Meet the woman behind Chicago’s ghost bikes

Katherine Braden
Medill Reports

You’ve seen them. Leaning against a street-light, they seem to almost glow, plastic flowers hung around their painted white frames. A small plaque with a stark name serves as a haunting reminder.

There are 30 ghost bikes in and surrounding Cook County, but the bikes aren’t unique to Chicago. Originating in St. Louis in the early 2000’s, the bikes have become an international symbol, a memorial constructed after a cyclist’s death by a motorist.

What is unique is the support system Kristen Green, 30, provides local families of the bereaved.

For Green, who started Ghost Bikes Chicago in 2016, it became personal when Blaine Klingenberg, Green’s close friend, was struck and killed by a bus in the West Loop.

Green has known others cyclists who have died. But after Klingenberg, Green decided to take action.

“When he went down, my heart went too. I realized I needed to do something,” Green said.

Previously, ghost bikes in Chicago were set up occasionally by friends or family. Now, as soon as a Chicago cyclist is killed, Green starts work on a ghost bike immediately.

Local bike shops like Working Bikes and West Town bikes donate used parts. It takes just a few weeks for Green, with the help of local volunteers, to paint, decorate and install the bike.

She also reaches out to family, helping them find a lawyer, navigate police and deal with grief.

“The families are so grateful,” Green said. “If it were not for me and Ghost Bikes Chicago, a lot of these families would be left to deal with this alone.”

Green says the hardest part is being strong for the families. She said she cries after every death.

Summer of 2016, Green and Yasmeen Schuller, executive director of Chicago’s online cyclists’ community, painted two bikes at once.

Green prepares two ghost bikes for installation.
Green prepares two ghost bikes for installation. (Photo credit: Kristen Green)

“I’ve done nothing but fight an uphill battle,” Green said. In 2016, eight cyclists were killed by motorists. Last year, the death toll became four after Chicagoan Lisa Shaulk, 50, was struck and killed Nov. 1 by a motorist near Midway Airport. The installation of her ghost bike and memorial service was held by Green on Nov. 19.

“[Ghost bikes] give us a sense of gravity and ask us to do better,” said cyclist Teresa Maze, who commutes 100 miles to work every week on her bike.

Maze just filled out her accidental death and dismemberment insurance form.

“Me being hit and killed by a car seems like the most likely cause of death right now,” Maze said.

Cars regularly try to run Maze off the street, she said. Sometimes drivers stop and threaten her if they feel she is in the way.

“None of the cars believe we have a right to be there,” Maze said. “When I’m not out of the way they get aggressive, even if they’re just speeding past to get to a red light.”

Green agreed. “There are times where it feels like there’s a war on the street,” she said.

According to Jennie Ruff, rider operator for cycling courier service Cut Cats, their cyclists are hit by motorists at least twice a month. Ruff has been struck several times. A head-on collision with a truck left her comatose in the hospital for several days and off work for weeks.

Even though Chicago has added more than 100 miles of protected bike lanes in the past five years, it’s still not enough to keep cyclists safe. There are an estimated eight cycling casualties for every 10,000 cyclists in Chicago, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

“A lot of drivers treat bike lanes as an extra lane or stopping zone,” Maze said, noting that Lyft and Uber drivers will sporadically pull over, causing her to swerve into traffic.

“Bike lanes are a nice idea, but we need to push driver education,” Ruff said. “A lot of the drivers we encounter are not well-educated on where bikes can be, should be or are supposed to be.”

Since 2000, the number of bicycle commuters in Cook County has increased by 150 percent, according to the latest bicycle crash analysis from the City of Chicago.

For Green, complex issues like class warfare are also at work.

“The fact remains that last year, out of the eight cyclists deaths, only one person was white,” said Green. “Until a lower income family can afford to buy a BMW, we’re going to be here.”

After every death, Green arranges a memorial ceremony, gathering together family, friends and the community for a brief service as they set up the bike.

“[Chicago] is a really tight community for cycling,” said Anthony Cruz, shop manager at West Town Bikes.

Cruz attended a candlelight vigil for 23-year-old cyclist Anastasia Kondrasheva, who was killed in 2016. “Hundreds of people were there…. Whether they knew [the deceased] or not, cyclists got together to show love to people in the cycling community,” he said.

People gather in memorial around a ghost bike to show their respects.
A memorial service for Lisa Kuivinen’s ghost bike. (Photo credit: Silma Kuivinen)

Green said it’s important to her that the community is given a place to mourn. Her ultimate goal? No more ghost bikes. To make that happen, cyclists are pushing for better driver education and calling for police to be more attentive and informed.

“A lot of the time, police officers will automatically assume cyclists are in the wrong,” Ruff said.

A constant source of frustration for Green and other Ghost Bike volunteers is the seemingly unjust rulings after a cyclist’s death.Since 2005, there have been 22 fatal crashes involving cyclists in Chicago. Only four of those drivers were charged with felonies.

For now, Green does what she can for the families and community.

“Ghost bikes are really important. They create awareness,” said Danni Limonez, project manager of West Town bikes. “The more awareness, the more people pay attention.”

The ghost bikes serve as a stark reminder for cyclists. And they challenge motorists to remain aware, reminding them that an extra couple of seconds is not worth a human life.

“Cyclists are people. Treat us like people,” said Green. “Ultimately, I want to see [my friends] live. I don’t want to continue to watch as they die.”

Green stands by a ghost bike memorial.
Green stands by a ghost bike memorial. (Photo credit: Kristen Green)
Photo at top: Kristen Green by a ghost bike memorial. (Kristen Green/MEDILL)