Personal/Private

A Ghost Bike Flies Its Colors

Ghost Bike

The "ghost bike" at 36th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City. hide caption

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You never really get used to seeing them, or at least I don't: ghost bikes, junkers painted white and chained to a street sign or bridge railing. They record the spots where cyclists have been killed by cars. Two of them mark a popular car-free bike path in Manhattan — a reminder that there may be safest and safer, but there's no such thing as perfectly safe.

I've been wondering for a while now whether the ghost bike above commemorates David Smith. He was killed in December 2007, at the age of 65, while riding the same bike lane I take to work. The white cycle sits on the northwest corner of 36th Street and Sixth Avenue. It catches my eye in the last three minutes of my ride.

Smith was knocked out of the lane when a passenger in an illegally parked truck opened the door. A second truck hit him. I remember reading that his partner of 36 years was a man. I remember thinking, Hit the door. Fall toward the curb. Stay out of traffic.

As if, in the moment, a cyclist really has much choice about what happens.

This morning, I zipped up a very quiet Sixth Avenue — it's amazing what 5:30 a.m. does to traffic — dodging takeout containers and bottles left over from the city's Gay Pride celebration. And there was the ghost bike, newly decorated with flowers and a rainbow flag. Happy Pride, David Smith. Wish you were here.

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I never fail to be struck by how tough it is to get around this city. When I drive (all too often, alas) I consider the bikes and pedestrians a menace who swarm into my path at every opportunity. When I'm a pedestrian, I consider the bikes and cars a menace that try to knock me out of my path at every opportunity. I have never tried biking in this city, but I imagine it's largely the same thing. There are just too many of all of us.

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 3:39 PM | 6-30-2008

Wow, that was really touching Laura. We don't have ghost bikes around here, but maybe we should. Of course in front of the house where an elderly man backed into an entire riding group, there would have to be a whole pack of them. Maybe it would make more people think though.
Happy Pride David Smith.

Sent by Kerstin Upmeyer (Kittydew) | 4:13 PM | 6-30-2008

Nice article, Laura.

I kid myself that if I'm very vigilant that this will never happen to me. This is pure self deception, though. It can happen to any of us at any time, and it only gets more sad each time it does. Hopefully as more people switch to clean transportation there will be fewer fatal accidents -- fewer cars to squish us and the remaining holdouts will be more bike/pedestrian aware.

(Laura -- you should work on Tricia. I sense car-guilt in her posting. Guilt can be a powerful motivating force.)

Sent by Dave Wiley | 5:13 PM | 6-30-2008

@Dave Wiley, though guilt is as the air I breathe, it's not applicable in this case. I come to work a full 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours (if I get up on time) before Ms. Conaway in the a.m., and also I don't think they let bikes thru the Lincoln Tunnel. So until NJ transit adds some 4 a.m. buses to their sked, I'm unfortunately forced to drive into NYC every day. And out again (which is far, far, worse).

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 9:30 PM | 6-30-2008

We had a frustrating experience with ghost bikes in my neighborhood here in Boston. A young woman named Kelly Wallace was hit by a car and killed at the corner of Harvard Avenue and Cambridge Street, and not one but two ghost bikes were chained at that intersection. Unfortunately, the were chained to the bus stop sign. Which is right next to the fence separating the sidewalk and the street. Which meant that the space between the sign and the fence was blocked by the bikes for the better part of a year. Which meant that to use our bus stop, my wife and I had to walk out into a busy and dangerous (and in the winter, usually snow-covered and icy) street in order to get onto our bus. Since Kelly Wallace was not struck by a bus, I never understood why the people who use the bus had to be so inconvenienced by her memorial. Why couldn't they have simply chained the bikes to the fence? Why were there two bikes to begin with?

Sent by Stewart | 12:08 AM | 7-1-2008

@Tricia "So until NJ transit adds some 4 a.m. buses to their sked, I'm unfortunately forced to drive into NYC every day."

This is a sad fact of life for so many people. Mayor Bloomberg seems to be a proponent of alternative transportation so maybe more expansive bus schedules are not such a pipe dream. Then again, when this BPP gig pays off big your family can move to Manhattan. I'm thinking something with a view of the park.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 9:50 AM | 7-1-2008

@Stewart, maybe she was pregnant.

