“A cyclist died here last week,” reads the simple banner. There’s a moment of silence. The season’s first snow lightly covers the pavement where the young teacher was struck. A white-painted ghost bike is chained at road’s edge as a reminder. The flashing red tail lights of a hundred bicycles give a distinct character to the sombre event.
Public mourning for road victims was once common, especially when automobiles started vying for limited space in the 1920s. Then the concept of the road as a shared space began to change – and those who didn’t notice paid a heavy price. More cars meant an increasing threat to other road users: pedestrians trying to catch a tram, children at play, cyclists pedalling home. Monuments were erected for victims of road fatalities, especially for the children.
As the earlier concept was replaced with the notion of roads for cars only, public outrage and mourning for victims faded. In the decades that followed, the mourning would be done in private. Peter Norton, in his book Fighting Traffic, says victims of road deaths weren’t mourned in public again until the 1980s, when grieving mothers began to speak out against the carnage perpetrated by drunk drivers.
Today, most road deaths – whether of motorists, pedestrians or cyclists – come to public attention as delays announced in traffic reports.
Not so for fallen cyclists in Toronto, and in many other cities around the world. Each victim is remembered by cyclists as an individual and as a fellow cyclist. Martin Reis, of the group Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists, has watched the placement of five ghost bikes in Toronto this year – all of them after Ontario’s Chief Coroner made his recommendations on cycling safety in June.
The public mourning of the victim is intended to show what a grieving family looks like. There’s also the hope that the broader community will take note and be willing to accept changes aimed at the safer sharing of roads.
Road deaths, it seems, are a predictable, routine part of our road system. Over the years, society has become adept at erasing evidence of a collision, and deaths. Ambulances and police are quickly dispatched, the victims rushed to hospital, the debris cleaned up and vehicles towed, the facts recorded, and traffic movement restored. It’s as if the road swallowed up the victim.
The coroner’s office reviewed more than 200 cycling and pedestrian deaths. Each of the deaths was called preventable. One recommendation called for the creation of “complete streets” – where vulnerable users such as seniors are accommodated, where more pedestrian crossings are designated, where a network of bike lanes is implemented, and where speeds are set at levels that prevent a moment’s inattention or error in judgment from becoming a death sentence.
Roads as the exclusive domain of cars remains a popular idea, but urgent problems of climate change and congestion, along with long-standing ones of cost, danger and pollution, have spurred calls for sharing of the public roadway to promote cleaner, healthier, cheaper options such as mass transit, walking and cycling.
On this cold night, motorists have little choice but to share the road with the cyclists who have come to mourn. The cyclists will soon make their way home in the dark. If they’re lucky, their route will include designated lanes. The ghost bike will stay behind, although it’s likely to disappear within months of the memorial event. Then everything will return to normal.
Albert Koehl, an environmental lawyer, served on the expert panel for Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner’s Pedestrian Death Review.