UK Telegraph Magazine
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 09/06/2007
The ghost bikes of New York stand as grim testimony to the shocking death toll of cyclists amid the city’s chaotic traffic. Harry Mount reports
New York should be a cyclist’s paradise. For all that goes on in the city, it’s a tiny place. You can pedal around the perimeter of Manhattan in less than three and a half hours. The city is so flat that its one little bump – near to the UN headquarters – goes by the grand name of Murray Hill. And New York is beautifully navigable – a child can work out the grid system, divided into numbered streets and a handful of named avenues. No need for the Knowledge here.
Haunting image: the ghost bike dedicated to 10-year-old Shamar Porter, killed on Linden Boulevard, Brooklyn, last year
But then you have the drivers. All that’s required to pass the New York State driving test is a vague familiarity with an automatic gearbox, a steering wheel and an accelerator. Mirrors are rarely used. The horn takes the place of the brake. Add in the potholed roads, cars double-parking in bike lanes and a police department that hesitates to prosecute careless driving, and the biking utopia turns into killing fields.
This might explain a new phenomenon that has become increasingly apparent in the city over the past year or two: the ghost bikes of New York. Two local cycling activist groups, Visual Resistance and Time’s Up, determined in 2005 to place a memorial to every cyclist killed in the city. Now, in traffic blackspots all over New York, gleaming white bicycles, draped in garlands of colourful flowers and decorated with photographs of the victims, are popping up, often in the middle of the night. Above each bike, a simple sign is erected, a memorial to the fallen. The children’s bikes are particularly poignant: there is one for 10-year-old Shamar Porter, killed on Linden Boulevard in Brooklyn on August 5 last year, and another for Jose Mora, 11, killed on North Conduit Avenue, Cypress Hills, on September 4.
In all five boroughs of the city the shocking, moving memorials, chained to lampposts and railings, jump out at you. Members of Visual Resistance and Time’s Up revisit the bikes regularly – 38 at the latest count – repainting them, ensuring that they are neither stolen nor removed by the city authorities. The idea has already been taken up in several cities across America, and there are plans to bring it to London. ‘In 2005, 24 cyclists were killed in New York, twice the number of the previous year,’ Leah Todd of Time’s Up said. ‘So we introduced the ghost bikes. The main reason is to have a memorial to the person who died, a place where friends and family can visit and leave flowers and pictures. But the bikes also raise awareness about the terrible way cyclists are treated.’
The two lobby groups try to find a bike close in style to that ridden by the victim. They then remove parts such as brake cables and let the air out of the tyres, to discourage thieves, and paint them in DayGlo white. ‘They’re not usable for riding,’ said Todd, who has donated one of her old bikes to be turned into a ghost. ‘But even then, they sometimes go missing. The Department of Transportation tried to take away the ghost bike marking the spot where Andre Anderson was killed because they claimed it was in the way of cars, even though it’s on the side of the kerb.’
Anderson was 14 when he was killed in Far Rockaway, Queens, by a Lincoln Navigator – a large 4×4 – at 6.30pm on September 25, 2005. The driver admitted speeding in the 30mph zone, but was not breathalysed or charged. Only drivers who have been caught drunk or have left the scene of the accident have been charged over the deaths of New York’s cyclists. ‘Andre was riding back from a skatepark where he had been honing his skills; he lived for his bike,’ said his mother, Audrey, who tends the ghost bike most days, decorating it with fresh flowers and, at Christmas, colourful bows. ‘I can’t understand how it could have happened on that empty road when he was so good on his bike. What bothers me is the lack of investigation. If you kill someone, there should be a consequence.’
Mrs Anderson admires the workers of Visual Resistance and Time’s Up enormously. ‘The ghost bike went up on what would have been his 15th birthday, February 15 – a BMX just like the one he rode. It was such a cold day, but still four ladies from Visual Resistance came and installed his bike. A life had been lost and somebody cared. Every time people pass by, they should reflect that an innocent life was lost because of carelessness.’