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R-E-S-P-E-C-T, that's what the ghost bike means to me

Stephen led this morning with a summary of Friday's ghost bike outrage, where city employees callously cut off the ghost bike memorial to Alice Swanson at 20th and R, NW without notifying the family. In fact, they'd told WABA they were planning to do it, but promised to wait a few days for the family to be able to come get the bike, then reversed course and cut it off before the deadline.

Photo: Pedal_Power_Pete.

Some of the debate has revolved around whether it's reasonable to expect these ghost bikes to remain in perpetuity. Monkeyrotica pointed out that memorials to shooting victims don't remain forever, either. And obviously, if all roadside memorials lasted forever, the city would eventually fill up with them. The memorial didn't need to stay forever. WABA suggested that the city replace it with a small sign or plaque.

The real issue is not the memorial, but the city's callous treatment of the entire issue. Over a year after the crash, the city has not made any improvements to the intersection except for painting dashed lines across the intersection. The police have still not released their report of the incident. After ignoring the safety issue for a year, the Mayor's office only took action when a few businesses complained, and then couldn't be bothered to treat the issue with the respect due Swanson's family.

According to WABA's Eric Gilliland, WABA asked for three safety improvements:

  • Extend the bike lane with dashed lines all the way through the intersection as a visual reminder to drivers that, if turning right, they'd be potentially crossing cyclists' paths.
  • Add a bike box, so that bicycles can pull ahead of the cars when waiting. That would ensure the cars can see the bikes, and won't turn into them.
  • Make the light at 20th and R no right turn on red.
  • Add a sign saying "Yield to Bikes."
DDOT did the striping, but hasn't publicly responded to the other suggestions. No community meetings took place to discuss ways to make the intersection safer. It's still a danger zone, and trucks continue to almost hit cyclists.

Swanson's family and bicycle advocates have also been trying to get a copy of the police report. Thus far, the police have refused. WashCycle got an informal look at a redacted version, where the police seem to go out of their way to blame the cyclist for getting hit. The investigating officer concludes that the truck driver didn't violate any laws, but, according to WashCycle, implies that Swanson violated the law against moving faster than is "reasonable and prudent."

That's right, the MPD investigating officer thinks Alice Swanson—who was biking a half mile to work in flip flops and light clothing on a 10 speed Huffy Free Spirit that is no longer manufactured—died because she was biking too fast. Read that again, they think she died because she was biking too fast.
Meanwhile, the truck apparently did break the law, whether or not the police particularly care about said law. If you're turning right in a car, and there is a bicycle lane, you are supposed to move into the bicycle lane before making the turn. You should signal and look over your shoulder to move into the lane, just as if there were a regular car lane to the right. Turning from the car lane is the same as making a right turn from the left-hand lane when there are two regular lanes. It's illegal.

According to the report, the truck driver didn't see Swanson. There's no reason to disbelieve that. But that doesn't mean the driver bears no blame whatsoever. Too often, however, police assume that cyclists are the ones responsible for not getting themselves hit, and if a car or truck driver doesn't see a cyclist, that's just too bad for the cyclist. Yes, driving is tricky and mistakes happen, but that doesn't excuse drivers from being careful. But since more people drive than bike, especially police officers, many people imagine themselves in the position of being the driver who inadvertently kills a cyclist than the cyclist who gets killed because a driver was inattentive and didn't follow proper procedure.

As for the memorial, the Mayor's office told WABA they were going to cut it down. WABA asked for time to notify the family, and the city told WABA they had until Monday. Instead, DPW simply cut it off Friday. This could be no more than a case of bureaucratic miscoordination. But the city had many opportunities to show greater concern for bicycle safety. They could have done more to improve the intersection. They could be forthright about the police report, and train officers on the correct application of laws to bicycle crashes. And they could come up with an appropriate, long-term way to memorialize Alice Swanson. They didn't.

