Many of the cycling activists who installed a ghost bike memorial at Spadina south of Dundas last fall didn't know Carla Warrilow. She was struck and dragged under a truck while cycling on October 16, 2013. It took firefighters 15 minutes to free her, and she died a week later from her injuries.
Ghost bikes are seen by family members as sad tributes to lost loved ones, and by cycling advocates as reminders to bike safe. The fate of the bikes has become an issue for the Public Works Committee since City Hall started receiving inquiries from cyclists and families opposed to their removal last year.
In May, seven months after Warrilow's death, a small group of cycling activists and friends met near her ghost bike to discuss the future of these important markers. They are presently classed as temporary memorials and are typically given a 30-day lifespan before the city considers them abandoned and schedules their removal, but they often remain in place longer because of weather or other factors.
Nate Robertson, Warrilow's former roommate, says ghost bikes' importance extends beyond victims and their families. "Seeing a ghost bike at this intersection reminds us to share the road," says Robertson.
Ghost bikes were introduced in Toronto in the mid-2000s after a 2003 bike crash in St. Louis, Missouri, inspired a witness to install a white-painted bike as a sombre reminder of the safety challenges for cyclists. Toronto's versions are crafted by Geoffrey Bercarich, a volunteer with Bike Pirates.
"They make people understand that this intersection is dangerous," he says.
Bercarich would like to see them protected and honoured as permanent landmarks, because "they're a powerful tool for advocacy," he says. "That's why I keep building them."
Mike Layton also thinks they should remain. The Ward 19 councillor brought forward a motion last October asking staff to study changing existing bylaws to recognize ghost bikes as "art and memorials" rather than rusting eyesores.
"Some families want them taken down because they don't want to be reminded of a tragic incident," but others want a reminder that "it's dangerous out there." Layton's hoping to find a solution that addresses everyone's needs.
Advocacy group Cycle Toronto supports Layton's motion. Executive director Jared Kolb says that while white bikes represent "the darker side of cycling," they should be maintained as part of the streetscape.
Roads are getting safer for cyclists, Kolb says. Bike infrastructure is expanding slowly but surely, more people are cycling, and as a result the collision rate is declining.
But bureaucratic confusion over who's taking the lead in writing Layton's bylaw report has slowed the change of status for ghost bikes. Transportation Services is now set to study the issue. There are two more Public Works Committee meetings before this council term is up, and Layton is optimistic that a report can be approved before the mayoral election in October.
"We don't have to be heartless in how we treat these types of memorials," Layton says. "I think what we're looking for is a little bit of flexibility [because] ghost bikes serve a genuine purpose."
For now, Warrilow's friends have removed the plaque bearing her name and shifted the bike 10 feet to a standard bike ring. It's not the permanent marker many were hoping for, but a stopgap to buy time as Layton's bylaw amendments snake through the City Hall bureaucracy.
"Maybe we can pare [her memorial] down and turn it into something that exists within the streetscape, that doesn't impose in such a way," says Robertson.
But the city must change its current notion of ghost bikes as derelict; they're no more abandoned than a tombstone. "For us, for Carla's friends, it's been a place where we can come and pay our respects," he says.