The folk tradition of placing a “ghost bike” at the site where a bicyclist has been struck and killed — a custom entrenched in the bicycling communities of places like New York City, Portland, Ore., and other cities around the world – has only recently begun to take hold in the Twin Cities. Yet when the call went out Sunday for a ghost bike ceremony to be held in St. Paul, some 30 hours after the latest cyclist fatality, it was too late. Someone had already chained a spray-painted bike to a stop sign a few feet from where Virginia Heuer died Saturday after being struck by an SUV — the fourth such death in less than a month.
So the announced ceremony was canceled, but people came anyway — a couple of women who stood comforting each other in a long embrace, and bikers who stopped to decorate or photograph the memorial, and to speak in low tones about danger and justice.
They pointed to the bloodstains on the blacktop, past the orange markings at the site of the collision. They gestured at the long stretch where two parallel roads bend to join — Snelling Avenue and its quieter, intermittent frontage road — and where the stripe of the avenue’s bike path disappears. They conjectured about whether police would have ticketed the driver if, instead of a bike, the SUV had merely damaged another motor vehicle, without loss of life.
“Everyone needs to be more aware of each other — especially car drivers,” said Dillon Teske, a senior at nearby Macalester College. “Most bicyclists are pretty aware because they’re so scared. It’s intimidating with all the cars.”
Teske, a member of the college’s MacBike student organization, said the heavily trafficked campus-area streets are especially hazardous. “There are a lot of cyclists around Mac,” Teske said, conceding that (unlike himself and Heuer), “A lot of kids at Mac don’t wear helmets.” (Case in point: Macalester junior Tom Lisi, who needed 12 stitches in his head after being hit by a car along Summit Avenue Sept. 12, not far from where Heuer was struck.)
Teske’s friend Mark Stonehill followed him to the ghost bike from the Sibley Bike Depot, a nonprofit bike shop on University Avenue, where they had heard about the scheduled ceremony. “I feel it’s really important to have a visual marker — something that people can understand in a simple and meaningful way,” Stonehill said. ”I come from New York City, where the tradition has been institutionalized by bicyclists.”
In New York, Stonehill worked for Transportation Alternatives, an organization that advocates for people on bikes, public transportation and foot, with projects like CrashStat.org, which tracks bicycle crashes to help planners and engineers make street designs safer for bikers — the kind of advocacy Stonehill figures the Twin Cities could use more of. Another New York group he cites, Time’s Up, pioneered the ghost bike memorials there. “They’ve erected too many of these,” Stonehill said, nodding toward the freshly painted white bike leaning nearby.
As the ghost bike tradition rises locally, it raises a question: Will there be enough bikes and enough white spraypaint to meet the needs of a place where people take to bikes in pace-setting numbers, in all seasons, but where sprawl rules, the car is king and bike-lane markers — and bicyclists’ lives — can become erased in an instant?
“I don’t think cars know what to do with bikes,” said Melissa Summers, who pulled up at the memorial on the bike she uses to commute to work past the same spot en route from Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. “I have people telling me I’m blocking traffic. I am traffic.”