A manifesto on ghost bikes in Boston: What role can mindfulness play in preventing cyclist fatalitie
This article recounts the stories of the ghost bikes in Boston and strategies ways to prevent future bike fatalities.
How to lose a bike
The moment that my bike was stolen, my busy mind had lingered far away from the frenetic pace of Mass Ave. Earlier that afternoon, as I sat in a noisy coffee shop, transcribing the most pivotal article of my Paris coffee project, my digital voice recorder suddenly died. I panicked, pressing buttons as I condemned myself for not uploading the interview to my computer before tragedy hit. I hopped on my bike and wheeled down to Walgreens, where I purchased a fresh set of batteries. Then, I quickly sat myself down in the nearest coffee shop and saw with my sleep-deprived eyes (I had been teaching since 6 am that particular day) that the recorder began to light up again. Relief washed over me.
At 9:15 that night, I meandered out of a yoga studio in Central Square after teaching my final class of the day. As I approached the bike rack, a second wave of panic flooded my cells. My lock was tethered to the rack, but my 6-year-old white hybrid bike was nowhere to be seen. My jaw dropped, and my yoga brain suddenly awakened to the realization that I must have hitched my helmet – not my bike – to the post.
Minutes later, Daniel’s electric car rolled up to the curb where I sat awestruck. His family, who was visiting for the weekend, cheerily greeted me in Spanish from the backseat. My brain barely processed enough to respond. I choked back tears as we embarked on the long journey across the river to Jamaica Plain. As we crossed the Harvard Bridge, we passed a matte white bike adorned with flowers that was chained to a streetlight.
“Look, there’s a bike you can take,” Daniel joked.
Somehow, despite the numerous times I had cycled white-knuckled past this spot, I had never noticed this bike. “What’s that?” I asked, all at once feeling uneasy.
“Don’t you know? It’s a ghost bike. A cyclist was killed here,” he replied apathetically.
Suddenly the floodgates broke, and hot tears began to silently stream down my cheeks. Was this a sign from the universe telling me that my bike being stolen was for the best?
A sign of tragedy
Having lived in Boston over two years prior to this incident, the ghost bike near the Harvard Bridge was by no means the first of these painted two-wheelers I had seen. During my first year in my Master’s program, I would pass a white, worn-down bike with a basket full of eternally-fresh flowers each afternoon midway through my walk from my campus in Longwood to my yoga studio in Brookline. I knew nothing of its ghostly origin, but I felt that I had unintentionally befriended the bike and its eerily calm presence. Although this bike by the river was similar in appearance, something about the energy around it felt panicked and erratic rather than tranquil.
It wasn’t until several months later that I learned that this bicycle was a memorial for Anita Kurmann, a 38-year-old Swiss surgeon who split her time between a medical laboratory at Boston University Medical School and an endocrinology unit at Beth Israel. Early on a late-summer morning in 2015, Kurmann was tragically killed on her bike ride to work. A chilling article in Boston Magazine recounts the moment that marked her tragic death:
Kurmann set out for work, steering her bike through Cambridge toward the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, a flat, wind-whipped slab of road that spans the girth of the Charles River and empties into the Back Bay. As she pedaled down the bike lane, cars and trucks whizzed past her, including a Mack truck with a 48-foot-long flatbed trailer. By 7:03 a.m., she had cleared the bridge and rolled down the gentle hill toward the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street. Traffic was light, but the one designated “shared lane” for bikes and cars was lined with sedans and box trucks moving at a good clip. Kurmann stayed to the far-right side of the road, hugging the curb in an unmarked lane that was delineated by a single stripe of white paint.
It is impossible to know what raced through Kurmann’s mind when she entered the intersection. She was side by side with the hulking truck that had passed her on the bridge when it suddenly swung wide, momentarily occupying two lanes on Massachusetts Avenue, before cutting a sharp right onto Beacon Street. As it rounded the corner, Kurmann disappeared under its wheels. A second or two later, her body and bike lay crumpled in the crosswalk. The truck never stopped.
Not only did the truck fail to brake, it accelerated after hitting Kurmann, as evident from video footage of the crash. Yet the Boston Police Department maintained that the primary cause of the crash was the action of Anita when she failed to recognize that she was riding outside of the truck driver’s range of visibility.
