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Over 100 people showed up to honor Sam Bell at ghost bike vigil on Milwaukee

5:26 PM CDT on September 30, 2022

Photo of Sam Bell below a “STOP KILLING BIKERS” message to drivers. Photo: Sharon Hoyer

Thursday evening, mourners gathered as yet another ghost bike was installed on Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago's busiest biking street. The memorial was placed in honor of youth mentor Samuel Bell, 44, who was fatally struck while biking on September 8 at Milwaukee and Huron Street in River West, by an elderly driver who failed to yield while making a left turn. The motorist was merely issued a traffic ticket.

Bike Lane Uprising, which maintains a site for documenting bikeway obstructions, organized the vigil for Bell and provided the white-painted bike that is now chained to a lamp post at the crash site. Over one hundred people, most of whom arrived on bicycles, showed up as the sun began to set. Police on bicycles stopped drivers from entering the block of Huron west of Milwaukee so the crowd could fill the street. The neon of the historic Erie-La Salle Body Shop sign glowed overhead.

BLU founder Christina Whitehouse spoke first. She explained – likely for the benefit of the news cameras present – the purpose of ghost bikes. These memorials are installed not only to honor the individuals who lost their lives while riding, but also to remind motorists to drive responsibly around people on bikes, and raise awareness of the need for safer cycling infrastructure.

Christina Whitehouse speaks at the vigil. Photo: Sharon Hoyer
Christina Whitehouse speaks at the vigil. Photo: Sharon Hoyer

“Unfortunately there’s a ghost bike two blocks away," Whitehouse noted. In August 2016, Art Institute of Chicago student Lisa Kuivanen, 20, was killed when they were biking on Milwaukee at Racine Avenue and a right-turning flatbed truck driver failed to yield, crushing them.

"This year alone, two people have been killed in this same ward, all doing what they’re legally allowed to be doing, following the rules," Whitehouse added. Bell's crash took place in the 27th Ward, represented by Ald. Walter Burnett. The district is also where an allegedly intoxicated hit-and-run Volkswagen Jetta driver fatally struck software developer Paresh Chhatrala, 42, on April 16 as he was biking near Madison and Peoria streets in the West Loop. Burnett had ordered the removal of concrete planter medians that might have stopped that motorist from veering into oncoming traffic and killing Chhatrala.

Whitehouse noted that eight people have been killed while biking so far in 2022. That's already well above the 2014-2018 average of six bike fatalities for the entire year.

As well as being the city's busiest biking corridor, Milwaukee is one of its deadliest. On May 4, a hit-and-run driver fatally struck barista Nick Paringayan, 22, on his bike on the 3800 block of Milwaukee Avenue in Irving Park. That was right across the street from where a right-turning dump truck driver fatally struck guidance conselor Carla Aiello, 37, in November 2019. A total of six people have been killed while riding bikes on Milwaukee Avenue since 2003.

The crowd at the vigil. Photo: Sharon Hoyer
The crowd at the vigil. Photo: Sharon Hoyer

Friends of Bell spoke briefly in his memory. A woman named Courtney shared that she and Bell had been friends since elementary school and remained close for decades. “My children ride their bikes to school every day and, when I had to tell them about Sam, my daughter’s first reaction was that she’s scared to ride now. I told her that if we choose not to bike it will only get worse, so we choose to bike in his honor."

“If you knew Sam, there are some quintessential and universal experiences I’m sure you had,” Courtney added tearfully. “One: He made you laugh. Two: You met some new people. And three: You had more fun that you would have had without him. Many of us admire his goofy antics, his love of shenanigans and his positive outlook. He brought joy, laugher and love into this world and it won’t be the same without him.” As she finished speaking, a chorus of bike bells rang in response.

Vigil organizers then chained the ghost bike to a lamp post at the corner, which was already covered in tributes to Bell, mostly messages of love and appreciation on written on Post-it notes taped all around the pole. Vinyl letters spelled out “STOP KILLING BIKERS” above a photo of Bell in smiling in sunglasses. Attendees decorated the bike with flower bouquets and garlands.

The ghost bike. Photo: Sharon Hoyer
The ghost bike. Photo: Sharon Hoyer

Ironically, photographers and other attendees attempting to get a good shot of the white bike stood in the bike lane, obstructing it during the busy Thursday rush hour. Whitehouse had to usher several people to the sidewalk or concrete curb protecting the lane to clear the way for bike and scooter riders passing by.

Hopefully Bell's story will help inspire more Chicagoans to demand a truly safe layout for the entire Milwaukee corridor, in hopes that no more ghost bikes will need to be installed there.

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