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. Florida writ large has the second most pedalcyclist fatalities of any state. 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. Third on the list, Texas, had a mere 48 pedalcyclist deaths, though its total traffic fatalities, 3,382, was the highest, with California at 3,000 and Florida at 2,407:
Pedalcyclist Fatalities 2013
Six Highest States Ranked by Fatalities per Million Population
||Pedalcyclist Fatalities/Million Population
||Resident Population (thousands)
||Total Traffic Fatalities
||% of Total Fatalities
Figure 8: Data taken from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis 2013 Data Report.
Yet, the 2013 “Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan” asserted that “the magnitude of the problem extends beyond what police reported crashes show.” In order to encourage automobile operators to travel with greater care, the plan identified pedalcyclists and pedestrians as “vulnerable road users” (pp. 1-2, 23). The study asserted that they are most likely to incur severe injury in crashes “because of the lack of protection in case of a crash.” Thus, the study reads 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) asserted, “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) asserted 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 “ghostbikes.org” maps 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 also take pictures of the ghost bicycles themselves, which are often quickly removed.
Figure 9: Ghost bike locations in Jacksonville, FL as documented by ghostbikes.org.
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. John’s 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 beach-front 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, 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 recent report from Smart Growth America, 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 describes how people of color and lower income households are overrepresented in pedestrian death statistics, with non-white people 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 (“Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety,” 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” includes “[identifying] policies and programs that educate and encourage safe pedestrian and bicycle activities” (“Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan,” 2016). 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). The sign reads “No Regrets When You Cross With Care.” This sign, and by extension the city of Jacksonville, shifts 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 creates 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.”
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 also 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 Timothy Morton suggests 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, FL 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 (“Race and ethnicity in Jacksonville, FL”). 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 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 Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness “takes up blackness, as metaphor and as lived materiality, and applies it to an understanding of surveillance” (7). Browne works “across multiple spaces,” from airports to slave ships, as a way of “[thinking] through the multiplicities of blackness” (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” (13). For Browne, being black is to already be forced into spaces and systems of surveillance.
Browne’s approach offers 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 (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 2002 report from Smart Growth America 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 (Ewing, p.3). Such conditions, the researchers argue, 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 2013 “Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan” 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” (p. 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 identifies some of the risks facing cyclists and pedestrians: “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.” 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” (67). As they began to popularize the bicycle, they invented clothing and other tools to make commuting possible for women. Hallenbeck takes 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” (xv). Likewise, 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 which have been naturalized into the material rhetorics of space.
Tracing the intersectional convergences which, taken together, constitute petroculture allows us to unearth the various ideological and material strata connecting the various topoi of Jacksonville, ranging from the individual locations marked by ghost bicycles, to the municipalities of the the city, 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 are 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 similar fashion, Melissa Lane’s (2012) Ecorepublic 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. Ecorepublic 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” (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.
Thus, the project employs chora—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) asserts in Electronic Monuments, “chora mediates individual/collective identities” (p. 26). Ulmer (1994) defines choragraphy as “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, Gregory Ulmer and Thomas Rickert have connected this concept to conversations in rhetorical theory. Rickert’s compelling work Ambient Rhetoric interrogated how “much rhetorical theory still relies on a separatist mind/body/environment paradigm” (p. 43) and seeks 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). 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. They 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). When motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists pass a ghost bike, its rhetorical tactic is one of ambient influence, working to reconfigure the space of the busy intersection from a mundane element of city life into a site of tragedy and social activism. We still inhabit these petrocentric spaces, ghost bikes just allow a public to be attuned to them differently.
Like Barthes “third meaning,” chôra troubles simple distinctions of signifier and signified and even meaning and signification. Both theorists trouble the ways in which significance emerges out of the womb-like environments from which meaning emerges. Kristeva asserted that “[a]lthough 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” (Kristeva 26). She connects 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.
Ulmer 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). Our personal values, what Lane (2012) called psyche, abject these deaths which are required to support the polis, our national values. 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” (Ulmer, 2005, 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 is worth the values that come with petrocentrism:
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 (D.K., 2014).
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) works 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 makes clear, 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 re-place these haunting MEmorials in the spaces where they have been removed.