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Mean streets: Ghosted bike

The most striking traffic safety issue this morning isn't a fatal crash or dangerous intersection, but the removal of a ghost bike memorial to Alice Swanson, who was killed just over a year ago after being run over by a garbage truck at 20th and R streets, NW. City Paper has the most complete account of what happened to the ghost bike; it seems DPW removed it after receiving complaints from unidentified local business owners, without first informing WABA or Swanson's family or friends. DCist's Aaron Morrissey explains why it's important to keep the memorial in place. Ghost bikes exist around the world without controversy. Why does DPW feel that DC should be different? In lieu of a ghost bike, Swanson's aunt has placed flowers at the site with a simple posted question: "Why has the mayor taken the bike?"

Speed (almost) kills: From Prince William County comes the story of a close call with a fortunate ending. A father driving his young daughter to the babysitter was driving 40 mph in a 25 mph zone. When an officer tried to pull him over, he sped away and crashed the car. After pulling the seriously injured driver out of the car and to the ground, the officer pulled his uninjured baby daughter to safety. The driver has been charged with driving with a revoked license, eluding police and child abuse and neglect. Luckily, the girl is still alive and no one else was injured. A pedestrian struck on the side of the road would have been more than three times as likely to survive had the driver been going the speed limit. (Fox 5, WTOP)

Hit-and-run highway: Also last week in Prince William County, a recent immigrant from Ghana was biking home from work at night along the shoulder on Lee Highway in Haymarket when a driver came from behind and struck him before fleeing the scene. The cyclist was airlifted to the hospital but died the next morning. It is precisely these types of "invisble riders"cyclists by necessity, not choice—who are least likely to have lights, helmets or other safety accessories. Although events such as WABA's light giveaway aim to improve safety for this population, more can be done to make these riders less vulnerable, including road design that doesn't punish them for not being able to afford a car. (TheWashCycle, Fox 5)

Broken but not defeated: A more fortunate local cyclist told a bike blog about his experience of crashing with a taxi that turned the wrong way down Madison Drive on the Mall. The cyclist got nine hours in the emergency room, along with cracked ribs, a fractured nose and a broken bike. The taxi driver got a ticket from Park Police for an illegal left-hand turn. (Cozy Beehive)

Motorcycle fatalities at full throttle: The riskiest two wheels on the road, however, are motorcycles. Sixty motorcyclists died on our region's roads last year, and the national fatality rate for motorcyclists is rising even as other surface modes become less deadly. Motorcycle deaths and injuries have more than doubled in the past decade, caused by less restrictive helmet laws, more motorcyclists on the road, more powerful bikes and larger automobile sizes. (Post)

This is your car on drugs: Last week, a woman was killed on a sidewalk while walking to church in Glen Burnie. Police believe that prescription drugs may have led the driver who killed her to lose control of his vehicle. The driver has a history of traffic violations; charges are pending against him in this case. Despite this horrific fatality, Anne Arundel police say that crashes involving pedestrians are down by 10 from this time last year, to a total of 104. (Maryland Gazettte, WBAL)

When is a stop sign safer than a light?: Last week, a reader wrote to Prince of Petworth with a question: Would the intersection of 11th Street and Park Road be safer for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians as a four-way stop than with its current configuration as a signalized intersection? Both the Prince and his commentariat were united against converting the intersection to an all-way stop, with commenter WDC asking, "When is a stop sign ever safer than a stop light?" The answer is quite often, especially on low- to medium-volume streets like Park and 11th. Stop signs force intersection users to interact with each other instead of with a traffic signal, resulting in both reduced vehicle speeds (no more cruising on green or catching a yellow) and improved overall journey times (no more waiting for a red light to change). But what about safety? According to numbers cited by AASHTO, "intersection crash rates frequently increase with signal installation." An average of 2.5 crashes per year happen at unsignalized urban intersections, while signalized urban intersections average 4.6 crashes per year. And FHWA cites numbers that show "removing unwarranted signals may result in a 24% decrease in all crashes, a 53% decrease in injury crashes, a 24% decrease in right-angle crashes, and a 29% decrease in rear-end crashes."

How about a roundabout? Perhaps a "modern roundabout" would work even better? Tom Vanderbilt points out that "stop signs are not a speed control mechanism." Watsonville, California installed one and found that the average speed declined from 37 mph to 30. Nevertheless, residents petitioned the City Council to remove the circle, which they called "unsafe." This is a good example of how the perception of safety isn't the same as actual safety.
Stephen Miller lived in the District from 2008 to 2011 and is now a student at Pratt Institute's city and regional planning masters program. 


