Once a rider, now a ‘ghost bike’

Ad­vo­cates hope memo­ri­als to those killed will lead to safer streets

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Tina Sus­man Re­port­ing from New York

The well-trod side­walk be­side a busy ur­ban boule­vard is an un­likely place for a young man’s me­mo­rial, but there it is, chained to a sign­post out­side a fur­ni­ture store: a man’s bi­cy­cle painted ghostly white. Flow­ers cover the frame and snake up the sign­post, and a rust-col­ored shawl is tied care­fully to the han­dle­bars.

For months af­ter her son Asif’s death on the ad­ja­cent street, Lizi Rah­man would visit the bi­cy­cle at least twice a week. Some­times she would stand in the mid­dle of the wide, buzzing av­enue and vi­su­al­ize Asif, 22, rid­ing along­side the buses, trucks, cars and other cy­clists.

“When I go there, it’s like I see him,” said Rah­man, who still can’t be­lieve that any­one could have missed her nearly 6-foot-tall son as he ped­aled home one af­ter­noon in Fe­bru­ary 2008. But a truck driver hit and killed Asif, and the so-called ghost bike erected in his honor is now one of nearly 70 in New York City, planted near the spots where rid­ers were killed.

The prac­tice be­gan here in 2005 af­ter 28-year-old El­iz­a­beth Padilla died be­neath the wheels of an ice cream de­liv­ery truck in Brook­lyn. It was started two years ear­lier in St. Louis, where vol­un­teers be­gan erect­ing ashy white bikes to re­mem­ber fallen cy­clists. Now, there are ghost bikes in as many as 134 cities in 35 states and 21 coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to www.ghost­bikes.org, which tracks the ac­tiv­i­ties of the vol­un­teer groups that main­tain the bi­cy­cles.

Few have as many ghost

bikes as New York, and as with most things that oc­cupy pre­cious pub­lic space in this over­crowded city, they have caught the at­ten­tion of city of­fi­cials. In June, the Depart­ment of San­i­ta­tion said it planned to re­move “derelict” bikes, in­clud­ing ghost bikes, say­ing they de­nied other bi­cy­clists park­ing spots and could block side­walks or streets.

The depart­ment backed down this month af­ter bik­ing ad­vo­cates ar­gued that ghost bikes are memo­ri­als, not aban­doned piles of steel. But peo­ple like Mary Beth Kelly, whose hus­band, Carl Henry Nacht, was killed while bi­cy­cling, said the bat­tle showed the dif­fi­cul­ties of get­ting the city to spot­light the haz­ards cy­clists face, even as it en­cour­ages cy­cling and cre­ates new bike lanes.

“We are try­ing to make New York a more liv­able city, and that means al­ter­na­tive means of trans­porta­tion have to be made avail­able and safe,” Kelly said. “These bikes serve as re­minders that we’re only half­way there.”

The chal­lenge of keep­ing grow­ing num­bers of bi­cy­clists safe is not con­fined to New York, where com­muter cy­cling has more than dou­bled since 2005. Los An­ge­les Mayor An­to­nio Vil­laraigosa broke his el­bow in July when he crashed his bike while avoid­ing a taxi that pulled in front of him. City bik­ing ad­vo­cates said the in­ci­dent un­der­scored their de­mands for more bike lanes and bet­ter en­force­ment of laws to pros­e­cute driv­ers who en­dan­ger cy­clists.

Ac­cord­ing to ghost­bikes.org, there are at least seven ghost bikes in Los An­ge­les, in ad­di­tion to smaller col­lec­tions of bikes in New­port Beach, San Cle­mente, San Diego, Bak­ers­field and Fresno. The lat­est Los An­ge­les ghost bike was erected in Fe­bru­ary 2010 in me­mory of Ovidio Morales, 34, who was hit and killed by a driver while rid­ing his bike in Comp­ton.

