On the corner of Lakeshore Boulevard West and Colborne Lodge Drive in Toronto, there are two bicycles, stripped down to their bare frames and painted white. They are called ghost bikes, and these two are in memory of Nigel Gough, 28, who was killed while cycling at this intersection on September 26, 2010.
On the night of the accident, Myles Gough said his brother Nigel had just returned home from a performance. A talented actor, Nigel had been accepted into the Central School for Speech & Drama at the University of London, England. He was taking a year off to save money for his studies.
Full of energy, Nigel decided to go for a bike ride. His sister Gillian was out picking up a friend, and his parents had already gone to bed. Myles was in his bedroom, on the phone with his girlfriend. Nigel shouted to his parents from outside the house that he was going for a short bike ride. He left without a helmet or bicycle lights.
Nigel was struck by two cars on Lakeshore and Colborne, as reported by the police, according to Myles. Nigel was killed instantly. He was allegedly at fault, crossing against a red light. There were no other witnesses. The two drivers stayed on scene. When police arrived they could find no identification on Nigel.
As a result, it was only in the morning that the news started to come in.
Nigel’s father was watching CP24, which reported there had been a bicycle accident on Lakeshore and Colborne. He checked Nigel’s room and found it empty. Now worried, he saw another report of the bicycle accident. He called the police, and after they told him the make and colour of the bicycle, was able to confirm that the cyclist killed was Nigel.
“He told my mother, and I woke up to the sound of my mother screaming at the top of her lungs,” Myles said.
A week after Nigel’s death, cyclists from Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC) came to pay their respects.
They rode from Bloor and Spadina, also known as Cyclists’ Square, to the site of the accident.
Included in their procession was a cargo bike carrying a simple, white bicycle. Fixed on the front handlebars was a white plaque, which reads “Ghost Bike. Memorial to a fallen cyclist. Nigel Gough 1982-2010.”
Nigel’s friends had already installed a ghost bike of their own, decorating it with chains and flowers.
Once they arrived, the cyclists installed their ghost bike, close to the first one. Then there was a moment of silence. They stayed for the next half hour with a banner that read “A cyclist was killed here last week.”
When they left, there were two ghost bikes, along with flowers and gifts left in tribute to the young actor from his friends.
The ghost bike tradition, which started eight years ago, in St. Louis, Mo. has found its way into cities across North America and Europe.
There are currently three ghost bikes in Toronto: two for Nigel Gough and one for Bianca Gogel on Keele and Finch. The other 13 since 2006 have been taken down by the city.
Cyclist safety in Toronto is a controversial subject, and has become more so in recent years.
From January 1 to June 30, 2010, there were 459 cyclist injuries, according to the City of Toronto Transportation Services’ 2010 report. That same year, there were four cyclist deaths, according to Martin Reis, 47, a member of ARC.
The issue is only growing in magnitude. According to a City of Toronto Cycling Study Tracking Report 1999-2009, the number of cyclists had increased from 48 to 54 per cent since 1999.
Yet these increased expectations are not being met.
“The bike lanes that are around are in terrible shape. The only good thing done this year was they put in the bike lane in Jarvis,” said Derek Chadbourne, 47, owner of the Bike Joint and a member of ARC.
While cyclists push for recognition and increased infrastructure, some consider them a nuisance on the roads. During his years as a councillor of Ward 2 Etobicoke North, Mayor Rob Ford made controversial and often-quoted statements, which found their way onto YouTube.
However, in those same speeches he highlights the plight of cyclists in Toronto — lack of safety on the roads and increasing driver antagonism. Ford’s message has been not to stop cycling in Toronto, but to take cyclists off roads, where the accidents happen.
During the 2010 mayoral race, transportation was a key part of Ford’s election platform. He depicted a “war on cars” in the city, and promised change. His election plan A Transportation Plan that makes sense for Toronto also commented on “an emerging and wholly unnecessary battle between cyclists and motorists.”