I can't tell if I want that to be funny or not.

Sent by Greg | 10:11 AM | 7-1-2008

Probably because of the lack of places to park ghost bikes (i.e., few parking meters or bike racks), the closest we have in downtown San Diego are small white crosses stuck in the cracks of the sidewalk or in the dirt next to the road.

Ghost bikes aren't a bad idea, though. I've run out of fingers to count the number of fellow bikers left with brain injuries because of run-ins with cars --and they were wearing helmets. My last trip off the bike trail was so scary, it reminded me how long it's been since my last confession.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 12:08 PM | 7-1-2008

The bike was decorated on pride day by group from fast and fabulous, who went on to ride in the parade.

For more on David Smith, his ghost bike and all of the ghost bikes in NYC go to: http://www.ghostbikes.org/new-york-city

Sent by LN | 6:20 PM | 7-1-2008

Kelly Wallace had three ghost bikes installed in her honor.

http://www.ghostbikes.org/boston/kelly-wallace
http://www.ghostbikes.org/gainesville

Sent by LN | 6:23 PM | 7-1-2008

Laura,
Thank you for the article.
I have been caretaker of Davids bike since January as I live 2 blocks away. I commute to work via bike and ride for sport and fun as well.
It has been difficult keeping the identifying info attached to pole or bike. The wooden plaque has been replaced twice and I have replaced the plastic laminated tag several times.
We are not sure who is doing this but is definitely focused on this bike as the other 2 within 3 blocks are not touched. It is not a gay thing as this is the first time we put that out in the decor. We are trying to get a steel plaque so whoever is doing this can not easily break the sign.
John, Davids partner was with us on Sunday and 12 of us from the bike group Fast and Fab decorated, remembered and supported. John has great photos it was special,

Thanks
Larry

Sent by Larry Boes | 6:33 PM | 7-1-2008

Laura,
Thanks so much for your article. I am David's partner and the last six months have been tough. Attention such as yours helps to focus the need for biking safety and so helps me too as does the care given to the site by Fast and Fabulous, and the involvement of NYC Street Memorial Project, and Ghostbikes. So many people have reached out and in times of grief one finds real comfort and support in that. David's son, Nalla, would join me in thanking you for remembering David as you ride to work on the same path. Be careful.

Sent by John Moody | 8:38 PM | 7-1-2008

Hi Laura and thank you.

As an avid cyclist, I've been doored and I've come 'face to face" with motor vehicles as I brace myself for the hit. Saying that, I consider myself one of the lucky one.

Since there's a 50/50 chance drivers and/or passengers DONOT look before existing, I no longer ride in bike lanes that are align with park cars for this reason.

Since my last major accident, I still ride, but I take a LANE like any other moving vehicle. Some drivers have and will be upset that I'm not able to ride faster than 25mph. When I'm harrassed, I aim my helmet camera towards their license plate for documentation. :-)

Sent by CYCLIST | 3:07 AM | 7-2-2008

@John, Thank you so much for the note. I'm sorry about your family's loss. Yes, I'll be careful -- and if I forget, David's bike will remind me.

Sent by Laura Conaway, NPR | 6:30 AM | 7-2-2008

At least one ghost bike in NYC is not a junker - after the first ghost bike for Dr. Carl Nacht on the Hudson River Greeneway was vandalized, his widow replaced it with Dr. Nacht's actual bike, after a bit of "vandal-proofing" and the obligatory coat of white paint.

Thanks for a great article.

Sent by Ed R. | 11:10 AM | 7-2-2008

actually, a number of ghost bikes are not junkers. many loving, caring friends and family painted one of the cyclists' bikes to be used for the memorial - e.g. Eric Ng (actually not a hundred percent certain about that one), Sam Hindy, and Craig Murphey just to name a few. The ghostbikes have been a fabulous way for friends and family to express themselves in the aftermath of these painfully unnecessary crashes.

thanks, laura, for a wonderful blog post!

Sent by PMR | 1:03 PM | 7-3-2008