Ghost Riders in the Berms

An Interview with Meaghan Wilbur, by Carolyne Whelan

If you’ve ever traveled down a street and were caught off-guard by a starch-white bicycle chained to a post, perhaps flowers and ribbons festooned about the top tube or photos stuck in the spokes, you’ve witnessed a ghost bike. Even those who don’t know what they represent are often taken aback by their spookiness, their stoic stillness in the bustling chaos of a downtown rush hour. These aptly named ghost bikes are memorials to cyclists whose lives were lost due to collisions with automobiles. Sometimes ghost bikes are set up by loved ones, sometimes by strangers who empathize with these stories of loss that are at once individual and too similar. Meaghan Wilbur, a documentarian based out of New York City, has set out to tell the story of the ghost bike movement, and of the individuals whose lives have been lost around the world as a result of inattention, carelessness, and sometimes, simply poor city planning. Her documentary is called the Ghost Bikes Film Project.

Jennifer Buntz of the Duke City Wheelmen pauses at the ghost bike for her friend, Paula Higgins.

How long have you been working on this documentary?

Off and on since July 2008, but it became a full-time commitment in December 2009. My initial intention was to compile images of each [ghost bike] so that a viewer could feel the weight of them in a way you can’t easily experience just walking about the city. I wanted viewers to understand that each ghost bike represented a person, and for them to feel the weight of not just 54 ghost bikes but 54 lives that ended too soon.
The still photography turned into time lapse videos of the traffic around the ghost bikes, to both explain their location on city streets to people unfamiliar with the concept, and also to contextualize them within the street infrastructure. It’s interesting to see a ghost bike that was put up four or five years ago, in what was a dangerous spot, next to a newly installed bike lane. Pretty quickly I realized that I should move beyond silent, static images and incorporate interviews.

What got you interested in the project and impassioned enough to actually take it on?

There was an inciting incident that I don’t want to talk too much about. It’s personal and only one reason for making this film. One of my friends from college was killed in 2008 while riding her bike. We put up a ghost bike for her. It was a very intense time, and it led me into the exploration of the stories behind these deaths. I was grappling with all sorts of questions about the purpose of the ghost bikes, their roles as public spaces for private grief, their permanence, the stories behind each ghost bike, the lives of the people who were riding their bikes when they died. That led to explorations about the design of the streets in different cities, about the attitudes of cars versus bikes, about the anger that drivers have for cyclists, and more generally about the philosophy of traffic planning and the prevention of traffic deaths.

There are shocking similarities amongst stories, from the west to the east coast and over to Europe and down to Brazil. Grief is an equalizer. Sometimes it’s comforting, and at other times it’s infuriating, that the same thing can happen over and over and yet it seems that nothing is really being learned, or changed, or implemented to prevent these deaths. Some places have implemented changes based on learning, and other places are still struggling through an issue that has long since been solved elsewhere.

In saying there are similarities among casualties, are you implying there’s a certain demographic more likely to be killed on bicycle? What is it?

It absolutely does not exist. People of all demographics cycle, and are all exposed to the same dangers. I can tell you from looking at the plaques on the ghost bikes in New York that the age range goes from 8 years old to 72. There is a rich cross section of groups represented: born and bred New Yorkers, students, tourists, commuters, delivery guys, messengers, Chinese, Bengali, Italian, Jewish, on and on.

There is some data that supports descriptions of an average cause of death for cyclists. It doesn’t so much matter who is doing the cycling. There are scenarios that commonly result in cyclist death. These scenarios vary from city to city, but one that I’ve run into universally is the right hook (and in England, the left hook.) Also common in all the U.S. cities is being overtaken and sucked under a truck as it is passing the cyclist, and this is the number-one problem that London has been talking about for the past two years. In London they refer to trucks as lorries or HGVs (heavy goods vehicles), and so the news reports there refer to ‘left-turning lorries’ or cyclists being ‘overtaken by HGVs.’

Right of Way was an advocacy group in New York City, and they did the first aggregate and analysis of traffic fatalities in NYC. They had some interesting findings about who was getting killed and why; they identified vulnerable user groups like elderly and children, and they identified types of vehicles considered to be ‘deadliest.’ That analysis of data is very uncommon, since getting the data is really difficult. The police, Department of Transportation, and various emergency rooms all collect traffic casualty data in various ways, and there is no common standard for collection or measurement. The Alliance for Biking and Walking publishes a report each year, broken down by city and state, but even that information can be misleading due to the variances. For instance, a cyclist may have been struck and killed by a motor vehicle, but the literal cause of death was brain trauma, so that is what is put on the hospital records.

The University of New Mexico has an office, the Division of Government Research, that has a lot of traffic data available. One of those sets of data is a list of cyclists killed in New Mexico, from 1989-2007. Over 100 people were killed while riding their bikes. After seeing this data, Jennifer and Steve of the Duke City Wheelmen‚ the group that installs ghost bikes in the Albuquerque area‚ used these numbers as the inspiration for their awareness ride, the ‘Can You See Us Now?’ ride. The New Mexico data clearly shows that, in car-on-car accidents, where one driver was solely responsible, a ticket was issued to that driver 66% of the time. In car-on-bike accidents where the driver was found to be 100% at fault, a ticket was issued 34% of the time. So roughly half as often. That’s 10 years worth of data. That’s an institutional bias. You can’t argue with it, but you also can’t prove there is a bias without having these numbers. You can’t solve a problem unless you can demonstrate it exists.

