COMMENTARY: Will Crashes Spark Tactical Suburbanism?

Ghost Bike Removed from Lincoln Crash Site Within Hours of Installation


Ghost bikes spur a lot of emotion. Like the crosses and shrines erected along highway crash scenes, these stark emblems pay tribute to a place where a cyclist died while also serving reminders to motorists to mind their behavior.

On the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 17, I corresponded with Maureen Crocker, the sister of Eugene Thornberg, who died in June after a collision between his bicycle and a motor vehicle along Route 126 in Lincoln.

The Lincoln Police granted Crocker permission to host a memorial ghost bike service near the scene of the crash on Saturday, Sept. 10. The family delayed the service to allow Thornberg’s son, Patrick Thornberg, to return from his basic training for the U.S. Marine Corps in Parris Island, S.C.

The service will be held at 11 a.m. The Lincoln Police graciously offered to close the road for one hour to accommodate the service. They would also grant permission to install the ghost bike but only for that weekend.

Crocker was informed the town would not allow the bike to stay at the site. She is considering working with a private landowner to seek permission to post the bike permanently near the crash site.

Within minutes of posting news announcing the service, MassBike learned of another tragedy. Sean Kavanaugh, 61, of Carlisle, was struck broadside by a negligent motorist turning left along Trapelo Road in Waltham.

As he clung to life in the ICU of Lahey Burlington, MassBike sought information from the office of Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan. They then informed MassBike of another tragic collision with an SUV striking and killing Mark Himelfarb, 57, of Westford. This crash occurred along Virginia Road, one of the busiest routes for suburban bike riders in Metro Boston. 

Kavanaugh rode with the Monsters, a group of suburban cyclists anchored in Concord. Their e-mail list sprung to life over the news of both tragedies. These riders have raised millions of dollars for charities through cycling events.

Suddenly these suburban cyclists were electrified and engaged. On Sunday night two Ghost Bikes appeared at each of the crash sites. Both featured hand-made signs that humanized the victims and urged patience from drivers.

By 9:30 a.m. of the following day the ghost bike from the Lincoln crash site had been removed.

Whether this action spurs more activity or less remains to be seen. But the tactical urbanism of Somerville, Cambridge and Boston - dating back to the 1970s - had clearly inspired some to launch tactical suburbanism.

When we look at how little bicycle accommodation exists in our Massachusetts suburbs, where so many cyclists ride, we believe this may be overdue.

All this talk of suburban crashes made me think of my encounter last week with another cyclist.

He had caught up to me on Mass Ave in East Arlington, where after years of contentious debate we got a lot of nice bike infrastructure. I slowed for the red light.

He accelerated … and blew the red light at speed.

I caught him at the next intersection with Route 16. And the following conversation ensued:  

“Hi. I’m the ED at MassBike. I go to hearings and city halls, meet with selectmen and State House lawmakers, and try to make things better for bikes. But whenever we blow lights like you did back there I lose all support. It is ALL that people talk about at those hearings is how cyclists don’t follow the rules.”

He steeled his gaze forward, and stated:

“You know I like MassBike and all, but what we really need are better laws.”  

Now there was a mansion of logic I could move into, huh?

“What’s the difference if nobody enforces them and nobody abides by them?,” I replied.

The light turned green. I could have spoken for an hour about how freaking hard it is to get a single law passed, to get any enforcement, to get a cop to give a damn about a bike rider, to get a court to not blame the victim….But the light had turned green.

That experience made me realize just how confused really smart people can be about bike advocacy. As this movement moves into the suburbs with Complete Streets and Vision Zero the need for organized advocacy is larger than ever.

Following these recent suburban crashes, my screen filled with links to all sorts of club e-mail lists and social media...

We should wear mirrors.

We should pass a hands-free bill.

We should use lights during the day.

We should wear Road ID badges.

We should pass a three-foot rule.

We should use GoPro cameras.


We should ….  


We should ….  


We should ….


