The city is totally tone-deaf on ghost bikes

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David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen

The city’s transportation and planning staff seem not to notice that roadside memorials to people killed in traffic are meant to point accusing fingers at them.

If you’re going to regulate something, you need to understand why it’s happening. The city’s traffic engineers and planners either don’t understand it or are pretending not to, which is worse.

This is what’s missing from the year-long deliberations — at least, those visible in public — on what to do about the flowers and signs and white-painted bikes left at spots where Ottawans have died when they’ve been hit by cars or trucks. The language is thoughtful and delicate and misses the point.

 

“On the one hand, there is a desire to be compassionate and allow families and friends to grieve in whatever way gives them comfort as long as public safety is not compromised,” says the report. “[A]nd, on the other hand, there is acknowledgment that it is not appropriate for these memorials to become permanent encroachments on public spaces.”

And there’s the other thing, where the city maybe built a dangerous road and somebody died on it.

Traffic collisions result from some combination of bad design, bad conditions, bad choices in the moment, and bad luck. Different cases will have different factors, but acknowledging one doesn’t mean denying the rest. The city even gets this, on some level. Cyclist Krista Johnson was killed on Bronson Avenue near Carleton University in 2012, riding on the road against traffic. Pushed by Coun. David Chernushenko, the city nevertheless acknowledged that that stretch of Bronson is built in a way that makes safe biking very difficult and set about redesigning it.

Johnson’s ghost bike is still up, stuffed with fading fake flowers. Maybe when the city’s done with Bronson, it’ll be appropriate to remove it.

But at Bank Street and Riverside Drive, where a cement truck killed cyclist Meg Dussault in 2013, the city’s done nothing. The narrow bridge across the Rideau River there is a menace, but it’s a heritage menace and changing it is, at best, very expensive. The intersection itself is to be reworked … someday. In the meantime, Dussault’s ghost bike attracts attention at the corner, where it’s supposedly a distraction and an impediment. Unlike, apparently, the traffic pole that’s plunked in the middle of the sidewalk and behind which the ghost bike is tucked.

The policy worked up by city staff requires such memorials to be taken down after 90 days — to be replaced for two years by signs warning to “Drive Safely in memory of” the dead, if families are willing to pay the city $250.

A detail omitted from the policy proposal: Even the warning signs would only be allowed if the dead person was an Ottawan and had never been convicted of a crime and had no outstanding provincial or bylaw infractions.

Fair enough if we want to make sure the person killed wasn’t the actual direct cause of the collision. But if you pleaded guilty to mischief when you were 21 or you owe a fine for letting your dog run loose or you’re visiting from Toronto, the city won’t put up a sign for you after you’re killed by a texting driver or a drunk who mounts the sidewalk. Really?

Under the city’s proposed policy, Dussault’s ghost bike would have been gone in fall 2013 and a memorial sign, if there were one and she didn’t have any overdue library books, would be taken down around now. The road’s not any safer, as everyone who uses it knows, but the daily reminder that somebody died there would be gone. At least until the next blood sacrifice to the traffic gods.

Some politicians realize there’s a problem. Downtown Coun. Catherine McKenney says the 90-day time limit on memorials is too short even for purely commemorative purposes. More broadly, she wants examinations of collisions — at least deadly ones, maybe others — to see whether anything under the city’s control might have prevented them.

“I’m not interested in blame,” she says. “I’m interested in seeing what we can do to keep it from happening again.”

That’s what ghost bikes and other such memorials are about in the end. If the city doesn’t get that, it’s not yet time to take any of them down.