According to Boston Magazine, there is a culture of victim-blaming among Boston’s police officials that has left motorists involved in cyclist fatalities unaccountable for their actions. If the consequences for bike homicides are light, the consequences for reckless driving behavior may be practically inexistent. Although Boston’s police officers are quite thorough in ticketing drivers for parking in unauthorized locations, they seem to let drivers slide for speeding through pedestrian zones, texting while driving, and running lights several seconds after yellow has staled to red. Failure to enforce traffic laws has undoubtedly exacerbated the culture of aggressive driving in Boston and skewed the rules of the road away from the favor of cyclists.
My white-knuckled phase
I can’t count the number of times my heart jumped out of my chest from the sheer madness on the roads during my stint as a cyclist in Boston. My first few months of teaching yoga in Boston were colored by the fear that I felt on the roads. At that point in my life, while unofficially residing with my boyfriend in Jamaica Plain after fleeing a PhD program in Austria, I had confidence in neither the future of my teaching yoga career nor the future of my relationship. Terrified that both were temporary and utterly unsure of my ability to support myself, I biked out of financially necessity.
With my eyes wide open, I would breeze by lines of texting pedestrians who would wander aimlessly through newly-minted bike lanes. White-knuckled, I would glide past lines of parked cars, hoping a door wouldn’t suddenly pop open and that an Uber driver wouldn’t suddenly swerve to stall in my lane. Gritting my teeth in fear, I would be passed endlessly by a whir of honking cars in poorly-marked bike lanes that would merge into bus stops. Never before did I feel like I was taking such a gamble on my life, yet there was something about the madness of it all that made me feel alive.
The black-palmed era
Despite the many red flags from the universe, I didn’t stop cycling after losing my bike. Instead, I ordered a cheap replacement on Amazon and had Daniel cobble it together when we moved into our new apartment in Somerville. From a distance, my new bicycle had the same glowing white, ultra-light appearance as the bike that had been through so many emotional rollercoasters with me that it felt like a direct extension of myself. Yet up close, the new bike felt clunky, creaky, and awkwardly hefty.
Perhaps more importantly, the bike was a safety hazard. Anytime I would press too hard on the pedals or make a quick gear change, the chain would seize up and disconnect. This happened suddenly several times when I was riding in the heat of downtown traffic, forcing me to learn to ride brakeless and reconnect a chain on the fly. I would show up to teach classes with black palms that hinted at the terror I had just dodged, but I continued to make it in one piece, and that was enough for me.
Why do local bike fatalities get so little air time?
During the black-palmed era when my new, haphazard bike reigned, the signs against biking began to build to an unavoidable peak. One morning of downpour, as Daniel drove my bike and me to a studio across town, I heard two words on the radio that made my ears perk up and my hair stand on edge: “bike fatality.” Between the bouts of Trump talk, the broadcaster on Boston Public Radio paused long enough to briefly explain in a breath the death of Meng Jin, a 24-year-old graduate student at Boston University. On a rainy Friday morning, Jin was fatally struck by the tires of a dump truck as they both made a right-turn near the Museum of Science. My heart dropped to my guts when I heard the news casually stated on the radio. My lips quivered as I asked, “Why do these local deaths get so little air time?”
A few weeks later, on a day that I had lost the patience to ride my increasingly decerped bike, I walked joyously on two feet through Back Bay. It seemed that it had been eons since I had the luxury of walking for transportation. An entire sidewalk to myself without the threat of elderly women screeching at me to bike on the road! I spotted another white bike ahead – another that I hadn’t noticed amidst my laser focus on my bike. Anger and an outpouring of questions suddenly popped into my open mind. Another ghost bike?! How many are there in Boston? Who is putting these up? And how many will it take before cyclist fatalities are treated as a public health epidemic in Boston?
Mid-stride, I whipped out my phone to do a quick Google search – something I could attempt walking without feeling mad panicked that I needed to keep my eyes on the road. A few lines into an article, I realized this was a topic I’d have to sit down to digest.
The search for urban spirituality on two wheels
Precise information on the origin of ghost bikes or statistics on how many exist in Boston seem to be indefinite, but one source suggests the practice of erecting ghost bikes is a worldwide practice that was adopted from Saint Louis. Ghost bikes are often created by family or friends of cyclist who have been killed in a traffic accident as a gesture of remembrance and a reminder for drivers to exercise caution on the streets. In Boston, these bikes are eventually removed by city officials, making it difficult to estimate the number of ghost bikes that have graced our city’s streets. What is known, however, is that there has been one non-fatal bike fatality per day and around 10 bike fatalities per year in recent years, meaning that Boston’s streets could be littered with ghost bikes if their lifespan were eternal.