Gilliland said, "[The memorial] was very personal and very meaningful, not just to the family and Alice's friends but to the cycling community as a whole. The event was absolutely tragic and hit the whole bike community very hard. This ghost bike was a symbol of that—not just a piece of furniture that was broken down and sitting on the side walk. It was a lot more. This whole process could have been treated with a lot more respect."

And monkeyrotica wrote, "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." Despite being a triathlete and bicycling for exercise, improving bicycle safety hasn't been a priority for the Mayor. Montgomery's Ike Leggett said he was getting serious about traffic safety after witnessing a pedestrian killed in East County. What will it take for Adrian Fenty to get similarly serious?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Can someone point me to the various other GGW postings expressing outrage that memorials to murder victims in DC were taken down by DPW, without the city giving notice the victims' families and offering to put up a memorial plaque?

And if you could also point out the, no doubt, numerous other GGW posts calling for memorials of every individual pedestrian, cyclist, driver, and passenger that has died in accidents on DC roads, that would also be appreciated.

Shouldn't we also have permanent memorials on public space for victims of house fires or other accidental deaths that occurred at home? And we've had numerous drownings in the Potomac. Surely those victims are also entitled to a perpetual memorial on public space.

Here's a quick question: After the Metro crash, various flowers, candles, cards, photos, etc were placed on the bridge over the Red Line near the accident. How many of those memorials are still there? Was there outrage by victims' families when they were removed by DPW? Was there an outraged post on GGW?

by Fritz on Aug 31, 2009 11:27 am • linkreport

Not entirely relevant, but I thought I should mention that when I was in Quito, Ecuador, I noticed that there were blue hearts painted on the roads all over the city. It turns out that those blue hearts represent places where pedestrians have died as a result of being struck by cars. It was a sobering reminder of how unsafe city streets can be and I personally think we could use them here, but for all types of accidents.

by Max D. on Aug 31, 2009 11:35 am • linkreport

After a year why didn't the family, or individuals who cared for her arrange for something else. Nowhere is a city expected to take on the task of memorializing individuals. Every plaque I've seen placed is usually payed for by some outside group.

by ms on Aug 31, 2009 11:42 am • linkreport

Maybe you have to ride a bike regularly in this city to understand the outrage that some of us feel. You can be the most law-abiding, mindful and observant biker, and you will still have close calls often because some drivers just aren't trained to see cyclists. Happens all the time where someone in a car looks right at you and then turns in front of you or cuts you off. If you were in a car, the worst that could happen is a fender bender. If you are on a bike, the worst that could happen is that you lose your life.

Alice lost her life because this guy didn't check the bike lane before turning, something that happens all the time. I guess some cyclists were hoping that the memorial would stay to remind drivers that they are operating heavy machinery with the power to kill people, and that they need to pay attention when doing so. Anything to wake people up from the routine of driving, and get them to pay attention, is a good thing (not just for cyclists, but for pedestrians and other drivers, too).

by Sue on Aug 31, 2009 12:08 pm • linkreport

If only this country and this city would wake up to the progressive but seemingly unpopular idea of dedicated and separated biketracks away from auto traffic and pedestrians- we will continue to see tragedies like this on a far too regular basis.

Bicyclists should have a choice as to where we cycle- if you want to go fast you should be respected by the auto traffic- but if you do not want to cycle with the cars- as the vast majority of potential cyclists prefer- there should be dedicated safe bikeways so you will not be killed.

We have no choices at present, other than mixing with auto traffic. No matter what some in the aggressive cyclist category say, this is not for everyone and we will never see large numbers of cyclists as long as cycling is unsafe and people are killed or maimed trying to perform the desperate act of "vehicular cycling". This tragedy points out the insanity of a bicycle culture that encourages and promotes mixing with motor vehicles.

by w on Aug 31, 2009 12:24 pm • linkreport

@Fritz - hear, hear.

by plinth on Aug 31, 2009 12:29 pm • linkreport

We have no choices at present, other than mixing with auto traffic. No matter what some in the aggressive cyclist category say, this is not for everyone and we will never see large numbers of cyclists as long as cycling is unsafe and people are killed or maimed trying to perform the desperate act of "vehicular cycling". This tragedy points out the insanity of a bicycle culture that encourages and promotes mixing with motor vehicles.

