In the wake of this morning’s public memorial for Jenna Morrison—the cyclist killed last week—we chart the journey of her commemorative ghost bike from the Bike Pirates shop on Bloor to the site of her death at Dundas and Sterling.
When Jenna Morrison was killed last Monday by a truck at Dundas Street West and Sterling Road, Geoffrey Bercarich knew what he was going to have to do next.
Back on April 20, 2006, two cyclists died in one day—16-year-old Bianca Gogel Masella at Keele Street and Finch Avenue West, and University of Toronto professor Dr. Hubert Van Tol at Avenue Road and Cortleigh Boulevard. Both were hit by trucks. Bercarich, then a student at York University, made what’s called a “ghost bike” for each of them, coating a salvaged bike with white paint and placing it where Masella and Van Tol were killed. Those two ghost bikes were the first he’d made and, for every cyclist killed on Toronto streets since then, he’s made another. Jenna Morrison, pregnant and on her way to pick up her young son before being killed by a five-ton Freightliner truck making a right turn, would be Bercarich’s 18th ghost bike.
Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC) has been organizing memorials for killed cyclists, like the one that would come for Morrison, since 1996. The ghost bikes are part of a newer, worldwide initiative: ARC started making and installing them in Toronto in the early 2000s, according to Derek Chadbourne, one of the group’s original members and the owner of the Bike Joint on Harbord Street. Before Bercarich joined the group, someone else made the bikes; now, he does.
Usually, when a cyclist is killed, ARC approaches the family a few days after the death. “We just want to make sure that before we do any kind of memorial that they’re involved, that they’re comfortable with it, [and that they have input on] what kind of memorial it should be,” says Martin Reis, a long-time member. “The ghost bike can be a healing thing, or it can be something that’s too much of a constant reminder.”
This time, ARC members knew the cyclist they’d be honouring. It isn’t the first time. Bercarich got to work.
“These are bikes that are at the end of their life, and so they meet these cyclists at the end of their lives,” says Bercarich.
It’s the Thursday after Morrison was killed, and Bercarich is in the alley behind Bike Pirates on Bloor Street West near Lansdowne Avenue, spraying another coat of white paint on top of what was once a baby-blue Supercycle—what will be Jenna’s ghost bike. (Strands of white paint have dripped to the ground below the bike; it looks like stuck-on silly string.) Only the worst bikes get turned into ghost bikes: Bike Pirates, where Bercarich volunteers, takes donations, and this one would have been thrown out, or donated to scrap-metal collectors, otherwise. The bike’s all but unrideable as-is, but Bercarich breaks the Supercycle’s chain anyway; the last thing you’d want is for it to be stolen.
The ghost bike itself looks more unreal the closer you get to it—fake, sticky, plastic, as though it couldn’t ever have been usable. Once it’s set in place, it will be next to impossible to miss. ”It’s like a lighthouse, in so many ways,” says Bercarich. “It’s a beacon that people can see and be warned that this is a dangerous part of the road.” Attention, not distraction, is the point. “I want motorists to notice them. I want them to notice those ghost bikes, and maybe they’ll keep an eye out for cyclists….there’s something inside them that makes them understand that something bad happened at that corner.”
“I think that it’s a beautiful image and that the family will appreciate it,” says Matthew Remski, a close friend of Morrison’s and a co-owner of Renaissance Yoga, the Cabbagetown studio where she once worked. “It’s a wonderful symbol. I think they’d probably want to change the name of it to ‘spirit bike.’” He laughs. “But I think they’ll enjoy it.” If they don’t, says Bercarich, “I’ll give them my personal number, I’ll take it down, I’ll probably hold onto the keys. Because I understand.” Only one family has ever asked.
Usually, the family doesn’t have to, anyway. It’s the City of Toronto’s policy to remove “temporary memorials”—a category under which ghost bikes would fall—after 30 days. “After a while, they tend to get abandoned and ignored,” explains Daniel Egan, the City’s manager of cycling infrastructure and programs. “You see abandoned bikes out there that get trashed after a while. They start to rust and fall apart.” But, he’s careful to point out, “we’re very sensitive to it. That’s why we’ve come up with a 30-day policy.” Most of Toronto’s ghost bikes have been removed since being installed, but a small handful have been left alone. (Those white memorial bikes are not to be confused with the multi-coloured bicycles that were part of the Good Bike Project, which were sanctioned by the City.)
The strands of white paint are still on the ground around back of Bike Pirates the following Monday morning, when Bercarich arrives at Bike Pirates with Tom Denton, another volunteer. Bercarich brings the ghost bike out from inside; it’s dry, so he doesn’t need the white plastic gloves he’d been using to handle it on Thursday. They leave the shop a few minutes after 7 a.m., Bercarich riding on Denton’s left side, to protect him and the white bike that’s bungee-corded to the black Long John cargo bike. For a while, along Bloor, before we reach the hundreds of cyclists at Spadina waiting for Denton’s cargo, it’s just the three of us.
From there, Denton will cart the bike down Spadina, to Harbord, to Ossington, to Dewson, to Havelock, to College, to Dundas and, finally, to Sterling, where, at the stop sign, Bercarich will lock it in place. Up Sterling, near the big trucks and bigger factories, is Jenna Morrison’s home and family. At the memorial, with the ghost bike in sight, another member of ARC, Rick Conroy, will say, “We gather one week after every cyclist’s death, so that we can remember them. It is not something we like to do. But we feel it is important, to memorialize those of us who die and are hurt on the streets.”
Then one day, maybe soon, the City will come, cut the ghost bike away, and throw it out.
“I would like to see fewer ghost bikes in the city, but it needs to happen,” Bercarich had said, “in order for people to understand that cyclists are out there, and they’re in danger.” The ghost bike project dies when cyclists don’t.