I saw my first ghost bike in Anchorage this morning. It was a somber shock for a Friday morning commute.
The ghost was leaning against a sign, in the median strip of C Street, at the intersection with 40th. It was a true apparition. The headlights from the passing traffic swept across it in the morning dark. The stark white bicycle gleamed back at the motorists, standing as a silent witness to the transgression of one of them.
I’m not sure how many folks in Anchorage know what a ghost bike is. A ghost bike appears at the location where a bicyclist has been killed or seriously injured. According to ghostbikes.org, ghost bikes first began to be seen in St. Louis in 2003. They are memorials to a life that has been lost or damaged, and they are protests against the sometimes terrible dominance of the internal combustion engine. Their numbers have been increasing across the country and now the world. But I’ve never seen one in Alaska. That is, not until today.
This particular ghost has appeared for a young man who is no longer riding his bicycle among us. On the morning of October 20, 2008, 19-year-old Jonathan Johnson was riding across C Street at 40th when an SUV struck him. He was seriously injured in the accident and died from his injuries a few days later.
I did not know Jonathan Johnson. But during my drive to work on October 20, I saw the accident scene. The police and paramedics were still in the intersection when I drove by that day. The flashing lights of the emergency vehicles raked through the dark. Traffic was completely stopped in the southbound lane of C Street; it was crawling in the northbound lane.
I did not know Jonathan Johnson. So I cannot tell you what the aftermath of his accident and death will be. There may be legal issues to sort out, such as liability questions, insurance issues, etc. I’m not sure. The Anchorage Daily News reported that the police did not cite the driver of the SUV in the accident.
I did not know Jonathan Johnson. But I ride the same bike routes he did. When I can squeeze a bike commute in, I ride the bike trail along C Street to my office downtown, summer and winter alike. For all I know, I could have passed Jonathan Johnson going the other way on the bike trail one day as I was making my way to work. I have a connection to Jonathan Johnson because I know that what happened to him could also happen to any other bike commuter, myself included.
I did not know Jonathan Johnson. But I know what it is like to ride bikes in Anchorage. There was a recent article in the paper about Anchorage being called a “bike friendly” city. The author of the article did not agree with that characterization, saying Anchorage was a “city with no shortage of dangerous places to ride.” I also think that calling Anchorage a “bike friendly” city is a dubious description, although I can say that it is a whole lot friendlier to bikes than it used to be.
I did not know Jonathan Johnson. But I drive the streets of Anchorage the same as the young woman who ran her SUV into him. I know the challenge of coming upon a bicyclist in the dark when you are not keeping an eye out for one. After Jonathan’s accident, the Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage posted a notice on their website reminding cyclists to use lights and reflectors for winter rides.
I did not know Jonathan Johnson. But I feel sympathy for his family. A life cut short at 19 years of age is a thing impossible to ever fully accept.
I did not know Jonathan Johnson. But I am a fellow citizen and cyclist of Anchorage. I can feel his passing, and I am sad there is one less cyclist in my city.
I did not know Jonathan Johnson. But I know the ghost that stands for him now.