Splatters of white paint line the shaded alley next to Matthew Sampson’s apartment. With time, the paint will fade, but more will inevitably be added.
For the past several months, Sampson has volunteered to paint “ghost bikes” in memory of cyclists who’ve been killed on D.C. streets. Since June, he’s coated four bikes and one scooter in a white paint that holds up under bad weather. He finished the most recent ghost bike on Saturday, April 20.
That bike—an old GT he doesn’t ride anymore—memorializes Dave Salovesh, an unapologetic bicycle advocate who was killed last Friday, April 19, while riding near 12th Street NE and Florida Avenue NE.
“This is sad, but I assumed there would be another bike death this year, at least one,” says Sampson of why he held onto his old ride. “So I thought, ‘I’ll save it for that.’”
On Sunday morning, two days after Salovesh’s death, Sampson unlocks the white bike from a fence near the alley where he painted it. He begins the journey to the site of the crash, where he’ll chain it to a pole.
Along the way, Sampson talks about Salovesh’s outsized influence in D.C.’s bicycle community, about the glacial pace with which the District is moving to improve road infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation, and about the other vehicles he’s painted.
The first was for Jeffrey Long, who was struck and killed in July 2018 by a driver at M Street NW and New Hampshire Avenue NW, a heavily trafficked commuter route. Long, 36, was riding in a bike lane when he was hit.
Just two weeks before Long’s death, Malik Habib, 19, was killed while riding his bike on H Street NE. He was in the streetcar lane when his tire got stuck in the rail. He fell into the path of a charter bus and died at the hospital, according to police.
Sampson’s next project honored Carlos Sanchez-Martin, who was riding an electric scooter when the driver of an SUV struck and killed him in Dupont Circle “literally right over there in a crosswalk,” Sampson says as he approaches the Metro station.
Three days later, Tom Hollowell, 64, was cycling to work at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History when a motorist who ran a red light struck him. The driver, Phillip Peoples, fled the scene, but was later arrested and pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Painting these memorials is a therapeutic but exhausting exercise, Sampson says. But the one for Salovesh was especially draining. Sampson considered him a mentor and a friend.
Salovesh was stopped on his bike at 12th Street NE and Florida Avenue NE when Robert Earl Little Jr. barreled toward the intersection in a stolen van, police allege in court records.
It was just after 10 a.m. on April 19 when police spotted Little driving a stolen white Dodge Caravan. Little fled after officers attempted to stop him, and court records indicate police backed off the pursuit. It is generally against MPD policy to pursue vehicles.
Little ran a red light and plowed into a blue Hyundai. Police data clocked him going 60 miles per hour. The collision pushed the van Little drove into Salovesh. The van hit a tree and a trash can on the sidewalk, court records show, carrying Salovesh with it. It finally crashed head on into a second tree, pinning Salovesh against it. He was declared dead on the scene at 10:08 a.m.
Little went to the hospital with a swollen eye, a cut lip, and trauma to his body, according to records. The 25-year-old is now charged with second degree murder in Salovesh’s death. He is also facing several other charges from previous cases, including simple assault, theft, and drug possession. Little was scheduled to appear in court for two of those cases that morning. Within an hour of the fatal encounter, a judge issued two warrants for Little’s arrest.
Sampson stops outside the Dupont Circle Metro station to wait for some friends. Passersby stare at the stark white bike.
Soon, fellow Ward 2 neighborhood commissioners Daniel Warwick and Patrick Kennedy (a candidate for the Ward 2 Council seat), and former commissioner Eve Zhurbinskiy show up. They didn’t know Salovesh personally the way Sampson did. But like many in D.C., they knew him through Twitter.
On the train, Sampson unzips his backpack, revealing a few other items he brought to honor Salovesh’s memory. He’s carrying red plastic cups, a banner that says “Mayor Bowser: We Demand Safe Roads,” and a print out of a classic Salovesh tweet. In a thread about bike lane construction Salovesh wrote: “Where the fuck are our safe accommodations?”
The red cups are similar to those that Salovesh filled with water and placed along the previously unprotected bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Cars making U-turns across the bike lane would run over the cups, spilling the water, marking a potential encounter between a vehicle and a cyclist.
When that didn’t draw enough attention, he and other bike advocates stood with pool noodles along the cycle track, and eventually the city installed barriers.
