Photo: Pedal_Power_Pete.

Stephen led this morning with a summary of Friday’s ghost bike outrage, where city employees callously cut off the ghost bike memorial to Alice Swanson at 20th and R, NW without notifying the family. In fact, they’d told WABA they were planning to do it, but promised to wait a few days for the family to be able to come get the bike, then reversed course and cut it off before the deadline.

Some of the debate has revolved around whether it’s reasonable to expect these ghost bikes to remain in perpetuity. Monkeyrotica pointed out that memorials to shooting victims don’t remain forever, either. And obviously, if all roadside memorials lasted forever, the city would eventually fill up with them. The memorial didn’t need to stay forever. WABA suggested that the city replace it with a small sign or plaque.

The real issue is not the memorial, but the city’s callous treatment of the entire issue. Over a year after the crash, the city has not made any improvements to the intersection except for painting dashed lines across the intersection. The police have still not released their report of the incident. After ignoring the safety issue for a year, the Mayor’s office only took action when a few businesses complained, and then couldn’t be bothered to treat the issue with the respect due Swanson’s family.

According to WABA’s Eric Gilliland, WABA asked for three safety improvements:

  • Extend the bike lane with dashed lines all the way through the intersection as a visual reminder to drivers that, if turning right, they’d be potentially crossing cyclists’ paths.
  • Add a bike box, so that bicycles can pull ahead of the cars when waiting. That would ensure the cars can see the bikes, and won’t turn into them.
  • Make the light at 20th and R no right turn on red.
  • Add a sign saying “Yield to Bikes.”

DDOT did the striping, but hasn’t publicly responded to the other suggestions. No community meetings took place to discuss ways to make the intersection safer. It’s still a danger zone, and trucks continue to almost hit cyclists.

Swanson’s family and bicycle advocates have also been trying to get a copy of the police report. Thus far, the police have refused. WashCycle got an informal look at a redacted version, where the police seem to go out of their way to blame the cyclist for getting hit. The investigating officer concludes that the truck driver didn’t violate any laws, but, according to WashCycle, implies that Swanson violated the law against moving faster than is “reasonable and prudent.”

That’s right, the MPD investigating officer thinks Alice Swanson — who was biking a half mile to work in flip flops and light clothing on a 10 speed Huffy Free Spirit that is no longer manufactured — died because she was biking too fast. Read that again, they think she died because she was biking too fast.

Meanwhile, the truck apparently did break the law, whether or not the police particularly care about said law. If you’re turning right in a car, and there is a bicycle lane, you are supposed to move into the bicycle lane before making the turn. You should signal and look over your shoulder to move into the lane, just as if there were a regular car lane to the right. Turning from the car lane is the same as making a right turn from the left-hand lane when there are two regular lanes. It’s illegal.

According to the report, the truck driver didn’t see Swanson. There’s no reason to disbelieve that. But that doesn’t mean the driver bears no blame whatsoever. Too often, however, police assume that cyclists are the ones responsible for not getting themselves hit, and if a car or truck driver doesn’t see a cyclist, that’s just too bad for the cyclist. Yes, driving is tricky and mistakes happen, but that doesn’t excuse drivers from being careful. But since more people drive than bike, especially police officers, many people imagine themselves in the position of being the driver who inadvertently kills a cyclist than the cyclist who gets killed because a driver was inattentive and didn’t follow proper procedure.

As for the memorial, the Mayor’s office told WABA they were going to cut it down. WABA asked for time to notify the family, and the city told WABA they had until Monday. Instead, DPW simply cut it off Friday. This could be no more than a case of bureaucratic miscoordination. But the city had many opportunities to show greater concern for bicycle safety. They could have done more to improve the intersection. They could be forthright about the police report, and train officers on the correct application of laws to bicycle crashes. And they could come up with an appropriate, long-term way to memorialize Alice Swanson. They didn’t.

Gilliland said, “[The memorial] was very personal and very meaningful, not just to the family and Alice’s friends but to the cycling community as a whole. The event was absolutely tragic and hit the whole bike community very hard. This ghost bike was a symbol of that — not just a piece of furniture that was broken down and sitting on the side walk. It was a lot more. This whole process could have been treated with a lot more respect.”

And monkeyrotica wrote, “Having a simple removal ceremony or mounting a small plaque would have cost almost nothing and generated a lot of goodwill. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem a major concern of the Mayor’s office.” Despite being a triathlete and bicycling for exercise, improving bicycle safety hasn’t been a priority for the Mayor. Montgomery’s Ike Leggett said he was getting serious about traffic safety after witnessing a pedestrian killed in East County. What will it take for Adrian Fenty to get similarly serious?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.