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How long should a ghost bike stay up? Permanently? How about the little shooting victim shrines that pop up around town, with the teddy bears and the flowers and the bottles of malt liquor? Should those be permanent? Should pedestrian accident victims get permanent shrines?

by monkeyrotica on Aug 31, 2009 9:17 am • linkreport

I tend to agree, monkeyerotica. The highway-side shrines to people get removed (and should be) after some period of time. Why not the bike? Its removal doesn't mean the cause of increased bike safety is also being removed. Why not put the energy of complaint towards something more positive, like actual safety efforts, rather than preservation of totems?

by ah on Aug 31, 2009 9:20 am • linkreport

Seems there are far more effective ways of honoring Ms. Swanson's memory than chaining a painted bike to a lamppost, apparently in perpetuity.

by Fritz on Aug 31, 2009 9:21 am • linkreport

The merits of leaving the memorial as-is are debatable. My problem is with the way the mayor's office handled this. Some business owners complained and the bike was carted away. This seems disrespectful to the memory of the deceased in particular, and bicyclists in general. Having a simple removal ceremony or mounting a small plaque would have cost almost nothing and generated a lot of goodwill. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem a major concern of the mayor's office.

by monkeyrotica on Aug 31, 2009 9:33 am • linkreport

The cyclist got nine hours in the emergency room, along with cracked ribs, a fractured nose and a broken bike. The taxi driver got a ticket from Park Police for an illegal left-hand turn.

That's the way it should be: after all driving is normative behavior, and so what if you make a mistake now and again. And I mean, come on! What was a cyclist doing in the *road* anyway? You'd have to be crazy to be riding a *bicycle* in the *road* where drivers are allowed to break the laws with impunity.

I mean, that's insane!

It's the same thing with speeding: it's perfectly safe for cars to speed--so long as there are no cyclists or pedestrians around. And there shouldn't *be* any cyclists or pedestrians around, because they should no better than to be anywhere near a street where drivers are going so fast, they could never hope to see other road users, much less stop.

If bicycling hippies and nihilistic 3-year-olds want to commit suicide by failing to show sufficient deference to regular, normal "driver humans" who are we to tell them otherwise?

by ibc on Aug 31, 2009 10:14 am • linkreport

Ghost bikes exist around the world without controversy. Why does DPW feel that DC should be different?

Wait. We're talking about DC, right? The urban municipality that decided to hold its "Feet in the Streets" event in a deserted park on the periphery of the city...?

by ibc on Aug 31, 2009 10:17 am • linkreport

To me, it seems to lessen the impact of memorials themselves if they're just allowed to exist in perpetuity. Just like when we lower the flag to half staff after someone's passing. We eventually bring it back up again. It's not out of disrespect, but to just leave it like that forever wouldn't be practical.

Granted, this is different because we don't need to remove the bike so that we can put it back when another cyclist is killed at that intersection (hopefully we won't have to ever again), but the principle is the same. If we left all of these memorials in their places forever, then how long before everywhere we look, we're reminded of death? How much impact would each new memorial have then? Probably not much.

HOWEVER, for the city to not simply give the family and WABA a heads up is inexcusable. It costs nothing and makes all the difference in the world. Also, I think that it would be much easier on everyone if they had just made a proclamation as to how long the ghost bike would remain there. To remove it, say, exactly one year to the day that it was put up seems appropriate and meaningful. But to just remove it on some random day carries no significance whatsoever and feels callous.

I think we need to be giving it more thought when we create these memorials. Putting that bike there for an indefinite length of time with no discussion as to when it would be removed pretty much guaranteed that it was eventually going to be removed due to administrative circumstances and someone was going to be unnecessarily hurt down the road.

by rob on Aug 31, 2009 10:39 am • linkreport

Memorials belong in cemeteries not on the side of the road.

by Sand Box John on Aug 31, 2009 11:00 am • linkreport

Sand Box John: So you object to the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center, the Vietnam Veterans' and WWII Memorials?

I think the side of the road is a great place, because maybe if drivers see this, a few will notice and slow down. If it saves one life, it's worth it. And it's not a headstone; I think it's an understated and attractive memorial.

Re. the idea of stopsigns being more effective than traffic lights: I totally disagree. Many four-way stops don't have mroe than one car at them most of the time. I can think of one such 4-way stop near me where cars routinely roll through. The only way to ensure they stop would be a stoplight with a speed camera.

If we had stoplights with cameras everywhere, with a mandatory $200 fine, drivers would be a lot more careful. And no one would block an intersection. And I say this as someone who drives a lot (in addition to using public transportation and walking).

by JB on Aug 31, 2009 11:14 am • linkreport

Yes, "road designs that punish people for not being able to afford a car", indeed.

by Bianchi on Aug 31, 2009 11:18 am • linkreport

Thanks for highlighting "invisible riders." The stereotypes as cyclists being insane anti-establishment hipster messengers or elite rich-boy Lycra-worshippers overlooks the very real fact that some people bike by necessity, not choice. (In fact, I suspect that the first two types of cyclists dress as they do to distinguish themselves from the latter).