How do you find out about the ceremonies?

Once I posted the first trailer on Kickstarter (a website that facilitates collecting funds for creative projects) in December of 2009, people started writing me from all over the United States, and from several other countries as well, asking to share their story of losing a loved one and encouraging me to make this film.

I have a website, www.ghostbikesfilm.com, and a Facebook page. People write me emails to let me know about memorial rides and ghost bike installations as they happen. Sometimes I am invited and sometimes I write to ask if I would be welcome. I haven’t been turned away yet, and I haven’t offended anyone with my presence as far as I know. I have been using www.ghostbikes.org maps and locations of ghost bikes in other cities, and try to give back by adding ghost bikes I find through my research that aren’t listed on the site.

Are people pretty receptive to you showing up in their community during a time of mourning?

I am very sensitive to the emotions present, and I am always worried about offending someone. It’s not really an asset, as a filmmaker, to be so sensitive, since it does cause me to hang back when maybe I should be sticking a camera right in someone’s face. I had a lady tell me up front once, before visiting her husband’s ghost bike with her, to keep filming her even if she started crying really hard. It was the first time she’d been to his bike since the dedication months earlier, and it was very overwhelming for her. I wanted to stop filming and go hug her, because it looked so painful, but she had been adamant that we do this.

Do you ever participate more than filming and interviewing?

I participated in Chicago’s Ride of Silence this year‚ÄîI rode in honor of my friend, and I filmed the ride for the documentary. It was my first Ride of Silence and an incredibly intense experience for me. Being part of a pack of over 300 riders, with complete freedom from the usual cares of riding in traffic, since the Chicago Police Department were escorting the ride (on bikes), I had time to really think about my friend and the friends of everyone riding that night, about why I was there to film, and the overwhelming responsibility I had taken on to tell those stories.

I bring flowers to memorial rides and dedications. I’m always sad that this person is no longer with us, and approach everyone’s friends and family as if they were my own. Actually, I went to a Saturday afternoon ghost bike dedication out in Brooklyn for Eliseo Martinez, and discovered that he and his friends worked for a company that I’d just been working with that week. Everyone is connected and it’s important to remember that.

A ghost bike for David Smith in New York City, at 6th Avenue and 36th Street.

Is there a narrative arc that’s been created over the course of the project?

The film, as I currently picture it, will weave together the very personal narratives of grief and hope from people in cities around the world. The focus is people: people who happened to be riding a bicycle when they were killed, who are mourning a loved one, who are inspired to make a memorial for an unknown fellow human, and who see a ghost bike as a statement of hope that we can create a more people-centric, safety-aware environment on our roads.

I have over 70 hours of footage to go through right now. I have a ridiculous amount of notes, diagrams and charts documenting things I’ve learned. There are so many parallel story arcs, and several interesting interconnections between people and places. I feel a little overwhelmed by the responsibility of telling these stories in a way that does justice to the people who trusted me enough to share them. I hope I can make them proud, and that their stories make a difference in the lives of people watching the film.

I want to show where each city is on the spectrum of working towards the ideal mixture of livable streets. The problem is that ‘ideal’ is subjective and every city is dealing with unique circumstances: unique city engineering history, unique traffic needs, unique populations, unique geography, and on. It’s hard to pre-plan a narrative structure for that.

I tried to not have too much of an idea about what the story of each place was. I didn’t read a lot about the Livable Streets movements in each city, as I wanted people who lived there to tell me on camera for the first time. Generally I’d arrive somewhere, borrow a bike, sleep on a friend’s couch, and go out and interview people. I’d set some interviews up before arriving in town, and add more interviews upon suggestions from my initial interviews. Then I’d run around town on my last day there, trying to get shots of everything they’d talked about. That plan works better if you have a crew of several people and some funding behind you, but I think I did all right.

What have you learned, or what are you trying to teach people, through the Ghost Bike Film Project?

There is no place for an us-versus-them mentality on the roads, drivers and cyclists are all human beings deserving of equal respect. Drivers and cyclists make mistakes, or break traffic rules, but both groups are human beings traveling from point A to point B. I think that humanity gets lost under the road rage and blame games, and the responsibility of caring for one another as fellow human travelers gets lost when we label these incidents as traffic ‘accidents.’ The main thing to remember is that, if anyone dies on the road, they should be remembered as a person who was loved, and not as ‘a cyclist’ or ‘a driver.’ And I believe that almost all traffic accidents are preventable, since negligence and inattention are preventable.

Have cities/towns been receptive to the memorials? Do you have any examples of supportive or unsupportive local government?

