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After Work: The Terrifying Sight Of A Ghost Bike

Ghost bikes are provocative reminders of the perils of motor vehicles and bicyclists sharing crowded city streets, who are forced to share the same crowded streets.

Dona Gibbs reports on a new city phenomenon.

Ghost bikes are haunting street corners in about 50 cities across the world. These are old bikes, stripped of their chains and cables, and painted bone white. These are chained to posts at intersections where bicyclists were killed.

Recently I discovered a newly-installed ghost bike in midtown Manhattan at 49th and 1st Avenue. It marked the location where a twenty-four-year-old emerging artist Amelia Geocos was killed when she collided with a minivan. In her memory her family installed the ghost bike, which had belonged to her mother.

Ghost bikes are provocative reminders of the perils of motor vehicles and bicyclists who are forced to share the same crowded streets. In New York City it’s estimated that about twenty or more cyclists are killed each year.

The first ghost bike was installed in 2002 by Patrick Van Der Tuin, a St. Louis man who helps run a shop that caters to low-income cyclists. He saw an SUV hit a cyclist in a bike lane. He commemorated the tragedy by taking a sledgehammer to an old bike to make it as shocking a reminder as possible and then painting it white. It was the first ghost bike.

"I didn't say anything to anyone when I did it, but it got people talking," he says.

The movement, a semi-underground one, has spread to Austria, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Spain, Hungary and the UK.

Times Up! and Visual Resistance, a street art collective, started the New York City project in 2005 after one of the organizers came upon a fatal accident on his morning bike commute.

The NYC Street Memorial has continued to install these quiet, shocking pleas for cyclists’ rights to ride the city streets safely. They estimate they have 20 members in Manhattan and 35 throughout the five boroughs. The visual impact of their efforts is far greater, attracting media attention locally and through their website.

The bikes are donated or assembled from parts. When a bike is installed in a memorial ceremony, the mourners raise their bikes over their heads in silence. Often, a ride is organized.

Each bike has a sad story. These are but a few.

Dr. Carl Nacht, a medical director and marathon runner, was killed by an NYPD tow truck that failed to yield as the truck driver turned through the protected West Side Greenway. Dr. Nacht had been bicycling along the path with his wife when the crash occurred.

A new university graduate and recently minted math teacher, Eric Eng, was killed by a drunken driver speeding on a bike path

David Smith, 65, was on his bike near 6th Avenue and 35th Street in December 2007 when someone in an illegally parked car opened the door and knocked him into traffic. No charges were filed. Unless the driver is proven drunk, usually in such accidents, no charges are made.

Then there are the most vulnerable of all: the delivery people who peddle among the cars and potholes, delivering food to office workers and apartment dwellers. Two such riders were killed on the same day last April. They were remembered by ghost bikes and a memorial ride.

While it is against the law to post signs or chain objects to posts, the NYC police haven’t removed ghost bikes, and it isn’t usually for someone to adopt the bike to preserve the memorial.

Like every story, this one has two sides. Not everyone sees the memorials favorably.

Some cyclists fear they might dissuade would-be cyclists from biking. “Cycling is safer for cyclists when there are more cyclists,” they say.

Others think that cyclists are reckless and disregard traffic lights, crosswalks and imperil pedestrians.

As for fatalities involving pedestrians and cyclists, the New York Department of Safety reports there have been no fatalities since records were begun in 1900.

One letter writer commented that she feared “ghost bikes” might cause other accidents when drivers turned their attention from the road to stare

In New York City bicycle fatalities have decreased in recent years. Noting that most fatalities had been caused by head injuries, city lawmakers have just signed a bill making helmets mandatory.

Businesses using bicycle delivery people are now required to supply their delivery employees with helmets and ensure that the bikes are safe with working brakes and reflective devices.

By 2009, 200 miles of new NYC bike lanes are promised.

That’s what busy cities need, now more than ever: safe, energy-conscious ways to get around.

Ghost bikes remind us: watch out for others and ourselves.



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