Meet the woman behind Chicago’s ghost bikes

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Medill Reports Chicago

Published: Feb, 27 2018 (...)

You’ve seen them. Leaning against a street-light,
they seem to almost glow, plastic flowers hung around their painted
white frames. A small plaque with a stark name serves as a haunting

There are 30 ghost bikes in and surrounding Cook County, but the
bikes aren’t unique to Chicago. Originating in St. Louis in the early
2000’s, the bikes have become an international symbol, a memorial
constructed after a cyclist’s death by a motorist.

What is unique is the support system Kristen Green, 30, provides local families of the bereaved.


For Green, who started Ghost Bikes Chicago in 2016, it became
personal when Blaine Klingenberg, Green’s close friend, was struck and
killed by a bus in the West Loop.

Green has known others cyclists who have died. But after Klingenberg, Green decided to take action.

“When he went down, my heart went too. I realized I needed to do something,” Green said.

Previously, ghost bikes in Chicago were set up occasionally by
friends or family. Now, as soon as a Chicago cyclist is killed, Green
starts work on a ghost bike immediately.

Local bike shops like Working Bikes and West Town bikes donate used
parts. It takes just a few weeks for Green, with the help of local
volunteers, to paint, decorate and install the bike.

She also reaches out to family, helping them find a lawyer, navigate police and deal with grief.

“The families are so grateful,” Green said. “If it were not for me
and Ghost Bikes Chicago, a lot of these families would be left to deal
with this alone.”

Green says the hardest part is being strong for the families. She said she cries after every death.

Summer of 2016, Green and Yasmeen Schuller, executive director of
Chicago’s online cyclists’ community, painted two bikes
at once.

Green prepares two ghost bikes for installation.Green prepares two ghost bikes for installation. (Photo credit: Kristen Green)

“I’ve done nothing but fight an uphill battle,” Green said. In 2016,
eight cyclists were killed by motorists. Last year, the death toll
became four after Chicagoan Lisa Shaulk, 50, was struck and killed Nov. 1
by a motorist near Midway Airport. The installation of her ghost bike
and memorial service was held by Green on Nov. 19.

“[Ghost bikes] give us a sense of gravity and ask us to do better,”
said cyclist Teresa Maze, who commutes 100 miles to work every week on
her bike.

Maze just filled out her accidental death and dismemberment insurance form.

“Me being hit and killed by a car seems like the most likely cause of death right now,” Maze said.

Cars regularly try to run Maze off the street, she said. Sometimes drivers stop and threaten her if they feel she is in the way.

“None of the cars believe we have a right to be there,” Maze said.
“When I’m not out of the way they get aggressive, even if they’re just
speeding past to get to a red light.”

Green agreed. “There are times where it feels like there’s a war on the street,” she said.

According to Jennie Ruff, rider operator for cycling courier service
Cut Cats, their cyclists are hit by motorists at least twice a month.
Ruff has been struck several times. A head-on collision with a truck
left her comatose in the hospital for several days and off work for

Even though Chicago has added more than 100 miles of protected bike
lanes in the past five years, it’s still not enough to keep cyclists
safe. There are an estimated eight cycling casualties for every 10,000
cyclists in Chicago, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

“A lot of drivers treat bike lanes as an extra lane or stopping
zone,” Maze said, noting that Lyft and Uber drivers will sporadically
pull over, causing her to swerve into traffic.

“Bike lanes are a nice idea, but we need to push driver education,”
Ruff said. “A lot of the drivers we encounter are not well-educated on
where bikes can be, should be or are supposed to be.”

Since 2000, the number of bicycle commuters in Cook County has
increased by 150 percent, according to the latest bicycle crash analysis
from the City of Chicago.

For Green, complex issues like class warfare are also at work.

“The fact remains that last year, out of the eight cyclists deaths,
only one person was white,” said Green. “Until a lower income family can
afford to buy a BMW, we’re going to be here.”

After every death, Green arranges a memorial ceremony, gathering
together family, friends and the community for a brief service as they
set up the bike.

“[Chicago] is a really tight community for cycling,” said Anthony Cruz, shop manager at West Town Bikes.

Cruz attended a candlelight vigil for 23-year-old cyclist Anastasia
Kondrasheva, who was killed in 2016. “Hundreds of people were there….
Whether they knew [the deceased] or not, cyclists got together to show
love to people in the cycling community,” he said.

People gather in memorial around a ghost bike to show their respects.A memorial service for Lisa Kuivinen’s ghost bike. (Photo credit: Silma Kuivinen)

Green said it’s important to her that the community is given a place
to mourn. Her ultimate goal? No more ghost bikes. To make that happen,
cyclists are pushing for better driver education and calling for police
to be more attentive and informed.

“A lot of the time, police officers will automatically assume cyclists are in the wrong,” Ruff said.

A constant source of frustration for Green and other Ghost Bike
volunteers is the seemingly unjust rulings after a cyclist’s death.Since
2005, there have been 22 fatal crashes involving cyclists in Chicago.
Only four of those drivers were charged with felonies.

For now, Green does what she can for the families and community.

“Ghost bikes are really important. They create awareness,” said Danni
Limonez, project manager of West Town bikes. “The more awareness, the
more people pay attention.”

The ghost bikes serve as a stark reminder for cyclists. And they
challenge motorists to remain aware, reminding them that an extra couple
of seconds is not worth a human life.

“Cyclists are people. Treat us like people,” said Green. “Ultimately,
I want to see [my friends] live. I don’t want to continue to watch as
they die.”

Green stands by a ghost bike memorial.Green stands by a ghost bike memorial. (Photo credit: Kristen Green)

Photo at top: Kristen Green by a ghost bike memorial. (Kristen Green/MEDILL)