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Ghost Riders

As cycling in New York has become more popular, it has become increasingly deadly. The city is now spotted with viral, spectral memorials.

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Photographs by Christopher Griffith

In June 2005, Kevin Caplicki was biking down Fifth Avenue in Park Slope when he came upon the body of cyclist Elizabeth Padilla, who, minutes before, had been killed by a delivery truck. Caplicki belonged to the street-art collective Visual Resistance, and at its next meeting, they decided to construct a memorial for Padilla. The group took a spare bike, painted it white, and chained it to a sign post near the accident. The installation no longer looked like a bicycle as much as the negative space where one should have been, as if it had been cut out of a photograph by an X-Acto knife. It became New York’s first Ghost Bike.

The idea can be traced to Patrick Van Der Tuin, a St. Louis bike mechanic who in 2003 installed a Ghost Bike at the site of an accident he witnessed in the neighborhood of Holly Hills. (The victim ultimately survived and befriended him.) After Van Der Tuin and his friends created fifteen more Ghost Bikes in the St. Louis area, the project was featured in Dirt Rag, a national cycling magazine. He was inundated with e-mails. “Some people were adamant that this was a bad idea,” Van Der Tuin says. “They thought that we were discouraging people from cycling.” But others were moved by the spectral sight of bicycles repurposed as tombstones. Ghost Bikes started to appear in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh and have since spread to 35 cities around the world. “I had no idea it was going to be a viral thing,” says Van Der Tuin.

In New York, bicycle ridership has increased 77 percent between 2000 and 2007, with approximately 130,000 daily cyclists now on the street. The city has committed to building 200 miles of new bike lanes by 2009, but riding a bike in New York remains dangerous: There were 23 cyclist deaths last year—the highest in eight years.

The building and maintaining of Ghost Bikes are now managed by the New York City Street Memorial Project, a group of about twenty members. Usually within one week of a cyclist’s dying in the saddle, a bicycle is donated or salvaged and covered with three coats of white paint. Often members of the project will gather for a memorial ride to the accident site. A short ceremony will conclude with a “bike lift,” a cyclist send-off in which mourners raise their bikes above their heads and are silent. The victim is rarely known to the cycling community, but the memorials often serve as congregating places for members of bicycle-advocacy groups like Time’s Up! and Transportation Alternatives.

The project currently maintains 35 Ghost Bikes throughout the five boroughs. Thirty-four can be found on the these slides. The 35th, for Asif Rahman, was recently installed on Queens Boulevard. There will be a memorial ride for him next Monday.


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