I know I probably shouldn't engage w, but...

Swanson was killed by a right-hook because she was in a dedicated bike lane. If she'd been attempting to ride at any speed on the sidewalk over a walking pace, the result would have been the same.

Meanwhile, if she'd simply taken the lane, she'd be alive today. The lesson from the Swanson death is that people get killed when they're not visible.

by ibc on Aug 31, 2009 12:31 pm • linkreport

@Fritz & @plinth,

I am outraged at your outrage over the outrage. So there...

by ibc on Aug 31, 2009 12:32 pm • linkreport

I feel like the difference between this memorial and other memorials folks are referencing is that it is a memorial that is consistently taken care of by the community that erected it. This isn't just a bunch of stuffed animals duct taped to a sign post and left to fall apart in the weather. This ghost bike has been cared for consistently throughout the past year. Additionally, it's not like all memorials are instantly removed after 30 days like everyone on this board keeps posting. I've seen plenty of roadside memorials on highways remain untouched and cared for. Is that why they remain when other memorials disappear or are removed?

Perhaps the difference between this memorial and the other is that it is cared for, and Alice's friends and family, in addition to the DC bicycling community, feel the need to care for it.

by NeilPerry on Aug 31, 2009 12:48 pm • linkreport

This is like graffiti in terms of the "complexities" of the issue. I hate graffiti in terms of the negative impact on perception of center cities, the cost to the property owners (commercial and residential), etc. At the same time, I can see the art in some of it.

These memorials are important. At the same time, whether or not they are maintained, they get junky, and they lose their impact. Most people after awhile, forget, or never understood why it was erected in the first place.

(Here I balance my interest in bicycling with my interest in thriving public places and urban revitalization.)

From the standpoint of attractive public places, semi-permanent memorials to do the dead don't have their place. I like the idea mentioned from Quito, as well as putting up informational street signs about traffic related deaths.

And I like the idea of a "final" memorial service when such memorials are removed.

by Richard Layman on Aug 31, 2009 1:13 pm • linkreport

the "bike lanes " that we have in DC at present are not designed with the safety of the cyclist in mind- but they are mostly for the convienience of the motorist- and have been made to have the least possible impact on car drivers.
Yes- I agree that these bike lanes are dangerous.
I am also convinced that they are not safe and contributed to this poor lady's accident.
Any bike lanes that stops and starts nowhere is not a real bike lane anyway you look at it.
The truth of the matter is that we have EXTREMELY POOR bicycle planners in this city who are obviously not willing to step up to the plate to sacrifice and take back space from the cars.
They are probably afraid of instigating people like Jim Moran in Virginia who ultimately calls the shots- as do most of the local Congressional leadership that seems to have more power over DC than our own tax paying residents.
Our bike planners need to grow some real balls build real bike ways not these wimpy painted excuses that car drivers love to park in and have zero respect for.

The lanes that we have in DC are put outside the parked cars and thus cyclists using them are susceptible to being "doored"-
the intersections are not designed properly to accomodate the cyclists when a "bike lane" reaches them.
This does not mean that it is somehow impossible to design safe bike tracks-
[ not bike lanes].
Giving up on this or any potential improvement in our thinking in designing bike ways feeds into the car centric attitudes people have and makes cycling look like the dangerous "sport" people see it as being. A new approach to cycling tracks needs to reach across the USA. It is already being instituted in New York City and has met with popular acclaim.

Why is it that people here are so damn hostile to this kind of safer way for cyclists?

by w on Aug 31, 2009 1:25 pm • linkreport

If, in one year's time, the memorial did not succeed in achieving the desired changes, it's a failed tactic. If cutting the ghost bike pisses off the cycling community enough for them to take up (metaphorical) arms again over the reminder that no one is responding to them, all the better.

