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The Ghost Bikes Project Gives Voice to the Dead

August 14, 2018
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The Ghost Bikes Project Gives Voice to the Dead
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The Ghost Bikes Project creates memorials to fallen cyclists to raise awareness and help reduce traffic deaths. Photo courtesy of Mirza Molberg
Dozens of bicyclists are killed by motor vehicles every year in NYC. There is a public art initiative working to save these lives.

Since New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed Vision Zero in 2014 — a program with the ambitious goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities by 2024 — traffic deaths are down.

But that’s cold comfort for Mirza Molberg, a volunteer with New York City’s Ghost Bikes Project, an organization that commemorates cyclists killed while biking via ad-hoc shrines of “ghost bikes” chained to street signs near accident sites.

Molberg feels that city officials should invest more resources into preventing the deaths of the dozens of bicyclists and pedestrians who are killed each year by motor vehicles. That’s because two years ago, Molberg’s girlfriend, Lauren Davis, was hit by a car and killed while biking in Brooklyn.

That morning, Davis was biking to work when she was struck by a driver who had failed to yield while making a left turn. According to the victim’s sister, medical records show that Davis sustained lung trauma and rib fractures, as well as blunt force trauma to the head.

“[When a loved one is killed], you feel helpless,” Molberg says. “I was looking for anything to help.”

Molberg’s involvement with Ghost Bikes predates Davis’s death. He had been volunteering with the organization since 2010, constructing memorial bikes in his local church parking lot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. From the start, Molberg says that he “had a strong emotional response when building the bikes, and especially when meeting family members of the dead cyclists,” though at times he also questioned the usefulness of the project. But after David died, he says, “any doubts I had [about the effectiveness of the project] were blown out of the water.”  

Ghost Bikes are made by stripping brakes and chains off of beater bikes and then spray-painting them white. After a dedication ceremony, they are marked with a small plaque and decorated with flowers that are left to wilt. The memorials may be adorned with candles, small gifts and sometimes photographs of the victim.  

Since June 2005, 164 ghost bikes have been installed in New York City to commemorate 198 known fatalities, including 54 for individuals who could not be identified. Ghost Bike offshoots exist worldwide, and memorials have appeared in over 210 locations throughout the world, such as in Mexico, Singapore and Ukraine. Their mission is to advocate for cyclists — both living and dead — and to ensure that those who have died don’t become just another forgotten statistic. In addition to constructing memorials, Ghost Bike organizes a yearly memorial bike ride and advocates for street safety. They also provide a supportive community for survivors and friends of the dead.

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Activist Mirza Molberg with his girlfriend Lauren Davis, a cyclist who was hit by a car and killed in 2016.Photo courtesy of Mirza Molberg

While the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration estimates there were 840 bicyclists killed in motor vehicle accidents in the United States in 2016, Ghost Bike charges that limited news coverage, changing statistical counts, and the lack of publicly available information make it hard to learn about every single death. And that lack of visibility has a lot to do with how accidents are presented in local news, they say. Research supports their claim that media outlets often blame cyclists for their own deaths or describe such tragedies as being the result of an “accident,” rather than a preventable collision.

Which is exactly what happened with Davis. She was initially “at fault” for the accident that killed her: Early news reports claimed Davis was riding the wrong direction down a one-way street. (The NYPD later conceded that was not the case and that the driver was at fault.)

The year Davis was killed, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams led Ghost Bikes’ memorial ride and spoke to the importance of combating victim-blaming and creating safer streets.

“We should not assume that the cyclist was always the person responsible for a crash, or had accepted the risk simply by climbing on a bicycle,” Adams said.

The memorials, probably most importantly, give a voice to the dead and to their families.

“If it wasn’t for the Ghost Bikes Project NYC, Lauren would be invisible in the public domain,” Davis’s sister, Danielle, wrote on Medium. Danielle describes the memorials themselves as “somber and sometimes violent reminders of lives lost to traffic crashes.” Ghost bikes, she says, “push cyclist deaths from the fringes of the roadway to the forefront in public spaces.”

In addition to setting up memorial bikes, Ghost Bikes volunteers pressure the city to conduct full investigations of crashes. Early in its inception, NYC’s Ghost Bike Project stood with the family of 14-year-old Andre Anderson, who was killed while riding his bike on a neighborhood street near his home in Far Rockaway, Queens, demanding a complete investigation of the Anderson’s death and safer street design of the parkway where the accident occurred.

In Maryland, Ghost Bikes Project volunteers pressured legislators to change state laws so that HAWK lights could be installed, after two bicyclists were hit and killed attempting to cross the same five lanes of fast-moving traffic. In studies, HAWK, or High-Intensity Activated crossWalK beacons, have been found to significantly reduce crash rates. That legislation, known as House Bill 578, passed the Maryland House and is currently with the Senate.

It’s hard to calculate the impact of ghost bike memorials. In spite of Vision Zero, cyclists continue to die, and they’re frequently still “at fault.” Some residents even complain the Ghost Bikes put people off cycling entirely.

But for Molberg, Davis’ death and his work with Ghost Bikes has only strengthened his passion for cycling. “It’s almost like Lauren’s death ignited something in me,” he says. The very day Molberg found out about the accident, he says, he rode his bike home from a friend’s house. “They were shocked and questioning whether I should do that, but I feel empowered being on a bike. I won’t let deaths keep me off the streets.”

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