The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two words that capture D.C.’s unsafe streets: ‘Updated again’

Two memorials were being planned for D.C. cyclists. Then a third was killed.

A ‘ghost bike’ sits on a D.C. sidewalk in honor of 5-year-old Allison Hart, who was killed while riding her bike. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post)

In red capital letters, two words appeared at the top of an online flier: UPDATED AGAIN.

If that flier told of a community concert, yard sale or protest, that phrase wouldn’t have been concerning. But it didn’t.

It told of lives lost on D.C. roads in recent weeks.

It told of a community that had been planning to memorialize three deaths but suddenly was planning for a fourth.

The first version of the flier, which was shared online Tuesday, contained information about two bicyclists and a pedestrian who were fatally hit by motor vehicles in two separate incidents this month. On it appeared their names — Michael Hawkins Randall, Charles Jackson and Michael Gordon — and details about the public memorials that were being planned for them.

On Thursday, the updated flier that was being shared online contained another name — Shawn O’Donnell. The State Department employee who celebrated her 40th birthday by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was fatally hit by a Mack truck on Wednesday morning as she rode her bike to work. A public memorial is now also planned for her.

Woman fatally struck riding bicycle in Northwest Washington

Those memorials were scheduled to take place between this past Friday and this coming Monday.

Each was set to occur in a different part of the city, but all were expected to end in the same way: With a haunting reminder left behind to let people know a life was lost there. Three ghost bikes and a pair of ghost shoes will remain at those sites.

I spoke to Monica Morin, who created those white-painted items, and she told me that when she volunteered for the effort a few weeks ago, she expected to make only one ghost bike. Then came another death. And then another.

“As of yesterday, I am now working on three bikes when I thought there would be one,” she said. “I am so completely heartbroken.”

I have previously written about the need for city officials to step up their efforts to make streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. I told you about Allison Hart, who was 5 years old and on her bike in a city crosswalk when she was hit and killed by the driver of a van. I told you about two young children who were hit and injured while heading to school on National Walk to School Day. I told you how community members have watched vehicles speed by memorials and shared stories of their own close encounters.

At 5, she was killed riding her bike in a crosswalk. Her legacy should be safer streets.

That the heading of a flier was changed is not particularly newsworthy. But in a city that holds a “Vision Zero” goal of ending traffic deaths by 2024 but keeps seeing people dying on its roads, it is telling. That updated flier shows why residents and activists have been pleading with city officials to do more and do it quicker to make roads safer. It shows the growing, unnecessary toll they have been witnessing.

“The costs our families and victims must pay are too high,” Allison Hart’s mother, Jessica Hart, tweeted after O’Donnell’s death. “No one should endure this.”

“Her bicycle looked like someone took tin foil and just crumbled it,” O’Donnell’s mother, Mary O’Donnell, told my colleague Jasmine Hilton of the images she saw of the scene. “That is in my mind now, forever wondering: Did my daughter know she was dying?”

Morin said she first worked on a ghost bike in 2018. It was for cyclist Jeffrey Hammond Long. During the installation of the bike, Morin was sitting near it when she met another cyclist, Dave Salovesh.

“And within a year, we were making a ghost bike for him,” she said. She repeated that thought. “I met Dave Salovesh at a ghost bike, and then we were making a ghost bike for him.”

Salovesh was a well-known advocate for the D.C. biking community before he was hit by a stolen van. The driver was sentenced to 8½ years in prison after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

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“When someone is hit, we use this terrible word — ‘accident’ — and then nothing changes,” Morin said. “The intersection doesn’t change. The only change to the intersection is the memorial individuals put up. It takes weeks, months, years, blood. It takes blood to get changes.”

On July 27, she and others are planning to hold an event at the Wilson Building, across from Freedom Plaza.

“Mayor Muriel Bowser Presents: blood on their hands,” reads an online description of the gathering. “Everyone deserves to travel to DC without fear of serious injury or death. It’s time to make Vision Zero Real. Join us in demanding action.”

Morin said making the ghost bikes can be emotionally exhausting. Different people volunteer to create them so that the task doesn’t fall to the same person each time. When she noticed that by July 10 no one had started to make a bike for Randall, who was 70 when he was killed July 2, she offered to do it.

Randall was hit by a pickup truck in Northeast Washington that then struck Jackson, 64, as he worked in a fireworks stand.

Five days after Morin started working on Randall’s bike, she learned that another cyclist was killed. Gordon, who was 65, was struck by a dump truck in Northwest Washington.

Morin said she has since talked with Gordon’s family and learned he was a grandfather to many.

“He called his bike his Cadillac,” she said. “I call my bike my Cadillac.”

On a recent night, Morin pulled the ghost bike she was making for him into an alley so she could add a layer of white paint to it. Several drivers slowed down when they saw it, but not because they knew what it represented.

They told Morin they admired her artwork. She let them know it wasn’t art. There was nothing beautiful about those bikes.