All these folks rolled out what they thought was the magic bullet to fix everything. I sit around coffee shops listening to them go on and on about which of the magic bullets is best. I sit around these carousels of correctness, with each guy feeling compelled to provide his answer.

Here’s the deal folks: There IS no magic bullet. There is no single piece of legislation, no perfect bike lane, no magic cape, no one invention, no secret sauce.  

I’ve been at this advocacy thing a while now. All I have come to know is all that I don’t know. What I do know is that we need all five E’s: engineering, education, enforcement, encouragement and evaluation. But more importantly we need to be constant.  

We need to recognize just how many great people are out there working every day on your behalf as a bicycle rider in a car-crazed culture. They wait patiently for agenda items to come up in meetings. They press steadily for meetings with officials. They respond to the media. They call police departments. They write ordinances and laws. They steadily lean on mayors, selectmen, state reps, and state senators. They infiltrate planning boards and town engineering offices and regional planning agencies. They press HR officials and building superintendents in their workplaces. Because of this hard work over the last 39 years there is also a good story here. The death of Mr. Himelfarb was just the fourth bicycling fatality of the year in the state. This is a drastic reduction from the 16 fatalities in 2014. This reduction can be attributed to improvements made at the state and local level and the efforts of advocates across Massachusetts.

And they never quit.

I honestly do hope those coffee shop conversations continue. They are important.  

But without steady, constant pressure from advocacy groups working with solid data and real facts in places where real change can be made, those conversations are moot.  

Join the Movement. Support this hard work. 


Showing 15 reactions

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  • Joel Parks
    I read this last week, and re-read it today. I may have to read it again because I haven’t really been putting the time into my cyclist advocacy lately, and I must get back to it. Thanks to Richard and John A and John S and all the others that put so much into this on behalf of all of us.
  • Joel Parks
  • Mark Duchart
    Great post Richard…As someone that rides this road almost daily I can tell you lunch time on this road can be chaotic. I avoid the times between 11am and 1pm for this very reason. People racing to get back to work or worse, waze using it as a bi-pass when RT 2 is congested, I get passed by cars doing 60+ coming into Hanscomb, and if their late to get back to work at one of the offices along the Virginia they continue that speed to that very intersection which has a stop sign and right turn only. Very few people stop at the sign, instead turn hard and charge down the hill sometimes in the opposite lane where I have nearly had head-on collisions and I believe where Mr Himelfarb was struck. Then once they reach the airport runway they can be going 50-60 as they pass you as well, no police presence ever, its frighting.

    That being said, I am one of a handful of maybe 1000 cyclists I’ve seen that actually stops at both signs, the one coming into Hanscomb and the one on Virginia. We demand more lanes, 3 ft laws, equal access etc but most cyclists I see don’t obey the traffic laws that are in place for all. In the past week I have seen:

    6 riders blowing through a red light in Lexington
    10+ riders blow through stop signs in Concord, Lincoln, and Lexington
    10+ taking a right on red when sign clearly states no turn on red
    Group rides taking up a full lane of traffic, talking, chatting, weaving not paying attention, while cars are waiting to pass, this maybe legal but it sure pisses the drivers off, so much so they seem to see how close they can get their cars without actually hitting them.

    I am STRONG believer in punishment for drivers who intimidate, hurt or kill cyclists and sadly you never seem to see it. But maybe we own some of this by not OBEYING the laws and by law enforcement not citing bad cycling behavior. Yes it sucks to come to stop at a stop sign on a hill and un-clip or wait for a light to turn green, but we can’t have it both ways, expecting laws to be passed for drivers that support cyclists then seeing cyclist disregard the basic traffic laws the cars must comply with. I believe a campaign with enforcement to support proper cycling behavior would go a long way to get respect from drivers, caution around cyclists, and dare say support for wider roads with dedicated lanes?? It could lead to prosecution of drivers that kill or injure cyclists, which is now is laughable. Right now drivers are just plain POed watching cyclists continue to break the law, every-time I see a cyclist break the law I get POed! Because their selfish actions may effect me or my fellow law abiding riders in the future.

