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Ghostly bikes commemorate fallen cyclists

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A ghost bike marks the intersection where 45-year-old Liz Byrne was hit and killed by a truck in Brooklyn. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Mary Beth Kelly holds a photo of her husband, Dr. Carl Henry Nacht, who was killed by a police tow truck while riding on a protected bike path in New York. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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A photo of Dr. Carl Henry Nacht adorns the spokes of his ghost bike in New York. Nacht was killed by a police tow truck in June. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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A plaque accompanies the ghost bike of Dr. Carl Henry Nacht, a bicyclist killed by a police tow truck in New York. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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San Francisco artist Joe Slota created his ghost bikes for art's sake. (Courtesy of Jo Slota, www.ghostbike.net)

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San Francisco artist Jo Slota created his ghost bikes as works of art in 2002. (Courtesy of Joe Slota, www.ghostbike.net)

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In St. Louis, Patrick Van Der Tuin began memorializing bicyclists killed or injured by motorists with painted white bikes in 2002. He called his project Broken Bikes Broken Lives. (Courtesy of Carrie Zukoski)

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In Pittsburgh, ghost bikes mark the sites where bicyclists were killed or injured in crashes with motorists. (Courtesy of Michael Browne of Ghost Bike Pittsburgh)

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Ghost bikes mark the sites where bicyclists were killed or injured in crashes with motorists in Pittsburgh. (Courtesy of Michael Browne of Ghost Bike Pittsburgh)

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Fifty-year-old Isai Medina was killed by a hit-and-run driver in January 2006 while walking his bike home in Chicago. (Courtesy of Chicago Ghost Bikes)

Their first date was on bicycles. They took their two children to school on bicycles. They toured the world on bicycles. Bicycles were a major part of the lives of Dr. Carl Henry Nacht and Mary Beth Kelly. Nacht, a Manhattan internist, even made house calls on his bike.

Nacht was killed last summer while biking in the city, and his life is being commemorated by a bicycle. There, on a bike path along the Hudson River, chained to a street sign near where he died, stands a bicycle spray-painted white and draped in flowers. Laced in its spokes is a photo of Nacht smiling, his arms around his family. A plaque reads: “Carl Nacht. 56 Years Old. Killed By Truck. June 22, 2006. Rest In Peace.”

Memorials like this have become an increasingly common sight in North American and European cities. Like the roadside shrines that mark fatal car crashes, the “ghost bikes,” as they are known, mark the site where cyclists were killed or injured in crashes with motorists. They also mark the increasing activism of urban cyclists frustrated by reckless driving, lack of protected bike lanes and bike-specific traffic signals, and inadequate enforcement of traffic laws protecting cyclists.

“The cycling community is looking for ways to express their anxiety, their worry, their fear and their anger,” explained Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, “but also to just try and find different ways to raise your hand up and say, ‘Look out, we’re here. Take care of us, we’re not invisible.’”

The struggle between bicyclists and motorists is at a boiling point. There are approximately 78.5 million paved-road bicyclists in the United States, a figure that has remained relatively stable over the last eight years, according to a study by the Outdoor Industry Foundation, a nonprofit trade group. In cities, poor visibility and intense traffic congestion can make bike riding a risky proposition.

In New York City alone, 225 people were killed in bicycle accidents between 1996 and 2005. Nationally, 784 were killed in 2005, according to the latest figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“I’d like not to do this ever again,” said Ryan Nuckel, 25, a member of a loose collective of artist-activists in Brooklyn who along with Times Up!, a nonprofit group, built and installed the ghost bike memorializing Nacht. “But that’s not going to happen until the safety issues that causes these crashes are addressed.”

For Nuckel, the issue has become personal. After setting up memorials for strangers, he found himself working on a ghost bike for a close friend, Eric Ng. In December, Ng, 22, was killed while riding his bike on a protected bike path. The motorist who hit Ng was drunk.

Nuckel’s group, called Visual Resistance, has set up about 30 ghost bike memorials throughout New York City since 2005. But he and others credit a St. Louis cyclist-mechanic named Patrick Van Der Tuin for coming up with the idea.

In 2002, after seeing a cyclist get hit by a car, Van Der Tuin painted a junk bike white and chained it near the crash site. Through 2004, he installed about 20 others throughout the city, taking a sledgehammer to bikes that were not mangled-looking enough. Others took note of Van Der Tuin’s memorials on his Web site, pbase.com/terbo/brokenbikes. He was soon overwhelmed by letters from people worldwide who were touched by the memorials.

Around the same time in 2002, an artist named Jo Slota was painting abandoned bicycles throughout the streets of San Francisco and calling them ghost bikes, not as memorials but as artistic statements. By 2004, most bike memorials were being painted white and being called ghost bikes.

The trend has now reached Canada and Europe, where ghost bikes can be found in Vancouver, London and Prague.

Everyone involved with ghost bikes has a war story. Erok Boerer, a cyclist-activist with Ghost Bike Pittsburgh, has battle scars. He was hit by a motorist in 2003 and laid up for nine months with a broken leg. In 2004, after a bicyclist was killed and a bike messenger needed his face reconstructed after a crash, Boerer and a group of bike activists installed 14 ghost bikes around the city. Police and maintenance workers have removed all but one, which is starting to lose its ghostly coloring.

“I kind of feel this obligation to go down and paint it again,” said Michael Browne, editor of the mountain biking magazine Dirt Rag and member of Ghost Bike Pittsburgh.

Some are now trying to create a national organization for the various memorial groups. Nuckel and a fellow cyclist, Michael Jones, 31, a Portland, Ore. computer programmer, are developing a Web page, ghostbike.org, that will map locations of memorials and crash sites. Jones, who has helped install seven bicycle memorials in Portland last summer, hopes to roll out the Web site this spring.

“I’m hoping what we’re doing is going to save some lives,” Jones said.

Van Der Tuin, who has been hit three times while riding, is also trying to unify the disparate groups. He’s planning a nationwide installation of ghost bikes to coincide with the global Ride of Silence--silent, slow-paced mass bike rides across the world honoring those killed or injured in May.

In New York, Transportation Alternatives, a New York nonprofit group dedicated to making the roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians, sponsored Nacht’s ghost bike at a memorial ride on Jan. 7. Since Nacht's death, Kelly, his widow, has also become an outspoken activist.

Nacht was riding in a protected bike lane when he was mowed down by a police tow truck. The driver has never been charged. Kelly heard about the ghost bike commemorating her husband the day after his funeral. She visits the site frequently. Sometimes people come up to her and ask if she knew the person.

When she tells them the memorial is for her husband, Kelly said, some people burst into tears. “They cry, they share, they talk about people they knew, losses they’ve had. And it becomes this kind of moment of shared grief among strangers," she said.

"There’s something about that bike sort of signifying Henry standing there in the middle of this city that he loved that has a sobering, but comforting feel to it.”

E-mail: cjt2117@columbia.edu