Na­tion­wide, the bi­cy­cle fa­tal­ity rate has topped 700 an­nu­ally since 2004. In 2008, the last year for which fig­ures are avail­able, the num­ber was 716, in­clud­ing 42 in New York and 109 in Cal­i­for­nia, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Lizi Rah­man hadn’t heard of the ghost bikes be­fore her son was killed in New York, but now she views them as a way of rais­ing aware­ness among pedes­tri­ans, cy­clists and driv­ers. She still vis­its Asif ’s ghost bike a cou­ple of times a month, and she keeps an eye on it when she drives by to make sure it hasn’t been knocked over. She notices when some­one has left flow­ers or other me­men­tos.

The scarf ap­peared re­cently. “It’s nicely wrapped around the front,” Rah­man said. “Some­one who loves him, adores him, came and in his me­mory put a scarf around it.”

Such ges­tures are com­mon for the ghost bikes that dot New York’s five bor­oughs. With their white frames and tires and gar­lands of flow­ers, the bi­cy­cles are star­tling amid the gray and black of the city streets. Passersby some­times stop abruptly, then move closer to read the signs that ac­com­pany each one. Rah­man and Kelly say the bi­cy­cles could save lives by re­mind­ing peo­ple of the haz­ards on New York’s crowded streets.

But not ev­ery­one who has lost a loved one to a cy­cling tragedy em­braces them. The par­ents of 8-yearold Alexan­der Toulouse still try to avoid the Brook­lyn in­ter­sec­tion where their son was killed by a post of­fice truck in 2008, and they de­clined the in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend his ghost bike’s un­veil­ing.

“Alexan­der Toulouse. 8 years old. Killed by truck. Sept. 6, 2008. Rest in peace,” the sign on the white chil­dren’s bi­cy­cle reads. On the an­niver­sary of his death, some­one left a cup filled with col­ored daisies on the side­walk be­side the bike.

“It is a good idea to high­light cy­cling fa­tal­i­ties,” Alexan­der’s fa­ther, Chris Toulouse, said in an e-mail, but he said ghost bikes were no sub­sti­tute for the city mak­ing driv­ers more aware of bike lanes and mak­ing cy­clists more dili­gent about obey­ing traf­fic rules. And for him and his wife, at least, they are more of a painful re­minder than a pleas­ant me­mo­rial.

Though most ghost bikes are old and do­nated by bike shops, the bi­cy­cle memo­ri­al­iz­ing Nacht is one the doc­tor used for com­mut­ing. It re­placed the orig­i­nal do­nated ghost bike, which was smashed by a car even though it was off the street and be­side a des­ig­nated bike path that skirts the Hud­son River in Man­hat­tan.

Nacht and Kelly were ped­al­ing along the pop­u­lar path in June 2006 when a po­lice tow truck turned onto the path from the street, hit­ting Nacht.

“That bike has par­tic­u­lar mean­ing to me,” Kelly said of the cur­rent ghost bike, which she of­fered to vol­un­teers af­ter the first one was wrecked. Nacht would have turned 61-on Sept. 10, so Kelly did what she al­ways does to memo­ri­al­ize his birth­day: She vis­ited his old bike and filled its bas­ket with flow­ers.

But mem­o­ries are only part of the rea­son Kelly says the ghost bike must re­main. “It has a very im­por­tant mes­sage, which is that cy­clists even on a bike path can­not be pro­tected enough,” said Kelly, who like Rah­man was ac­tive in the cam­paign to pre­serve ghost bikes.

They are rest­ing more eas­ily now that san­i­ta­tion of­fi­cials have changed their tune, but Leah Todd of the Street Me­mo­rial Project said there could be bat­tles ahead as the num­ber of ghost bikes grows to match the num­ber of bi­cy­clists killed.

“I’m never con­fi­dent that there will be a last fight,” Todd said.

Po­lice, mean­while, an­nounced the death of an­other cy­clist on Sept. 11: a 23year-old woman run over by a city bus af­ter be­ing knocked off her bike by a driver who opened a car door into her path.

Carolyn Cole

ME­MO­RIAL: A child’s bike marks the area in Brook­lyn where Alexan­der Toulouse, 8, was killed by a post of­fice truck in 2008. His par­ents avoid the spot.

RE­MINDER:

Carolyn Cole

One vic­tim’s fa­ther, Chris Toulouse, says ghost bikes are “a good idea” but are no sub­sti­tute for aware­ness of traf­fic rules.

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