I am saying this purely from an advocacy POV, rather than in terms of whatever respect is due the family and friends of Alice, where the above comments regarding other memorials' limited lifespan seem appropriate.

by Anderkoo on Aug 31, 2009 1:41 pm • linkreport

Cool, w, you've finally convinced me. I'll hang up my Sidis 'til that magic day when the comprehensive shadow-network of bicycle-only "tracks" is completed.

Let me know.

In the meantime, I'm glad we agree that riding in the bike lane, or on the sidewalk is the easiest way to get yourself killed on a bike.

by ibc on Aug 31, 2009 1:59 pm • linkreport

Why not put up a bicycle rack with a sculpture or a plaque honoring this poor lady?
In Europe- there are roadside altars - especially in Bavaria- honoring people who died on the roads. They are very beautifully made and taken care of.
I can think of no better way to honor her than to make something useful that bicyclists can use every day.

Richard Layman is right- this kind of ameteur memorail is shoddy and typical of the low level of public art we see so often in DC.
This impromptu memorial is well intended but it is not lovely,not a thought out work-
And what we do not want for her is something put out by another art committee or done using cheap child labor

[ as so many of the "mural projects" are done in DC- feel good art projects that take work from real professional artists and look lousy when finished]

..1000 years from now we will be remembered for our terrible and stupid looking cartoon graffitti murals that people didnt really care about.

by w on Aug 31, 2009 2:03 pm • linkreport

I am a cyclist and I resent both GGW's and other posters' comments about the meaning of this memorial for the whole cycling community. It was a tragic death, sure. But as a member of that cycling community, I do not think commandeering public space for one's personal views is appropriate. If the family and friends of this person want a memorial, they should go through the proper channels to have a spot designated and raise private funds to finance it.

As for the 'callous' way in which the bike was removed--what would be a 'non-callous' way, in the eyes of GGW? Should they have held a referendum? Held a funeral procession? The ghost bike was attached to a light pole which serves a valuable function for the community: safety. The very thing the ghost bike supporters claim to be advocating for. The light pole needs to be serviced and the ghost bike was in the way. It is not the DC employees who removed the ghost bike who are callous, it is the people who put it there who thought they could use the public way for their own personal use--forever--and get away with it.

And while I do think some parity needs to be achieved between cyclists and drivers, I think it is pointless to blame this situation on inept DC government, because it has nothing to do with that. The situation is exactly the same everywhere else. The bike lanes are exactly the same as they are in London, NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and much of Paris. The approach of law enforcement toward drivers who violate the rights of cyclists is also no different than in these cities.

by ogden on Aug 31, 2009 2:55 pm • linkreport

I am very sympathetic to the truck driver for what was, surely, a mistake. However, a mere citation for the accidental death of Alice Swanson, and Swanson's citation for speeding, is completely ridiculous. It denies the courts the chance to properly evaluate the facts, and for the policy issues to be properly aired.

As for commenters regarding the removal of the ghost bike: I can understand that this sort of thing should not be allowed to stay forever. It would be hurtful at any time. However, while the city has not even released its report into the incident, this smells like trying to sweep things under the rug.

by SJE on Aug 31, 2009 3:09 pm • linkreport

I'll repeat Fritz's comment: Where is the outrage on this Web site when the city takes down memorials to slain inner-city youths? Oh right: They weren't cyclists, so they don't matter.

This blog's ridiculously narrow focus is astounding. Greater Greater Washington? For whom, exactly?

by rrrr on Aug 31, 2009 3:52 pm • linkreport

'll repeat Fritz's comment...