    Lets be clear, you aren’t going to convince everyone, some people just hate cyclist because they are bitter angry people. I have been on roads all over the country obeying the law and still have had bottles thrown at me, brush backs, and my favorite stomp, on the accelerator diesel truck cloud. But getting convictions for these offenses will require us to clean up our own house and then our demands will have more merit and supporters in the future.
  • Mark Duchart
  • John Allen
    Lee Hollembeck — Then you’re doing the best you can. May the force be with you. (And apologies for the blog’s somehow not giving my complete name. It’s John Allen)
  • John Allen
    Lee Hollembeck — Then you’re doing the best you can. May the force be with you. (And apologies for the blog’s somehow not giving my complete name. It’s John Allen)
  • Lee Hollenbeck
    John ale, not getting my situation . The road is about 8 ft wide, single lane each side for about a mile . There are few places with good sight lines to pass, but many curves with no way to see around the curves. I take the lane the whole time, most cars are courteous , some are not. The lane is not wide enough to share safely .
  • John Allen
    In response to Lee Hollenbeck: when you are in a blind right corner, ride near the left side of the right lane so motorists can see you in time to slow and follow until it is safe to pass. Make a slow signal to indicate that you are aware of the following motorist and that passing is unsafe. pull back to the right when passing becomes safe. Give a friendly wave.
  • Lee Hollenbeck
    Excellent article . Long time bike commuter here. Some motorist education would be helpfull. Like the fact that bikes can take the lane when needed . My local street in the ‘burbs is a 20 mph narrow, windy road. Cars don’t seem to get that and pass at will on blind corners . Thoughts?
  • John Allen
    Correct: there is no magic bullet. But one problem we have, and we have it big-time, is a behavior problem — with cyclists — you nailed that one — and big time, with motorists too. The prospects for infrastructure changes on roads like Virginia Road are very remote: improved safety is going to have to result from improved behavior. The difficulty of getting and keeping a driver’s license in the Netherlands, Germany or Denmark plays a very major role in their low crash rates. Getting to closer that here in the USA is going to be tough but it is necessary.
  • John Siem
    Wow! What a great post! There is no magic bullet. We need constant vigilance. More bicyclists need to get engaged in advocacy. A friend said years ago, for many cyclists “advocacy isn’t their issue, until it’s their issue.” If you ride a bike and come across something wrong, make it your issue. The Marines have a saying, “Every Marine, a rifleman.” Well, it’s time to fight! Many have soldiered on for years on advocacy issues with little or no awareness or appreciation from our riding buddies. It’s not too hard to get involved – start small with one thing. Like taking photos of debris on the road and sending them to the DPW to ask they clean it up. Simple, takes a few minutes, and congratulations, you are an advocate!
  • Alan Wright
    Richard – excellent post! The recent crashes have stirred conversation on many of the ride group forums such as Crack o Dawn. Now to get them to join MassBike & BCU in addition to all the effort they put into raising money for cancer, etc.
  • John Hoyle
    Class 1 Bike Lanes, those entirely separated from the roadway, are the proven safe lanes. Painted lines or images of bicycles on shared use roads, or signs, are not proven to give greater safety. Drivers are distracted more than every in history and traffic increased. My hope is for far more Class 1 Paths. Perhaps Medians, the wide swath of land between highway lanes, can be used. But it doable, although probably costly. Or ‘bike hours’ on conventional roads, ‘bike days’ on certain roads – how great it would be to have road empty but for bicycles.
  • Michael Markowitz
    100% with you, Richard. The one item you mentioned, but need to keep emphasizing, is that even with the amazing advocacy that you (and others) provide, it all goes to shit when riders fail to obey the rules of the road—and I admit that I am occasionally one of those. We (all) need to do better.
  • Daniel Milbrandt
    100% Spot-on.