Nick Van Mead in Houston
Wednesday 4 January 2017 07.30 GMT
“It’s always the same story,” says Steve Sims, who runs Houston’s Ghost Bike scheme with wife Melissa. “We speak to the family who tell us ‘My loved one was struck and killed.’ It’s devastating for them, but when someone gets hit on a bike here, nothing gets done. It happens over and over. You get involved every time but after a while they just kind of blend together.”
We meet at the tattoo parlour the ghost bike group uses as a base. The garage out back is packed wall to wall with old bikes which have been donated and spray-painted white, ready to be used as memorials to the victims of crashes with cars and trucks. It’s eerie to think these bikes will soon mark the site of someone’s death – like visiting the scene of a future mass killing.
Houston has no shortage of victims. Around 1,700 cyclists have been hit by cars on the streets of America’s fourth biggest city since 2013, with drivers failing to stay at the scene in nearly a quarter of cases, according to data from the Houston police department. Twenty-three cyclists have been killed – seven of them by hit-and-run drivers. Many are so-called “invisible cyclists”, people cycling to and from poorly paid jobs early in the morning or late at night, many without lights or a helmet. If the cyclist involved broke a traffic law such as not yielding the right of way, or did not have proper lights, the driver is usually considered blameless, one prosecutor told the Houston Press.
Since the first ghost bike was placed in St Louis in 2003, the movement has spread to cities around the world, with a website giving advice on how to set up a ghost bike programme. Schemes are often started in response to a spate of local deaths, and tend to come and go, but Houston seems to have a particular problem.
An average of six people on bikes are killed every year in the city itself, but that rises threefold or more for the wider urban area, according to Steve Sims. And while Houston has tripled the size of its Metro light rail, agreed a threefold increase in its bike share scheme, and drafted its first new Bike Plan in more than two decades, it remains a city dominated by cars and large SUVs.