Hey, you guys should start a blog. There's got to be a market for outraged petulance, right?

by ibc on Aug 31, 2009 4:05 pm • linkreport

Fritz, rrr, etc: when there is homocide, we see big stories in the news, investigations, people being charged. Look at the clamp-down in Trinidad, for example. With Swanson's death, the city has done nothing to address the root causes, refused to release the report more than a year ago and, as a kicker, blamed Swanson. The driver only got a citation. In that context, the complaints about the ghost bike are less to do with Swanson per se, at Fenty's failure to address the issues raised by her death.

by SJE on Aug 31, 2009 4:18 pm • linkreport

Actually, the driver didn't even get a citation.

I think the Mayor missed a real opportunity. His office should have contacted the family and WABA and had a brief ceremony with the Mayor or a surrogate where the bike was removed and given to the family and either the planned safety improvements unveiled or talked about.

I think the ghost bike had a genuine artistic appeal. Colorful - it almost always had flowers or streamers or something in it's baskets or spokes - and dynamic as the display changed and yet stark and sad and real. I think it was lovely, and while perhaps not thought out it was lively and organic. I could probably find 100 pieces of "legitimate" public art in DC that I think it was better than. So I disagree that it was ugly or shoddy or low-level. But that's the thing about art isn't it?

by washcycle on Aug 31, 2009 4:38 pm • linkreport

So given that it's been about 5 hours since my post and no one has been able to point to any other GGW posting on similar outrage at the dismantling of other public space memorials, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is the first such posting on the topic.

And given that no one else has suggested that each individual of violence or accidental death gets to have their own public space memorial in perpetuity or paid for by the city, I'm going to guess that GGW's view is this situation is the only one worthy of either designation.

by Fritz on Aug 31, 2009 4:57 pm • linkreport

Fritz: How many examples of other memorials being taken down have you submitted via the tip form in the last six months? I haven't seen any news articles about memorials being taken down. No upset family members have emailed me.

Just because something doesn't appear here doesn't mean it's not important. It takes a lot of work to get you all 4-5 stories a day. I don't have time to go wander around the city looking for other memorials to write about just to avoid someone making this kind of tiresome argument.

by David Alpert on Aug 31, 2009 5:02 pm • linkreport


it was still impromptu and not done by a professional artist or craftsman

It could have been even better that way.

Im not against it- just make it as nice as possible - this city has so many junky local art projects and there is no professional ethic in this city at all.It is my business and I know how these boards and committtees operate here.
Go to Philadelphia sometime and see the professional - made murals and you will get it.
She deserves better. As I was saying- why not a little sculpture [ an angel? a butterfly?] atop a lovely ornamental bikerack ????

by w on Aug 31, 2009 5:21 pm • linkreport

Here's a tip, Dave!

Memorial removed in Australia after police conclude it distracted a driver, causing a fatal accident.

by ah on Aug 31, 2009 5:27 pm • linkreport

I can't believe you don't remember this story:

But I can't claim to be set GGW's editorial policies. I know for me, I only write about what I am interested in. I don't write about stuff that I feel is adequately covered elsewhere, especially in the regular outlets, unless I believe that they are missing important aspects. But I don't claim to be exhaustively and thoroughly covering every and all aspects of revitalization. I am one person after all. Even with the number of people contributing to GGW, everything can't be covered...

This journal article is relevant to inner city memorials, although it is a review of incidents in Australia:

I know I've seen articles about this in the U.S. press, but I can't seem to track down any good cites.

by Richard Layman on Aug 31, 2009 5:41 pm • linkreport

One difference in the article Richard linked to
So when the state highway folks called to talk about his memorial on Route 50, it felt ominous, as if this last piece also was about to disappear.

They called.

No one really planned for this to be permanent. But a little respect (as the title suggests) and compassion would have been nice.

by washcycle on Aug 31, 2009 10:49 pm • linkreport

I'm pretty shocked at some of the suggestions put forth here about what various District entities "should" have done.

The mayor should have interfered in a police investigation or the decision by the district attorney's office to not press charges? The mayor's office is our executive branch and such interference in the judicial branch of the District would be a major violation of the founding principles of our democracy.

