Ghost Bikes: Honoring the Memory of Fallen Cyclists

"Some of the most vulnerable people out on the streets [in Southern California] are bicyclists," says Danny Gamboa, co-founder of Ghost Bikes L.A., a movement that honors fallen cyclists.

The 43-year-old spray-paints bicycles a spectral hue whenever a bicyclist dies in the City of Angels. Then, near the crash site, he locks the white, pedal-propelled vehicles to a street sign to commemorate the lost life and help raise awareness of L.A.'s traffic violence. He calls these voluntarily constructed roadside memorials Ghost Bikes.

"We place these memorials so folks can say, 'Hey, something happened here,'?" says Gamboa, who defines his somber monuments as art, activism and advocacy. "Maybe it would be a rallying point for people to come together and heal."

The Ghost Bikes movement began in St. Louis in 2003 and has expanded to nearly 40 states. For the past six years, the white bikes have been placed in at least 20 cities in California. The movement to support cyclists' rights has grown into a worldwide revolution, with memorials in more than 30 countries.

Gamboa, a father of two, was inspired to bring the cause to Southern California after an Oxnard resident's son was killed while riding his bike. It was on Thanksgiving in 2011 that Anthony Navarro's 6-year-old was struck by a pickup in front of the family's home.

"I lost a son, and my [three] kids lost a brother," says Navarro, 47, who later joined Ghost Bikes. "It's never going to be easy, but I want people to know that their loved ones will never be forgotten because there are people who know what they're going through."

Every 40 hours, one person dies on the streets of Los Angeles. People walking and bicycling are involved in only 14 percent of all collisions but account for almost half of all traffic deaths. According to the L.A. Department of Transportation, 260 traffic-related deaths occurred in 2016. Despite the 2015 launch of Vision Zero Los Angeles, an initiative that aims to eliminate all L.A. traffic-related deaths and injuries by 2025, the city isn't likely to reach its goal of cutting traffic fatalities by 20 percent at the end of this year.

That's sobering news for Gamboa and Navarro, who continue to create the melancholy memorials with the help of donations, other volunteers and activists like Ted Rogers. A decade ago, Rogers became the first person to track Southern California's bicycle fatalities in real time on his blog, BikinginLA.com.

Enraged by the absence of news coverage of bike fatalities, Rogers began compiling information on cycling deaths from police, bicyclists and other sources in order to raise awareness. Now, the blog has become a leading source for bike news and advocacy.

"How many deaths are acceptable? You tell me," Rogers says. "If you cannot accept the value of a human life, then you have a serious psychological problem."

Gamboa's advocacy has extended to his youngest son, Evan, who has joined his father in spray-painting Ghost Bikes. However, the 12-year-old middle schooler never imagined that he would have to set up one of the memorials for his good friend Eric Dagel.

"Everybody knows his name because it rhymes with bagel. People even thought he should open up his own bagel store one day," Evan says.

Near the intersection of Woodruff Avenue and Conant Street in Long Beach, a Ghost Bike marks the spot where, on Nov. 9, Dagel was hit by a Chevy Suburban. Evan describes placing his friend's Ghost Bike as "extremely emotional" and likens the process to carving a tombstone.

Evan Gamboa, 12, helped create this Ghost Bike memorial for his friend, Eric Dagel.
Evan Gamboa, 12, helped create this Ghost Bike memorial for his friend, Eric Dagel.
Danny Gamboa

"I wanted the Ghost Bike to brighten the place up," says Evan, who played in a jazz band with Dagel at Marshall Middle School. "It felt like destiny, with a true burden [being the son of the co-founder of Ghost Bikes]."

Breaking the news of Dagel's death to her students wasn't easy for Rachel Elizabeth Keith, the kids' English teacher. It was the first time a child in her class had died, and she couldn't help but cry when telling the middle schoolers. Attempting to maintain her composure and battling her tears, Keith told everyone why Dagel wouldn't be attending their class anymore.

"I supervise dismissal, and I saw Eric smiling as he rode away for the last time," Keith recalls. "It's hard to know that I'm never going to see him again."

Galvanized by the number of Ghost Bikes he's had to put in place, Gamboa created a nonprofit called Healthy Active Streets to empower mobility advocates in his community. Healthy Active Streets has for the last two years provided Southern California with free bike-safety workshops, community events and special programs for bicyclists as young as 5. Educating the public on bike safety is integral to his organization's mission.

Gamboa believes that the single most important thing he can teach bicyclists is to ride predictably and to remain visible.

"Safer streets are done by design and not necessarily by enforcement," Gamboa says. "It's going to take the whole city and the whole community to make our streets safe."

Through his work with Healthy Active Streets and Ghost Bikes, Gamboa hopes to bridge the gap between cyclists and elected officials.

"People just want to be able to get home to their families safely," he says.

For Evan, the message and mission of Ghost Bikes L.A. and Healthy Active Streets resonate more than ever. He recalls sitting with Eric Dagel at lunch just a few months ago, listening to him play The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" on the clarinet. Evan doesn't want people to forget about his good friend or anyone else who has died while riding their bike.

Marshall Middle School held a ceremony to remember Dagel. Though he attended that event and set up a Ghost Bike memorial, Evan says it still feels as if Dagel is in class with him. He asked his teacher Keith to keep a rose on his friend's desk and to leave Dagel's seat empty for the remainder of the year as a way to honor his life.

"We can never take life for granted," Evan says. "We need to learn from this."

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