There's definitely a social justice side to cycling rights that I'd like to see highlighted more often.

by Anderkoo on Aug 31, 2009 11:53 am • linkreport

Yes, "road designs that punish people for not being able to afford a car", indeed.


This is why you end up with so many improbably angry drivers asserting that everything would be just fine if "everyone followed all the laws (except speed limit, or 3' passing laws, etc...)"...

Oh, and if you want to see real-world examples of how stop-lights make a residential neighborhood *less* safe, come on over to Capitol Hill some time.

There are stop-lights everywhere, and folks from MD and VA make sure they do everything they can to get to through the next one before it turns red. (Don't blame them though; it's certainly not their fault; if they were timed properly, they wouldn't speed.)

There's no point in racing hell-bent-for-leather to try to beat a stop-sign.

by ibc on Aug 31, 2009 11:55 am • linkreport

@JB: I don't think Sand Box John objects to the monuments and memorials you mentioned, nor do I.

But those are quite different than roadside ghost bikes and other similar memorials. Lincoln, Vietnam, etc. are meant to be permanent from their inception. Also, they are meant to celebrate the lives of those memorialized or for remembrance of major conflicts. not that Swanson's life shouldn't be should...but that wasn't the point of the ghost bike. it was mostly meant to draw attention to the issue of bike/driver safety.

the Kennedy Center, on the other hand, isn't just a memorial. it's also a functional building. That doesn't belong in this comparison.

As much as I appreciate the ghost bike and wish it could stay there forever, it's simply not rational to think that it was going to. And I don't think that anyone really expected it to, either. Clearly, something was going give. Which annoys me, because like I said before, if you know it's not sustainable forever, then set a date for it to be taken down so it doesn't just get taken down unexpectedly and kill the original spirit of it.

i was standing five feet away when Swanson's bike was placed there and I remember wondering how long they expected it to stay there and whether someone was going to get hurt eventually because of something just like this. If we're going to place these roadside memorials, then we owe it to the families to plan ahead and make sure this type of thing doesn't happen.

by rob on Aug 31, 2009 12:04 pm • linkreport

Roadside memorials in less-urban areas are often erected, or at least regulated, by the state. Some seem to remain in perpetuity. It's a different context -- there's plenty of room off the shoulder of a rural highway which doesn't exist in Dupont Circle -- but it's an interesting point of comparison anyway.

At least one study found a memorial contributed to improved safety.

by Gavin Baker on Aug 31, 2009 1:37 pm • linkreport

What about some reflectors for bicycles?

And why the lax attitudes about bicycles having reflectors, lights etc?

by Douglas Willinger on Aug 31, 2009 1:38 pm • linkreport

re: "invisible cyclists": It's worth thinking about how to integrate a green/pro-urban agenda with social services, IMHO. Welfare and immigration services, ethnic media, etc. can be ways to better reach out to underserved groups, e.g. with information on bike/pedestrian safety, transit information, etc. It's something to both advocate for and to do privately. For instance, there are charities which give free donated cars to poorer people; what about free bikes?

by Gavin Baker on Aug 31, 2009 1:55 pm • linkreport

What about some reflectors for bicycles? And why the lax attitudes about bicycles having reflectors, lights etc?

Why do these threads always turn into a Hyde Park of oddly uninformed observations about cyclist behavior?

But while we're at it, why the lax attitudes about pedestrians wearing bright clothing, head lamps, etc...

by ibc on Aug 31, 2009 2:02 pm • linkreport

I see it every night when out, with about 75% that way - apparently some want to have bicyclists getting hit /hurt to make some political point.

by Douglas Willinger on Aug 31, 2009 2:05 pm • linkreport

Every night I go out, I see at least 50% of cyclists riding with underinflated tires. This is particularly relevant to this thread - apparently, some want to build smoke screens to take attention away from the dangers of underinflation, while propping up the lagging sales of aftermarket reflectors.

by ibc on Aug 31, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

Good one, ibc! I'm still chuckling. Seriously folks, just try to ignore Douglas, and leave him to his highway fantasies.

by kinverson on Aug 31, 2009 6:22 pm • linkreport

Kinvision- so bicyclists should die because some ideologues against transportation feel they should to make a point? That is sick and so are you.

by Douglas Willinger on Aug 31, 2009 7:19 pm • linkreport


There is a difference. The memorials you mentioned are government sanctioned. The memorials that are spontaneously put up to morn the loss of a loved ones in a traffic wrecks or act of crime are not.

I drive past at least a half dozen of these road side memorials every day. They mean nothing to me. In my opinion they are nothing more then road side litter that need to picked up by convict labor and taken to the nearest landfill.

I stand by my previous statement. Memorials belong in cemeteries not on the side of the road.

by Sand Box John on Aug 31, 2009 10:27 pm • linkreport

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