To blame the police for the removal of the ghost bike is extremely short-sighted. The police department does not perform sidewalk cleanup. Sidewalk maintenance is performed by the Department of Public Works, and street lights and traffic signals are performed by the Department of Transportation.

It does not appear that there was any identification on the ghost bike memorial, it is unlikely that DOT or DPW could contact the rightful party. Even if that party was a family member (which is unlikely given that Ms. Swanson was from the Boston area and only in DC for an internship), how would DOT or DPW know how to contact them? These departments don't have access to next of kin records for private citizens. Do you want them to have access to that kind of data about every one of us? I certainly don't.

DOT or DPW--or even the Summer Youth Corps--were doing their jobs cleaning up the streets of DC and they came across what under the District Municipal Code is nothing more than debris and they did their jobs in removing it. The family and friends of Ms. Swanson are free to erect their own memorial on private property or to raise funds and petition for an appropriate place on public property.

by ogden on Sep 1, 2009 12:08 am • linkreport

Should/could we have memorials like this for every victim of an avoidable accident? No. However, this memorial had come to stand not just for Alice Swanson, but for all the cyclists killed or injured in DC every year. Replacing it with some other memorial that serves as a visible reminder of this hidden death toll would be appropriate. I have seen people stop and look at the ghost bike, wonder what it is for, and go up for a closer look. Something similarly eye-catching, that doesn't impede safety and that provides an explanatory text, would be a valuable educational tool for everyone who uses the roads.

A memorial to DC's murder victims might not be a bad idea either - to remind the tourists and transplanted professionals that this city's problems are far from solved.

Of course, to be meaningful, either memorial would have to be accompanied by actual action that could change the situation in future. Frankly, I am more hopeful about that occurring with bicycle safety, simply because we KNOW what the solutions are and they are relatively straightforward technical changes, which is obviously not the case with entrenched violent crime.

by Erica on Sep 1, 2009 8:59 am • linkreport

A memorial to DC's murder victims might not be a bad idea either - to remind the tourists and transplanted professionals that this city's problems are far from solved.

Great idea. Of course, then we'd have to listen to all the concern trolls bitch and moan about why murder victims should get special treatment when no such consideration is given to impromptu monuments to dead cyclists.

Feel the outrage at the outrage!

by ibc on Sep 1, 2009 9:09 am • linkreport

"The mayor should have interfered in a police investigation or the decision by the district attorney's office to not press charges? The mayor's office is our executive branch and such interference in the judicial branch of the District would be a major violation of the founding principles of our democracy."

Actually, the police and prosecutors ARE part of the executive. The COURTS are not.

by SJE on Sep 1, 2009 12:40 pm • linkreport

There actually is a memorial to DC's murder victims. It's a large wave-like structure called "Guns into plowshares" made out of old guns. It used to sit on the corner of Indiana and 4th NW, but is now out at DC village. There's construction going on at the former site, so perhaps it will move back.

@Fritz. One significant difference between the Ghost Bike and other impromptu victim memorials is that this one had a certain official imprimatur. It was erected by a local organization, WABA, at a public ceremony that District Councilmember Tommy Wells spoke at. So, it would have been easy for the Mayor's office - the ones who instructed DPW to remove it - to contact WABA, despite Ogden's suggestion otherwise.

@ogden, which discussion are you reading? Where did anyone suggest that the Mayor interfere in a police investigation? Who blamed the police for removing the memorial? Where was it stated the bike was removed to allow for light service? It wasn't. It was removed because local businesses complain. In the words of Sarah Palin, stop making stuff up.

by washcycle on Sep 1, 2009 6:00 pm • linkreport

So WABA has asked for changes to the intersection that will entice cyclists, to an even greater extent, to attempt to overtake between motor traffic that can turn and the curb. Don't care much for your membership, do you?

by John Forester on Sep 1, 2009 9:36 pm • linkreport

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