A bicycle that loses a wheel to theft is no longer a bicycle. Once it was conveyance. Now it’s a burden. The bike has failed its owner, who has to drag it home. So instead he leaves the bike behind, U-locked to a parking meter. A crippled horse gets a bullet to the head, but for a bike, death couldn’t come slower. In time, the frame corrodes. The seat vanishes. The chain rusts out. The remaining wheel warps into the shape of a taco. The process of decomposition takes years.
In Adams Morgan’s Unity Park, a crumpled red Concord is tethered to a parking sign next to a trash can, where it slowly rots away. Until recently, there were two other bikes in the same small triangle. “Mal aspecto,” says Ernesto Juarez, pointing at the ruined vehicle. The owner should have chained it to a bike stand, he says.
Abandoned bikes represent a kind of benign neglect. The steel skeletons are less ugly than they are forlorn, and they don’t trigger the same reflexive neighborhood outrage that fresh graffiti and overgrown empty lots do. According to the District Department of Transportation, only two to three people a month, max, put in requests to have a bike removed. When the rare call of complaint does come in to the citywide call center, someone from the department’s street- and bridge-maintenance crew responds to the scene with grinders and acetylene torches to cut the frame loose.
Then comes a difficult decision. Lars Etzkorn, the department’s associate director for public space, says that the D.C. Code requires the city to donate any salvageable bikes it recovers to local community groups. But unusable bikes—those deemed too rusted to save—are trashed.
Under Etzkorn’s watch, none of the bikes liberated by the department have been in good enough shape to require salvaging. “The ones we have gotten to date are abandoned property,” he says. “They’re no longer a bike, so they go to the solid-waste facility at Fort Totten.”
To reinforce that distinction, Etzkorn makes sure not to call the things he picks up “bikes.” Instead, he refers to them repeatedly as “metal sculptures.”
Eric Welp, program director of Chain Reaction, a Shaw nonprofit that rehabilitates donated bicycles, says he wouldn’t know what to do with most of the abandoned bikes anyway. “Bikes that have been sitting tied to parking meters for eight months in the rain don’t make great donations,” he says.
“I’m sure one or two would be salvageable,” he allows.
Regardless, there’s not much room in Chain Reaction’s small shop on 6th Street NW for metal sculptures. But Welp says two or three artists have wandered into the store in the past couple of years, specifically in search of old, beat-up bikes. “We had one guy who wrapped the bike up in Christmas lights and took a photo for his Christmas cards,” he says. CP