Gaps in safety infrastructure remain, even as traffic-related injuries and deaths decrease in Madison.
Another ghost bike was added to the streets of Madison on Wednesday, August 17.
For those who don’t know, a ghost bike is a bicycle painted all white and chained at the location where a cyclist was killed as a memorial. The first ghost bikes appeared in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2003 and can be seen all over the world, including Madison.
The newest bike is chained to a light pole in the median at the intersection of Pflaum Road and Mustang Way on Madison’s East Side. A UPS Customer Service Center sits at one corner, where empty brown box trucks refill and then head out for deliveries.
One of those box trucks collided with 79-year-old William Cummings. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
At Wednesday’s ceremony, his widow, Charlotte Cummings, and step-son, Will Schira, said Cummings was an avid cyclist, a “good man” who was in remission after cancer treatment. Schira said his stepfather, who had been in his life since he was 7 years old, had instilled a love of technology, which led to Schira’s current career. The Saturday before the incident, Will and Charlotte spent the day at Schira’s home.
Charlotte and Schira both sprayed some white paint onto the ghost bike. Then Charlotte fastened the lock.
As board president at Madison Bikes, Harald Kliems spends a lot of time advocating for safe biking infrastructure. Cummings’ memorial was the second he attended; the last was for 29-year-old Taylor Dunn, who was hit by an intoxicated driver while he was cycling to work. Dunn’s ghost bike is at Mineral Point Road and Ganser Way.
“It was really hard on me. And now it’s barely August, and we’re out here again, another person killed on a bike,” Kliems said. “And I think there’s a lot of thinking about, ‘could it be one of us next time? Could it be a family member?’”
Kliems also sits on the Madison Transportation Commission, which is involved in Vision Zero, an initiative to eliminate serious injuries and fatalities in traffic incidents.
“That’s the commitment that I feel: to make this stop and not have more people killed,” Kliems said. “And not just people biking—people walking, people in cars. We can prevent these fatalities, and we have to.”
Key components of the plan include lowering speed limits, installing traffic calming mechanisms (such as speed bumps), and improving walking and biking infrastructure. Madison Police Department officials stated that road design was partly responsible for Cummings’ death. There isn’t a buffer or barrier to protect the bicycle lane on Pflaum Road, and the road shifts from one lane to two at the point where Cummings and the truck collided.
Last year, Madison Bikes organized a “Take Back the Streets” rally outside of the city’s municipal building to advocate for a more concrete and equitable plan. At that point in 2021, four cyclists had been killed in traffic accidents on East Washington Street alone.
At the same time as Wednesday’s ghost bike ceremony, Madison city traffic engineer Yang Tao and other city officials held a Vision Zero town hall on Madison’s west side, where Tao said the initiative was at least, in part, the reason traffic fatalities and injuries have dropped this year.
Mark Shahan, the treasurer and board member at Madison Bikes, said that, in the 40 years he’s been advocating for biking infrastructure, he’s seen Madison become much more receptive to investing in safety features.
“Just getting people to understand what [a bike path] could do and what an amenity it would be for the neighborhood was hard,” Shahan said. “Now, it’s not perfect, but there have been great strides in starting to try new things like buffered bike lane, which would’ve been a difficult ask back in 1997.”
So far, the city seems to be moving in the right direction. While 2022 has been the most deadly for cyclists nationwide, July 2022 in Madison had the lowest number of serious injuries or fatalities for that month since 2017.
“If you look at the year to date, it seems like 2022 was a comparatively safe year [in Madison],” Kliems said. “But we are here [at the ghost bike ceremony] because somebody was killed.”
“I don’t want to be out here ever again,” Kliems said.
After taking in the ghost bike for a few moments, Will Schira, Cummings’ step-son, noticed the lush, bucolic marsh across the street. As the group walked away from the bike, a green heron flew overhead. Schira noted that it was “not a bad place for a last ride.”
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