A ghost bike on Indy’s South Side: an outlier or a signifier of greater road safety needs?

It’s not typical of me to dive right back into a subject just two months after having written about it previously, but I can’t help myself: ghost bikes are an increasingly visible feature of the urbanized landscape.  (I also guess the medium is a little different this time around, because I’m asking the question on Urban Indy, regarding an Indianapolis ghost bike.) And, as I depicted in my previous article at American Dirt, which featured featured a white-painted bike memorial in a completely uninhabited mega-park in Albuquerque, sometimes they’re in areas where one’s first reaction is to ask the question, “How did the cyclist die?”

And therein lies the intrigue: the semiotics behind ghost bikes allow an essentially unlimited array of narratives.  They are cenotaphs: markers of a death in general, rather than an actual grave that signifies the exact location of interment. In many regards, ghost bikes and other cenotaphs tell more of a story than a conventional tombstone.  Sometimes the site of a cenotaph is a matter of convenience; it’s cheaper land or more visible.  But more often than not, the cenotaph indicates that specific location as the place of the fatality.

This angelic bike stands, locked and propped against a wrought-iron fence facing busy Madison Avenue, one of the core southside arterials linking downtown Indianapolis to suburban Greenwood, where it passes through Greenwood’s historic downtown.  Like most of Indianapolis’s south side, pedestrian and bicycle provisions are spotty at best.

Here’s a Google Street View of the general site.  But, in all fairness, Madison Avenue’s provisions are above average for this highly suburbanized, auto-oriented part of town: sidewalks are inconsistent but generally present for much of the area between I-465 and County Line Road, and a white-striped bike lane extends almost the full length of this same segment, at least until Shelby Street diverges from Madison Avenue just to the north of the I-465 crossing, at which point Shelby Street becomes the optimal bicyclist route to downtown, via such pedestrian friendly neighborhoods as Garfield Park, Bates-Hendricks, and Fountain Square.

But in the far southside communities of Southport and Homecroft, Madison Avenue represents the primary north-south spine and demonstrates a half-hearted investment in transportation alternatives.  At the stretch of Madison Avenue where this ghost bike stands, between Stop 10 and Stop 11 roads, the bike lane directly abuts the sidewalk, with only a curb separating them.  No grassy terrace between the sidewalk and the curb; no bollards or buffers between the bike lane and speeding cars.  The conditions are mediocre.  I’d reckon this stretch of Madison Avenue (and the Southport/Homecroft area in general) would receive a Walk Score rating of between 40 and 60 out of 100; the Bike Score rating would be similar if not lower.  Such numbers are better than most of the south side of Indianapolis but hardly stellar, and the zoning encourages considerable separation of uses while prioritizing parking lots.  Nonetheless, thanks to these investments, people in the immediate area—such as the apartment on the other side of this wrought iron fence—do at least have the capacity to walk or bike the five minutes to a retail node.  The conditions aren’t an imminent hazard but they’re sub-optimal.

But there’s another clincher.

The name of the deceased individual commemorated through this ghost bike is clearly non-Western; it’s difficult to determine the nationality, but my fairest guess is that he or she is of Asian descent.  I base this assessment not just on the monosyllabic last name but my knowledge of Indy’s south side in general and Perry Township in particular.  It’s a safe guess that the individual is of Burmese heritage; as most who read this blog already know, Indianapolis hosts one of the largest (perhaps the largest) Burmese refugee communities in the world—primarily those from the Chin state in Myanmar, and they customarily face persecution for their adherence to Christianity in a country where the overwhelming majority (nearly 90%) practice Buddhism.  Likely though it may be that Myint Aung was Chin, it’s possible this person’s country of origin is elsewhere.  Perry Township in particular has served as a primary destination for a variety of immigrants and refugees, primarily southeast Asia—but the reported 70 languages spoken in the Perry Township school district could point to a variety of different tongues.  And while it is possible that Myint Aung was proficient or fluent in English, the odds are considerably lower than if this person had had a conventional American name (for obvious reasons) or even a Spanish, Indian/Punjabi, Arabic, or conspicuously Chinese name.  As refugees who most likely arrived in the United States within the last 25 years (and possibly in the last five), the odds that individuals from this very non-Western culture have achieved proficiency in English is still somewhat lower than those from countries with a more established presence in the US.  Familiarity with American culture—including its automobile dependency and traffic patterns—is likely to be quite low, and odds are great that these immigrants have incomes substantially below the area median.

