Photo of Jenna Morrison's "Ghost Bike" by Martin Reis
Nearly three years ago, on Nov. 7, 2011, Jenna Morrison was killed while riding her bike. She was just a few minutes away from her west-end loft, heading south on Sterling Road on her way to pick up her son. As Morrison turned right onto Dundas, a truck, making the same turn, struck and killed her. She was five months pregnant at the time and left behind her five-year-old son and her husband.
The outpouring of grief from her friends, family and the Toronto cycling community was significant. Just one week after her death, a ghost ride took place in Morrison’s honour involving hundreds of cyclists. The ride ended at the spot where she was killed, at Sterling Road and Dundas, just steps from the entrance to the West Toronto Railpath. There was a moment of silence and people left flowers, notes and a picture of Morrison at the base of the Railpath sign. Local news stations covered the event too.
That same day, then MP Olivia Chow introduced a bill in federal parliament that would require trucks to have side guards in order to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Some time after her death the Urban Repair Squad painted blue bike lane (pictured below) where Morrison was struck, to help remember her and to protect cyclists making the same turn. Later, the City installed traffic lights. And a memorial foot path was recently built in Morrison’s honour in Dufferin Grove Park.
Photo by Martin Reis
Now, almost three years after Morrison was killed, all traces of the memorial blue lane are gone and Chow’s bill waits for another reading in the House, but without the MP who introduced it on hand. (This past month, in response to a coroner’s report on the death of cyclist Mathilde Blais in Montreal, Brossard MP Hoang Mai introduced a private members bill pushing to make side guards on trucks mandatory.) Morrison has by no means been forgotten, but the tough lessons her death taught us have largely fallen by the wayside. A few flowers still cling to the Railpath sign and community members enjoy the foot path in the west-end park, but we still have not seen a major move by the City of Toronto to provide safe passage for the hundreds of thousands of cyclists who commute to work and school every day.
That became all too clear earlier this week, when another cyclist, a 71-year-old man, was hit by a pickup truck at O’Connor and Victoria Park while trying to cross the street. He later died in hospital. Next week the Toronto cycling community will come together once again for a ghost ride.
Anyone who cycles in Toronto understands the risks. The gaps in infrastructure are obvious, the role of the car seems larger than ever, and the deaths of cyclists continue to be in the news. With a new mayor coming to city hall in December there’s a chance of a change in direction, a move towards a minimum grid and better overall transit, but nothing will happen immediately and the new mayor has not made any commitment to the 200-km minimum grid, nor has he shown that he is going to champion cycling. Perhaps more hopeful is the fact that the City is in the process of hiring a new manager for it's cycling unit, within transportation services. The current cycling manager, Daniel Egan, will soon be retiring.
If mayor-elect John Tory and the new council want to seriously improve bike safety, they need to aim high, act quickly and look at the examples from other cities, such as Portland.
In seven of the last 15 years zero cyclists have died on Portland’s streets. It’s a remarkable statistic and a high bar to reach for. In that same period Toronto had only one year with no bike fatalities (2001) and overall, 34 people were killed on bikes.
I actually spent time in Portland recently and did a bit of biking. The amount of dedicated bike infrastructure is impressive and made getting around easy. Equally important though, was the feeling that cars had a clear understanding of the place of bikes in the traffic mix. Even when bike lanes ended, or I had to share space to make a turn, I never felt like I was an inconvenience to a car, or at risk of being injured, the way I often do in Toronto.
Throughout North America and Europe cities have adopted the Swedish Vision Zero Initiative. The idea that the loss of even one life on the roads is unacceptable, and which looks to make roads safer through better design. Even if Toronto doesn’t sign on to this particular initiative, the goal of zero cyclist and pedestrian deaths could -- and should -- be made a priority.
Cycling in Toronto is exhilarating -- like cycling anywhere, it is a joy, but it can also be tough. In this environment, it's hard to expect that new cyclists will take to the road. And to help ease congestion, we need people to try biking for those short-distance trips instead of taking the car. The shared difficulties cyclists experience on Toronto’s streets are part of the reason the city has such a strong community. It’s a community that supports initiatives for better infrastructure, works to educate cyclists and drivers and organizes memorial rides when necessary. The strength of the cycling community is absolutely a point of pride in Toronto. Thank you to all the cyclists who bike in this city and especially to all of those who advocate for safer streets!
Photo by Jeff Carson of current memorial on the Railpath.
This weekend though, on the Day of the Dead, we must remember. We remember the cyclists we have lost and look for a better path forward. We remember the outrage at Jenna Morrison’s death and see the slow progress since. We look to other cities, like Portland and Boston (where they've just become the first state to mandate truck side guards), for inspiration and advice. We reaffirm our resolve to make this city safer for cyclists and pedestrians. And we prepare for another ghost ride.
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