It is not entirely clear when the first ghost bike in Boston came to life, but Peter Cheung, an active member of the Boston bicycle committee and a resident of Jamaica Plain, seems to be among the early prominent figures in the movement. Cheung founded the grassroots organization Ghost Bikes Boston in 2015, and since then, he has organized at least 12 ghost bike ceremonies in Boston.
Another notable figure in Boston’s ghost bike movement is Reverend Laura Everett, who cycles 6 miles religiously each day to her job as Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Everett has found a makeshift congregation among her tribe of city cyclists who she says share her daily dose of joy, terror, and vulnerability while biking through Boston’s byzantine streets.
Among the cyclists, Everett states that there is a shared sense of solidarity that is created from the unjust rules of the road. She asks in an article in AP News, “What does it mean to absorb other people’s anger? What do you do with your own anger? How do you live in a system that’s unjust…? Those roads aren’t fair.”
Not only are the rules of the roads set against cyclists, but, as Everett explains, many of us who hop on a bicycle are among Boston’s poor, working-class, or even homeless citizens. This group, who Everett calls the “invisible bicyclists” of Boston, cycle out of necessity rather than to follow a trend. Everett hopes to defend the rights of these invisible bicyclists and to ponder an “intentionally urban spirituality” in her activist work. To do so, she participates regularly and vocally in ghost bike ceremonies, officiating marriages and prayers for cyclists at “blessing of the bicycles” ceremonies, and authoring a book titled, “Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels.”
Although many of the die-hard cyclists seem to be progressive, liberal, climate activists – not necessarily the church-going type – Everett’s work likely resonates with the community because so many of us have contemplated out own death in the blinding pace of the streets. Biking in many areas of Boston is an act of complete trust in the arguably poor judgement of drivers on the streets. As a cyclist, our lives are dangled recklessly in the hands of drivers.
I couldn’t forget the ghost bikes
After stumbling upon this bike in Back Bay, one that I later found was a memorial for Rich Archer, a 29-year-old courier killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2017, I started to sense that perhaps I should listen to the “urban spirituality” that Everett said existed on the streets. So many signs had been mounting up against my cycling habit, but I continued to stubbornly push them aside.
Yet after I opened my mind to the signs, they seemed to continue flooding in quickly. I soon spotted another ghost bike near my home in Inman Square. This one was a memorial for Amanda Phillips, a nursing student at MGH and an employee at Diesel Café in Somerville. Phillips was killed while cycling on a Thursday in June 2016. As she rode her bike off the sidewalk and into the traffic of Cambridge Street, the door of a Jeep swung open Phillip’s path, pushing her to collide with a moving dump truck.
Another ghost bike popped up in my periphery shortly thereafter. I did a double take as I passed by the Whole Foods on Putnam Ave, then went to investigate. Marcia Deihl was the name etched into the photo in the bike’s basket. As one source narrates, Deihl was “a 65-year-old LGBT activist, musician and longstanding icon of her community’s defining eccentricities.” Just two years into retirement from her 30-year secretary position at Harvard, Deihl had just earned the opportunity to focus solely on her music and art until the afternoon that she was struck by an 18-wheel container truck as she rode away from the Whole Food’s parking lot.
To add fire to my growing feeling of fear, a few days after finding Deihl’s ghost bike, Daniel sent me a message saying that a girl who works in his lab had been hospitalized that day after being concussed in a cycling accident. “Just let me drive you everywhere now,” he pleaded.
Nonetheless, after biking regularly throughout the busiest parts of the city for several months now, I no longer had the white-knuckled fear that I experienced during the beginning of “the hustle” in my yoga career. I could bike through the most frantic intersections with a sense of calm, knowing that my reflexes had become cat-like to divert flying doors, turning trucks, and mindless pedestrians. Yet I still knew that there were so many variables within the flow of traffic that were out of my control. I could now sense the numerous times that I brushed off hairy situations – and there were many.
There were more obvious potential crashes – a driver in Mission Hill who had not seen me hugging the curb in the height of Friday’s rush hour traffic and buzzed past my handlebars, throwing me slightly off-balance; the time when I hid in between parked cars in a narrow two-way street in Somerville because I sensed a driver coming head on couldn’t see me in the dark (she pulled over to curse at me for startling her); a driver on an adjacent back street in Somerville who very obviously did see me approaching the opposite direction. For reasons I still do not fully understand, he angrily shone his brights on me and raced toward me full force, causing me to swerve onto the sidewalk. And then there were the less obvious realizations of potential danger – a prickling of the hairs on my neck and a roller coaster dropping of my gut that would cause me to slow down and broaden my vision from time to time.