Speaking in such generalities, however, can be patronizing, and the fact remains that any bicycle related fatality is a tragedy, regardless of the person’s ethnicity.  I simply highlight this because of the location: just off the right-hand margins of these photos (behind that iron fence) are the Greentree Apartments.  The Greentree is known throughout Perry Township as one of the highest concentrations of refugees; it is likely that nearly 100% of the residents originally come from either Myanmar or a neighboring country.  The retail and services just to the south of the Greentree Apartments—the strip malls that flank the intersection of Madison Avenue and Stop 11 Road—very clearly serve the immigrant community, which is concentrated enough around here that Southport Elementary (whose catchment area includes Greentree Apartments) has an Asian enrollment of 60%, in a state where the Asian population overall does not exceed 3%.

Thus, it is less about ethnicity as a discrete feature and more about the spatialization and concentration of individuals with likely greater needs here along this busy stretch of Madison Avenue.  A population of extremely moderate means in an otherwise middle-class environment is far more likely to get around by foot or two wheels.  And this ghost bike serves as a testimony to such an embedded vulnerability.  The City of Indianapolis passed a Complete Streets Ordinance several years ago—something I championed many years ago on my own blog—but such laws only allow for the inevitable incremental upgrades in sidewalks, bike provisions, and traffic calming, most likely spurred by large land developments in an area.  The budget simply isn’t available to make every street in Indianapolis replete with wide, buffered sidewalks and protected bike lanes; it would be a poor use of money, especially considering much of this low-density city lacks any sort of development pattern that would ever make it walkable or particularly desirable for anything more than recreational cycling.

But exceptions to this standard exist, and those locations are where infrastructural interventions could prove the most beneficial.  This stretch of Madison Avenue, with the Myint Aung ghost bike, seems like an excellent candidate.  As indicated earlier, the bike/ped conditions on this stretch of Madison Avenue are okay: painted lanes in both directions, a pretty consistent sidewalk up against the curb on the eastern (northbound) side of the street, but much more inconsistent sidewalks on the western (southbound) side.  And it has few if any crosswalks except at major intersections with stop lights.  Yet it’s also a road segment with some of the highest demand for bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure anywhere in the city’s south side.  If any place in Perry Township warranted an improvement in transportation enhancements, this is it.

Don’t get me wrong: I take extreme caution that I never let perfect be the enemy of the good.  I am not yet a proponent of the increasingly trendy Vision Zero movement: a Swedish-born project that attempts to reduce road related highways and injuries to nil.  The utopianism that undergirds such initiatives results in an ethos that often perceives even considerable improvements as inadequate.  Vision Zero’s fate is already sealed; we will never achieve zero deaths on roads any more than we will achieve zero deaths from natural disasters.  The philosophy allows little room to celebrate any victory and instead steers the public sentiment toward ever greater intervention (engineering, education, enforcement) to the point that it can actually create highly undesirable unintended consequences: for example, a municipality regulates its roads so stringently that motorists opt to go elsewhere to conduct business, or businesses relocate out of the city because the commuting environment has become so meddlesome.  And I cannot help but recall the escalating pressure bicycle activists keep placing on municipal public works departments: twenty years ago they cheered the painting of striped bike lanes (as we see on Madison Avenue), but today, many of those same activists turn their cheek toward a white stripe with a bike logo.  It’s just not enough: now they need protected bike lanes in the street (either false curbs or bollards) or completely grade separated cycletracks.  Both of these improvements are much costlier than a painted bike lane.

Bearing this in mind, the best approach is to make a case where an intervention could achieve the greatest benefit.  Madison Avenue could indeed gain considerably from sidewalks on both sides of the street, as well as enforced crosswalks (signage and caution signals) around at least one point between the major east-west intersections: Stop 10 and Stop 11 roads.  And, thanks to the lack of on-street parking and the relatively high speeds permitted on this stretch of Madison Avenue, a simple painted bike lane may seem inadequate or even detrimental: it encourages bicyclists to use this busy arterial (potentially all the way to downtown Indy) more complacently than they otherwise would be, despite the fact that a car can easily pass into their lane and cause significant or fatal injury.  I’d wager that the segment of Madison Avenue at least from Stop 11 all the way north to Shelby Street could benefit greatly from a form of protection, such as a low-slung curb exactly where we currently witness a white line.  A minor buffer from the traffic.

This article’s analysis makes the case for more complete streets.   A higher density population than average, a lower median income than average, and a greater dependency on non-motorized transport perhaps due to greater unfamiliarity with the English language and American traffic laws.  And what about the evidence—the visual support for an improved bike/ped network at this particular location?  Look no further than the ghost bike.


For similar perspectives on landscapes and the built environment, please visit Eric’s blog, American Dirt. 

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