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LA will create permanent memorials for bicyclists killed in crashes

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“Hopefully people can look at these and have a moment of reflection to think about this person who’s not here anymore”

Ghost bike memorial
A ghost bike memorializes a cyclist killed in a crash on the streets of LA.
waltarrrrr/Flickr Creative Commons

Last year, 21 bicyclists were killed in traffic collisions on the streets of Los Angeles. Now, as city officials aim to address traffic fatalities through street safety projects and community outreach, residents may start seeing signs memorializing bike riders who died in crashes.

Last month, the City Council approved a program to install permanent memorial signs at the scenes of fatal bike crashes, where temporary memorials, made by activists and the family members of victims, can often already be found.

The signs will be simple—a few words in white font on a blue background—but Councilmember Bob Blumenfield argued in a motion proposing the program that they could serve as a powerful reminder for drivers to “be mindful of vulnerable road users.”

Artist and bike safety advocate Danny Gamboa has been doing that work for years. He leads Los Angeles’s Ghost Bikes, an organization that’s part of a worldwide effort to memorialize riders killed by cars with haunting, whitewashed bicycles left at the scene of collisions.

“It’s art, but it’s also a memorial,” Gamboa tells Curbed. “It’s a place where the realism of death hits you.”

He says the city’s sign program could have a similar effect.

“Hopefully people can look at these and have a moment of reflection to think about this person who’s not here anymore,” he says.

That, says Gamboa, is a key part of starting a citywide conversation about street safety. He compares the current fight against cyclist deaths to the campaign against drunk driving launched in the 1980s, pointing out that it took more than a decade before tougher legislation and social stigmas brought down the nation’s death rate due to alcohol-impaired driving.

The city’s new memorial signs program is part of its larger Vision Zero initiative, a campaign to end traffic deaths entirely by 2025. Data released last month by LA’s Department of Transportation show that, in 2018, at least 240 people died in collisions.

City officials have long argued that public awareness of traffic safety issues is lacking, and permanent memorial signs (most of Gamboa’s ghost bikes are treated by the city as temporary installations) could shine a light on LA’s high rate of crash deaths.

A sample memorial sign.
City of Los Angeles

At a meeting of the City Council’s transportation committee last month, councilmembers Mike Bonin and Nury Martinez recommended that, to drive that message home further, the city should also mount signs memorializing pedestrians killed in collisions.

But that proposal is a work in progress. Transportation general manager Seleta Reynolds told the committee that the department may need to design an alternative program for pedestrians, due to the enormous number of people killed while walking each year.

“One hundred fifty pedestrians die on our streets every year; a much smaller number—15 or so—bicyclists do,” said Reynolds. “In order for us to put together a memorial program that’s respectful and on the same level... we would want to just consider what that would look like.”

Under the new program, memorials for bicyclists would be created at the request of a victim’s family members, and would offer drivers a short directive (“watch your speed” or “don’t text and drive,” for instance), followed by a bicycle image and the victim’s name.

Gamboa says simplicity is effective in roadside memorials, as an entry point to a larger conversation about the ways that Los Angeles’s streets are designed, and how to create an environment that’s safer for people who aren’t driving.

“The goal is to start a dialogue,” he says. “So we can start working toward real solutions to this problem.”