Boston takes them down almost immediately, after a few days or a few weeks. San Francisco, too. People in both those cities cited reasons like tourism, beautification, graffiti laws, and not having the streets cluttered up with junk. Boston is not too keen on street art and other spontaneously appearing objects. Cycling advocates that I spoke with in San Francisco mentioned that perhaps ghost bikes are less common in San Francisco because the SF Bike Coalition is an incredibly strong voice for cyclists, and therefore there is less feeling that a statement needs to be made. Ghost bikes have appeared in San Francisco, put up by friends of the deceased, and reportedly last a few weeks or so. New Mexico has a state law protecting descansos (roadside memorials), and the Duke City Wheelmen Foundation has so far been successful in getting the state to recognize the ghost bikes as descansos and therefore protected under that law.

Miami installed a permanent memorial including a ghost bike for Christopher Le Canne earlier this year, in Key Biscayne where he was killed. Over 2500 cyclists turned out for his memorial ride and ghost bike dedication in January 2010. Key Biscayne is a popular cycling route, and many other cyclists had witnessed the hit and run, at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The (allegedly) drunk driver fled the scene, dragging Christopher’s bike under the car, leaving Christopher to die on the road. It came out in the media that this driver had a long history of driving violations and some other charges for violent behavior, but still had a license due to money.

There is a feeling in Miami that drunk driving is a huge problem, that there’s not enough consequence attached to drunk driving, even if a fatality results, and so this case became a huge event. There was massive media coverage. A few weeks later, the City of Miami relocated his ghost bike from the middle of the Rickenbacker Causeway, where it was originally installed near the site of his death, to a grassy area at the beginning of the causeway. This was mainly to prevent obstruction of the pedestrian walkway on the causeway, but it was a nice acknowledgement of the power of ghost bike memorials.

Portland, Oregon also has a couple permanent ghost bike installations. Tracey Sparling’s 2007 ghost bike was brought in from the street and incorporated into the Bicycle Shrine at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church early in 2010. While Tracey’s family does not belong to this church, her Aunt Susan told me they were happy for her ghost bike to reside there, as they understood the message St. Stephen’s was sending. The Bicycle Shrine is dedicated to the patron saint of bicycling, Madonna del Ghisallo.

The Ghost Bike installation in Pittsburgh you participated in, for Donald Parker, received complaints from neighbors and has been removed already. What would you say is the general response of communities in regards to these memorials?

I’ve heard a lot of stories about ghost bike memorials that are cared for by people in the neighborhood, or that have been removed by neighborhoods who find them unsightly. This past May, someone clipped the lock on Amelia Geocos’s ghost bike in New York, and apparently attempted to steal the bike. A neighbor found it abandoned down the block, took the bike into their apartment, and contacted the NYC Street Memorial Project that curates the ghost bikes. I thought that was a lovely gesture, to respect and care for Amelia’s friends and family to whom the ghost bike is a very important place. I have spoken with the doormen at the hotel on that corner, and with the guys who work at the parking garage there, and some of them witnessed her being hit and killed. The ghost bike leaves them with something nice to hold onto instead of having to think of her as they saw her, lying in the street.

Also related to Amelia’s ghost bike, there had been a few complaints from a resident in the area who did not appreciate the appearance of the bike. Her complaints were along the lines of it being regarded as an eyesore, but since the bike is well-maintained and not obstructing traffic, nothing came of her complaints. The City of New York did not, at that time, have an official policy towards ghost bikes, but had always respected their presence and not removed them.

Being constantly involved with and aware of these casualties, do you find yourself being more cautious than usual, or than your friends who haven’t been to as many Ghost Bike memorials?

Almost every time a ghost bike goes up, there is at least one blog that reacts, ‘biking kills you!’, a reaction that doesn’t happen in reporting on car crash fatalities. I’ve never seen, ‘If you ride in a car, eventually it will kill you and you will deserve it!’ but I see that a lot in regards to a bicyclist’s right to ride on the road.

The number of ghost bikes in any given city, or the lack thereof, is in no way a measure of how safe or dangerous it is to ride there. New York City is a safe cycling city, if you are measuring the¬†percentage of fatalities against total cycling population. While ridership has increased in NYC over the past five years, the number of known cyclist fatalities has held steady. That means that the fatality rate is sinking. There is also a very active advocacy community here, and if a ghost bike doesn’t appear spontaneously from friends and family, the NYC Street Memorial Project actively installs ghost bikes for deaths reported in the news. So, there are over 70 ghost bikes that have been installed in NYC over the last five years.

On the other hand, a city like Chicago, which has had a reputation for being one of the most deadly American cities to cycle, has seen only about a dozen ghost bike installations over the last five years. Cities that have no ghost bike memorials are not necessarily cycling havens.

I was exposed to ghost bikes before my friend died, and I find visiting her bike to be comforting. I have drawn energy and my own catharsis from the love involved in all the ghost bike memorials I’ve visited since. I don’t believe that it’s very dangerous to bike on the roads in most places. I have always known that there are things I can’t control when I’m riding my bike.

To find more information about the Ghost Bikes Film Project, visit ghostbikesfilm.com.

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