At the NoMa-Gallaudet U station, the group treks up Florida Avenue NE toward the spot where Salovesh died, and hundreds, dressed in white T-shirts, have already gathered.
Sampson, who is hard of hearing, points out the narrow sidewalks that put pedestrians, including deaf and hard of hearing students at nearby Gallaudet University, close to the six-lane road as cars zip past. At various points, utility poles installed in the middle of the walkway make it impossible for wheelchairs to pass.
For at least a decade, the District has studied Florida Avenue NE with an eye for safety improvements. But in that time, Sampson says, there has been little action.
In 2004, a driver running from the police hit and killed two children, ages 7 and 8, in the same intersection where Salovesh died.
In 2013, another motorist hit and killed 71-year-old Ruby Whitfieldat 11th Street NE and Florida Avenue NE, a block away. Whitfield had just left a meeting at the nearby church and was walking in the crosswalk.
That same year, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) launched a study of ways to make Florida Avenue NE safer. The research was completed in 2015, the year Mayor Muriel Bowserannounced her official effort to eliminate traffic-related deaths by 2024, known as Vision Zero. Boswer’s campaign is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Mayor’s Challenge For Safer People, Safer Streets.”
Advocates have taken to calling Bowser’s plan “Zero Vision.”
It’s hard to argue with the numbers: Since 2015, traffic fatalities have only increased, from 28 in 2016 to 30 in 2017 to 36 in 2018, the most in a decade, according to police statistics. So far in 2019, six people have been killed in collisions with vehicles, including a pedestrian who was struck and killed just hours after people gathered around Salovesh’s ghost bike.
A vehicle struck Abdul Seck, 31, while he was walking on a sidewalk near 16th and V streets SE. Dejuan Andre Marshall, 20, was allegedly speeding on V Street SE and crashed into another vehicle, forcing it into Seck, who was from the Bronx. He was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead, according to court records. Marshall is charged with second degree murder. A rally planned in Seck’s memory is scheduled for Wednesday, April 24. Several groups plan to gather in front of the Wilson Building on Friday, April 26, to demand action.
DDOT released a plan in 2017 that included a two-way protected bike lane on Florida Avenue NE. Two years later, construction hasn’t started.
DDOT Director Jeff Marootian cannot specifically explain the two-year lag, but says that “we share the same sense of urgency, and that’s not always seen by the public because the process takes a long time. So we’re working to expedite those processes, and some are in the District’s control and some aren’t.”
Bowser’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget includes full funding for construction on Florida Avenue NE, which includes protected bike lanes and wider sidewalks. If the funds are approved, construction wouldn’t start until late 2020, Marootian says.
The crowd separates as Sampson and the group approach 12th Street NE. Among them are Salovesh’s family, his close friend Rudi Riet, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, Marootian, and Metropolitan Police Department Sgt. Kathleen Monahan, who was knocked off her bike by a car while on duty riding down Florida Avenue NE in January. Monahan also used to commute by bike on Florida Ave NE. She says it needs a major overhaul, from narrowing to protected bike lanes “at a minimum.”
“I used to say to myself, ‘This is probably the most dangerous part of my day, and I’m a police officer,’” Monahan says.
Councilmember Allen expresses frustration with the delays in redesigning Florida Avenue NE. By his calculations, DDOT has been studying and planning a redesign since 2009.
“At the end of the day, DDOT makes the decisions, but they do so with the support from the boss, the mayor,” Allen says, adding “I’ll put it on everybody. I don’t think the mayor’s done enough. I don’t think the Council has done enough. I think we can all share some blame.”
On April 23, Allen introduced legislation that restricts DDOT’s ability to reprogram funds until the agency makes progress on the Florida Avenue NE redesign. Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie, David Grosso, and Mary Cheh co-introduced the legislation.
Cheh also introduced a bill that requires construction of protected bike lanes when DDOT engages “in road construction, major repair, or curb or gutter replacement,” on roads where the city has already recommended them.
For Riet and other bicycle advocates, Salovesh’s death while riding a bike is a cruel irony. He describes his friend as a “kind soul, who wore his passions” and “lived on heightened emotions.”
“So when it was something like safe streets, he wanted a full-on press,” Riet says. “He did not want incrementalism. He wanted it done right from the start.”