Riding with Seattle’s Undercover Bike Crew as They Mark Local Danger Zones
Three months ago, during the morning rush hour in Ballard, a bicyclist zoomed toward 8th Avenue and Leary Way, heading right into an altercation with a Dodge Ram pickup. "The truck sped across 8th, blowing off their stop sign. I didn't have one," the biker later wrote, on a Seattle website that chronicles cycle crashes. "Driver didn't see me and I had to swerve, causing me to wreck into the curb."
Fast forward to Monday morning, August 1. There are few cars on the road at 1:15 a.m. as two bikers survey a slim metal utility pole at the ill-fated intersection, trying to figure out the most impressive way to attach a crumpled white bike to it with a three-foot length of chain and a chunky lock. The bike ends up suspended three feet off the ground, where it will surely grab plenty of attention during the upcoming commute, still hours away. "Pretty visible, huh? Kick ass," one of the bikers says before hopping back into the car, off to install more "ghost cycles" throughout the city.
An hour before they hit the streets, in a hilltop apartment with a panoramic view of downtown Seattle, a dozen bicyclists had gathered to fuel up on chocolate-covered espresso beans, pore over city maps, and figure out how many bikes could fit in a station wagon. Just two months earlier, these bikers had launched the website GhostCycle.org to collect bike-accident info from Seattle's two-wheeled set, like the cyclist at 8th and Leary. The original page didn't let on that they'd be using the data to adorn light poles with damaged bikes. But tonight, to spotlight bike safety, they're installing the project's namesake guerrilla art all over town: mangled, white-painted bikes, each representing an accident, chained to the location of the ill-fated encounter with either auto or road.
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Since GhostCycle.org launched over Memorial Day weekend ["Bike Messengers," June 2, by Amy Jenniges], more than a hundred accident reports have poured in. For the past few weeks, the GhostCycle team—once-disparate members of the city's vast cycling community who've since bonded over this summer project—have been planning tonight around those accident details. They chose the most visible crash spots, crafted an online map, and crunched numbers from all of the reports (for example, only 34 percent of the bikers who reported accidents to GhostCycle.org said they'd also reported to the police).
Others collected old, damaged bikes and stored them in a garage. (The neighbors complained at first, the garage's owner said. "They thought we were running a bike shop out of there. We told them it was for an art project."). In the garage, GhostCyclers contorted the frames with "sledgehammers, rebar benders, and brute force," before sloshing on white paint. Plywood signs proclaiming "A Cyclist Was Struck Here" in stoplight-red stenciled letters dangle from each bike, directing viewers to the website for details on the corresponding crash.
The point of all this work? "There are bikes on the fucking road. Pay attention," a blunt GhostCycler told me before the late-night adventure began. At the website, GhostCycle's mission is explained more tactfully: The bike installations will grab the attention of those on the road—drivers and bikers alike—and hopefully cause everyone to share the streets more carefully. A few locations, where bikers had wiped out on bad roads or tricky bike trails, would serve as pointed messages to the city. "Ultimately we hope that through information and education people will have a better understanding of the changes necessary to make our streets safer for everyone," GhostCycle.org says.
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At the garage that night—as a cool midnight breeze blew away any memory of the recent heat wave—GhostCyclers tried to quietly extract white bikes from the now-tangled heap on the concrete floor and load them into waiting vehicles without waking the neighbors. A VW with two phantom bikes on the roof rack, another in the trunk, and a pair of GhostCycle guys in the front seats had enough space for this reporter to tag along. First stop was the Leary Way and 8th Ave NW spot in Ballard's warehouse district: The duo lashed a bike with a bent front wheel to the utility pole, where a streetlight illuminated the attached sign.
A few blocks away in the sleeping neighborhood, the guys installed another white bike at NW Market Street in front of the Sunset Bowl, this one hooked on the top of the green street sign, secured with a length of chain. "The driver apparently wasn't paying attention and didn't see me and hit the accelerator just as I was in front of his car," a biker's report to ghostcycle.org said about this intersection. "I screamed and he hit his brakes, but not before he hit me... When I eventually went to the ER a few days later, I was told I had a post-concussive syndrome and that the force of impact on my leg was enough to jostle my brain enough to have a concussion."
Finally, the pair hit a dark, quiet street under the Ballard Bridge, where railroad tracks cut across the Burke-Gilman trail, creating a wheel-catching hazard. The online report for this spot sums it up: "I... hit [the tracks] parallel to my bike tires and flew off my bike. Right after I had picked myself up and moved to the side of the road another cyclist crashed in exactly the same spot." The VW's driver, an experienced biker, had recently wiped out on the tracks, too. "There are just a ton of [accidents] right here," he griped. This GhostCycle was his revenge: The pair chained the bike to a concrete pylon, snapped on a padlock, and tossed the key toward the inky ship canal.
Back at GhostCycle headquarters at 2:00 a.m., the teams trickled in, uploaded digital photos of their work to GhostCycle.org, and brewed coffee. The last crew—they'd driven a Suburban stuffed with a dozen bikes to Capitol Hill, Leschi, and Seward Park—straggled through the door at 4:00 a.m. The cyclists had strewn 40 bikes throughout the city, from Lake City Way to Lake Washington Boulevard.
By morning, the GhostCycle.org inbox was stuffed with dozens of supportive e-mails from fellow cyclists, notes from "a few nice drivers [who] saw them and thanked us for putting them up," and one angry letter from a guy on Green Lake Way, who'd hack-sawed off a bike at North 64th Street. "He was upset we put trash in his neighborhood," a GhostCycler explains. "We might go back and replace it."