The final sign I needed to thwart my biking habit was a conversation over coffee with a friend who had recently wrecked. Nina’s bike accident was not life-threatening – her bike had been destroyed, but she was physically fine when I saw her several weeks after the crash. Yet she was still visibly shaken from her accident. Only a few months earlier, we had both rolled our bikes away from a nearby café, smiling at the sporty quality of our lifestyles. Now, she asked me with chagrin as we wrapped up our conversation, “You’re not biking from here, are you?”
Her eyes seemed to widen as she physically felt the danger of the experience. I told her yes, but my class was just a short distance across the river. She seemed visibly worried when I parted, and I vowed that I’d be safe. Sure enough, as I hugged the inside of the bike path toward the midpoint of the BU Bridge, my chain became unhinged from my bike. This time, I didn’t bother to fix it.
It had been months since my final bike trip when I heard about Paula Sharaga’s death, but I felt a chill run down my spine when I first learned a fragment of the story. Sharaga was a 69-year-old political advocate, environmental activist, and children’s librarian at Brookline Public Library. She had followed the same path on her bike for nearly two decades to cycle to the library until the February Friday morning that she was struck by the front end of a cement truck. The crash occurred at the intersection of Brookline Avenue and Park Drive, which is notoriously chaotic and confusing for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike to navigate.
Sharaga’s death came as a dramatic hit to Boston’s cyclist community. This was one case in which there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the cyclist was not at fault for the wreck. Sharaga was known to be a cautious, experienced cyclist – one who was deeply concerned with the epidemic of cyclist fatalities. After wrecking her own bike, a fellow librarian described Sharaga tearing up while consoling her colleague as she asked in her voice of activism if there was anything that she could do.
Although she may not be here to experience her impact, Sharaga may have done enough to change cyclist safety. Paula Sharaga, Marcia Deihl, Amanda Phillips, Meng Jin, Rich Archer, Anita Kurmann, and all other cyclists who have been sacrificed to the streets of Boston are were martyred to create a safer, environmentally sustainable city. In a forward-thinking society, filled with many of the nation’s brightest minds, it would seem that preemptive actions to protect cyclists should have been put in play eons ago. Instead, each cyclist killed has gradually pushed the pace of subtle change to make our streets safe.
How many ghost bikes must it take?
“How many ghost bikes must it take? How many lives need to be lost on our streets and memorialized? What will it take to move our elected leaders to take their citizens’ safety seriously?” representatives of Boston Cyclists Union lament in a letter to the public. The Union urges political leaders to boldly take immediate actions to prevent future bike fatalities. These actions include implementing safety measures major at intersections; implementing protected bike lanes, separated from by roadside trees or visible barriers; creating wide bike track – especially in low-income neighborhoods; lowering and enforcing speed limits; and passing safety regulations for trucks – a common variable in the picture of many ghost bikes.
Improving traffic infrastructure is a large piece of the puzzle in creating safer cities, but these changes will be ineffective without shifting the culture of the streets. In a city that’s ruled by tunnel-vision, technology, and law enforcement that sides with aggressive drivers, a little bit of mindfulness could go a long way. Mindfulness is the basic human ability to slow down, be fully present, and be completely aware in any given situation. How many fewer ghost bikes would there be if the drivers would have taken a moment to sit mindfully and breathe before revving up their engines? A systematic review in the scientific journal Accident, Analysis and Prevention suggests mindfulness interventions may be particularly useful in curbing distracted driving, and they warrant further investigation in preventing road trauma.
Although I lost the nerve to bike in Boston, the ghost bikes continue to motivate my work. As a yoga teacher, I can see the buzz of traffic that remains in my students’ bodies for minutes after they hit the mat. There becomes a hush of energy when strings to the busy streets begin to unwind through breath and mindful movement. My biggest intention as a teacher is to create muscle memory for this sensation so that calm can be tapped into amidst critical moments of chaos.
It is my hope that one day, when the streets feel safe, I will begin biking again – not out of financial necessity, but for the health of it, the environmental value, and the unparalleled sensation of freedom. Until the day there are no new ghost bikes to catch my eye on my commute, there is still collective work to achieve.