much about the tragedy itself, other than that Bouchal was struck by someone described as a "reckless driver." Was the driver charged with any crime? Was Bouchal in the proper lane and wearing a helmet when the accident happened? What time of day did the accident occur?
I've heard that Prague ranks last among European cities when it comes to people walking or riding to work. There are too many cars and too many jerks driving them and not enough bikes and bike paths.
Hell, Czech drivers don't even stop for pedestrians on zebra crossings, let alone pay much attention to the fate of cyclists sharing the same road with them.
According to an article on Jan Bouchal in the "Prague Post," the rate of fatalities per million people in 2004 was 40 percent higher in the Czech Republic than the European Union average. And that in 2005, 337 cyclists and pedestrians were killed on Czech streets. I could go on and on.
If Prague had some decent bike paths, there's no reason why Jan Bouchal would have been forced to negotiate this terrible intersection on his bike.
If you've been reading this blog, you know that I think Czech drivers are the worst, but that I'm not a big fan of the Critical Mass bike rallies, which Jan helped to organize. But I wholeheartedly agree that the Czech Republic, and Prague in particular, need to do more to encourage cycling as a legitimate means of transport.
There are a few hopeful signs, but there's still such a long road ahead before cyclists in the Czech Republic are afforded the respect they deserve.
I just wish Jan Bouchal was around today so I could have an energetic debate with him about the merits of Critical Mass.