In Pacoima, a bicycle painted white leaning against a pole still marks the nearby spot where 15-year-old Saul Lopez, was struck and killed by a car while riding a bicycle to Vaughn International Studies Academy (VISA) more than two years ago.
Driving along busy streets, other “ghost bikes,” can be seen at many other locations across the San Fernando Valley providing a startling visual of the frequency of cyclists killed by motorists in tragic fatal traffic accidents.
While the “ghost bikes” are memorials to the cyclists who lost their lives, they are also intended to create more awareness among drivers to reduce their speeds and be aware of those riding on two wheels who share the road.
“It started as an art project,” says Danny Gamboa, who leads several volunteers that create the “ghost bikes” in this region, and help distribute them throughout the Southland, from LA County to Orange County, and from the Inland Empire to Ventura County.
Gamboa said he got involved for the first time in 2011 “because there were a lot of people being hit by drivers.” Anthony Navarro, a neighbor of Gamboa, lost his 6-year-old son in a bicycle accident on Thanksgiving Day.
Gamboa grabbed his own son’s bike, painted it white and placed it at the accident scene.
“It hit home. My son rides his bike to school. I think about this every day,” he said.
He said he has lost count of how many “ghost bikes” he and his group have created and placed at the sites of tragic accidents.
Bikes Are Donated
The bicycles are donated and “we hold them at volunteer’s houses and garages,” Gamboa explained. “We don’t paint them until they are needed.”
Sometimes family members or friends of the deceased reach out to them through social media to request a ghost bike. But the volunteers have also taken it upon themselves to set up a memorial after hearing about a deadly accident in their community.
A 44-year-old father who was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, says that “ghost bikes” serve two purposes.
“They are a catalyst for people to express their grief and for me, as a Mexican, it is like a traditional altar,” to help advocate for road safety, he said. It can also show area residents that “our streets are not designed for people, but for cars, and we should make them safe for all, cyclists and pedestrians.”
“Ghost bikes” volunteers place the bikes at night.
In some places, people care and clean the “ghost bikes,” and the memorials may remain at the location for some time. At other locations, the bikes were taken apart or stolen, Gamboa said.
“If they get taken away and recycled, I don’t get offended,” he adds.
For him, the most important thing is for the ghost bikes to elicit “empathy.”
“We want people to stop and think when they see bicycles, candles and flowers. We want people to see us not only as cyclists, but as someone who wants to get home. We want to make a human connection,” Gamboa said.
The only permanent “ghost bike” Gamboa is aware of is located on Temescal Canyon Road in Malibu and was created in honor of James Rapley, who was killed in December 2013.
Rapley — who worked in Chicago and was on a layover in Los Angeles, on his way to his home country of Australia — was struck by an intoxicated teen driver while pedaling up the narrow, steep road.
The Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) cites more than 160 cyclists have been fatally hit in the city since 2003 — 21 of them in 2018 alone.
The Los Angeles City Council recently approved a plan to place permanent signs at the sites where cyclists were killed.
The blue signs with white letters will measure 36 inches across and 42 inches high. They feature a drawing of a bicycle, a safety message such as “Check your Speed”, “Do Not Text and Drive” and “Give 3 Feet, It’s The Law.” Underneath will be another message reading “In memory of …..” The family of the deceased may request the placement of these signs, which the city will pay for.
“Cyclists are dying on the streets of Los Angeles and creating a permanent memorial — which will also serve as a reminder to share the road — is needed,” said Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who represents the west San Fernando Valley.
LADOT plans to install up to 20 of these memorials per year. They will be placed on light posts near the crash site. For the time being, the program will only honor cyclists, although the council will explore expanding it to pedestrians and other transit deaths.
The idea is part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Vision Zero program launched in 2015 establishing the goal of zero traffic fatalities by 2025.
In a report to the council, LADOT noted that “a long-term memorial sign program will honor people who die in traffic collisions while riding their bicycles and raise awareness of bicyclist fatalities. The suggested sign design will also educate drivers about key safe-driving behavior that can save lives. The proposed program furthers the City’s Vision Zero goals and will help develop the culture of safety.”
Gamboa supports and praises the measure.
“I think it’s a positive thing. Anything that creates awareness about how dangerous it is for road users when they go to work or school is a good thing,” he said.
These new permanent signs will not stop their work, however, which has expanded to the creation of Healthyactivestreets.org, a nonprofit organization, to promote street safety.
“Maybe the next time you see it (ghost bikes) you will slow down, that [people] think it could be a child and that would make them drive safer,” Gamboa said.