Sometime in mid-November someone chained an all-white bicycle to a signpost in the median at the intersection of C Street and 40th Avenue, near where Jonathan Johnson was fatally struck by an SUV while pedaling to his job on the morning of October 19.
The bicycle is a memorial for Johnson. A bouquet of red roses was attached to it last week. Over the weekend it snowed and snowplow drivers seem to be respectfully dodging the memorial.
Johnson’s foster mother, Verna Gibson, said she first heard about the bike memorializing her foster son from other family members. But even with forewarning, Gibson said was moved by the bike when she realized it was, in fact, a memorial. “I had to pull over and cry,” Gibson said.
The bike wasn’t chained to the signpost by anyone in Johnson’s family. It’s a gesture from other cyclists, and part of a trend that began with a spontaneous gesture in the Lower 48 about five years ago.
The memorial is a “ghost bike” and while it might be a first for Anchorage, it’s part of a trend in guerilla art, as urban cyclists memorialize riders who have been killed or harmed in accidents. They strip a bicycle of parts until the frame is nearly bare, paint it white, and install it in a visible place near the scene of the accident. Some of the installers include memorial plaques. The ghost bike trend is viral, in both the virtual and concrete worlds. It’s reached 68 cities worldwide, according to New York City-based ghostbikes.org.
Pedestrians walking 40th Avenue can’t miss the Jonathan Johnson bike. It has no pedals, and no brake or gear-shifting controls on its handlebars. The components are removed partly to make the bicycle less tempting for thieves. The modification also draws attention to the bare lines of the handlebars and frame. Viewed from a distance, a well-placed ghost bike resembles a stick-figure illustration of a bicycle more than it resembles a working bike.
That effect, the bicycle as apparition, was noticeable to Gibson.
“It drove me to tears because of the starkness of the red roses and the white bike—it just hit me,” Gibson says of her first viewing.
Since she saw the bike, Gibson has considered sending a letter to local newspapers to thank whoever put the bicycle on the median. She hopes the ghost bike won’t disappear soon. “Not only is it a memorial, but it is an eye-opener for drivers and for bicyclists to be aware of the rules while riding.”
For the record, the accident that killed Johnson was not a hit-and-run and no one has been charged or even ticketed. Anchorage Police released the driver’s name to media, but police haven’t accused anyone of wrongdoing. The APD traffic investigator who is working on the case was out of town attending training this week. No new information was available for this story.
Ben Hussey, 26, a computer programmer and bicycle commuter said he was involved in creating the ghost bike. Hussey is involved in local bicycle organizations, but said there isn’t a specific group that wants credit for the ghost bike. “We are just trying to maintain a memorial and to raise awareness,” Hussey said, and he doesn’t want anything else, such as the mention of a bicycle club or nonprofit, to distract from those goals.
Hussey pedals to work each day from Fairview to his job in Midtown. He gives Anchorage high marks for recreational trails, but says the town has a ways to go before it can be called a friendly place to ride a bike. “Being a young city, and I think a city that hasn’t had a tradition of accommodating bicycles and alternative transportation, it’s not a city that’s been traditionally easy to bicycle in,” Hussey says.
Hussey’s lived here since 1991 and says he’s seen more commuters using bicycles on their daily trips. He says it wasn’t so noticeable in summer months, but in winter when he sees the same people with gear such as lights and saddlebags or backpacks. “In past winters I would see maybe one (other commuter) per week. This year, I can think of days when I see three or four,” he says.
The world’s first ghost bike appeared in St. Louis in 2003, according to the magazines Dirt and New York. It was installed by a bicycle mechanic who witnessed an accident, one in which another cyclist was seriously injured. The mechanic, Patrick Van Der Tuin, eventually launched a project that installed about a dozen ghost bikes in St. Louis, and Dirt magazine ran a piece about the project.
The movement hasn’t been without controversy. In Tucson, Arizona, a ghost bike memorializing a 14-year-old boy was removed and replaced three times. Tucson right-of-way officials only removed the first bike, the Tucson Weekly reported, twice more it disappeared after it was featured in newspaper articles. (Tucson Weekly and the Press are both owned by Wick Communications.) Tucson ghost bike installers told the Weekly they’d received incomplete lists of fatal accidents from the police when they requested records of past bicycle fatalities. In other towns the message has become increasingly grim, and in-your-face. Some activists have painted silhouettes of bodies, meant to resemble a crime scene’s chalk outline and stenciled words such as “killed by car” near accident scenes.
Van Der Tuin, the biked mechanic who started it all, told New York magazine in June that he received hundreds of emails within days of his project being noticed outside St. Louis. Some people, even cyclists, wanted to discourage the movement. The ghost-white bikes might discourage people from riding, they said.
Anchorage’s ghost bike, like those in other cities, was noticed by bloggers soon after it appeared.
Attorney Jerome Juday (who usually writes, in relatively plain English, about concepts such as “torts” and “privity” at Alaskalawblog.com) took note of the ghost bike with a 680-word post and a photo.
“It was, as I said in the post, a shock to see it because I know what it is and I don’t think that most people do,” Juday tells the Press. “If you’re a cyclist, or you have spent time in cities in the Lower 48, than you might know about them.”
Juday writes in his post that ghost bikes are memorials, but also “protests against the sometimes terrible dominance of the internal combustion engine.” He also writes that calling Anchorage bike friendly “is a dubious description, although I can say that it is a whole lot friendlier to bikes than it used to be.”
And Juday recommends lights for cyclists, writing that he also drives his car along C Street. “I know the challenge of coming upon a bicyclist in the dark when you are not keeping an eye out for one.”
When snow fell last week Verna Gibson was thinking about her foster son, but not because of the ghost bike or the hazards or pedaling and driving on dark and icy roads.
Gibson remembers Johnson as the rare teenager who would clean snow and ice off his foster mom’s car in a spontaneous act of kindness. “That was a little thing, but that was something he did for me without being told or asked to,” Gibson said. “…If you were ever going to ask for a child, Jon would be the one.”