“There is a wariness that promoting cycling infrastructure must be at the expense of cars,” Brent Berry said via email. “Promoting bicycle riding (and mass transit) actually takes cars off the road, and this message was not made clear enough in the last election.”
Berry teaches urban sociology at the University of Toronto, and said cycling is beneficial to a city’s transportation systems.
“People are trying to get across town, and they view bikes as an impediment. Rather than being bikes, the real problem in people feeling rushed is they are trying to navigate too much distance and congestion along their route,” Berry said.
“Most North American cities have been developed for the car, and the low-density nature of these cities makes it more of a challenge for bikes,” Berry said.
Rob Ford made an election promise to spend $50 million on bike trails, in line with his belief that bicycles should not share the road with cars.
Recently the city has been making plans to increase cyclist safety through new initiatives. One of these planned initiatives is physically separated bike lanes, according to city councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.
In 2002, the City of Toronto put the 10 year bike plan into effect, which included everything from cycling education programs such as CAN-BIKE and infrastructure programs like BIXI, but this target expires this year.
“Some people high up in the organization set a target of ten years,” said Daniel Egan, manager of cycling and infrastructure with the City of Toronto, adding that work on the bike plan would cease.
Unfortunately, progress on implementing the plan has been slow, which could mean a number of initiatives will not be completed in time.
One of these initiatives is an extensive bike network, which originally called for 1004 km of bike paths; however, only 430.1 km have been installed.
“It’s clear that the plan wasn’t properly resourced in terms of staff and funding for the first four to five years,” Egan said. He added that the final decision on implementing bike plan initiatives always rests with city council.
A new 2011 report from Transportation Services on the bikeway network project will be brought before council on June 23, according to Egan. The project details the plans for introducing bike paths in Toronto.
Despite slow improvements to cycling infrastructure over the years, cyclists are afraid that they are losing their political voice.
The city is planning to shut down a number of its public advisory committees, one of which is the cycling committee.
“There has been a lot of angst and alarm about the advisory committee,” Christina Bouchard said.
Bouchard, who is assistant planner in communications and outreach for Toronto’s Transportation Services, said part of the problem is that people don’t know what the advisory committees do.
The Toronto cycling advisory committee’s mission is to “advise City Council and its departments, agencies, boards, and commissions, on the design, development and delivery of bicycle policies, programs and facilities” to promote cycling in the city, as stated on the City of Toronto website.
“It is always the councillors’ decision [on what bicycling initiatives to enact] and it depends on what their priorities are,” Egan said.
Regardless of the advisory committee’s future, cyclists are still making themselves heard through ghost bike memorials.
Reis has been cycling in Toronto for more than 30 years since moving to Canada from Germany.
On his first day cycling in downtown Toronto, a car cut in front of him, forcing him to swerve and hit the curb, throwing him over his handlebars. He was lucky, getting off with stitches and a broken rib.
The experience scared him.
“I thought, what’s wrong with this city?” Reis said. “In Europe, cyclists are treated with a lot of respect.”
In 1998, Reis joined ARC, which was founded two years earlier. He started to go to all the memorials, sometimes travelling as far as Hamilton with ARC.
“You feel really good about what you are doing,” he said.
“I’ve personally had three friends who have been killed,” Reis said. “You do realize that it could have been you.”
Reis was one of the cyclists present at Nigel Gough’s memorial.
“That’s probably the most visible ghost bike ever,” he said. “It’s right on Lakeshore.”
“It’s being seen by hundreds, thousands of cars every day.”
Reis believes the ghost bike put up by Nigel’s friends shows that ghost bikes have become part of Toronto’s culture.
Francis LeBouthillier, chair of sculpture and installation at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, agrees that ghost bikes can be considered street art.
The non-capitalist, “pure art,” of ghost bikes make them special, Lebouthillier added.
“It’s an accessible form – a bike painted white – something that anyone can do,” he said.
Regardless of the long-term plans for cycling in Toronto, the members of ARC and people like them will continue to honour fallen cyclists.
“I see the bike world as a family, a family that’s been together a very long time, and when someone dies I think it’s important to give that family a minute to remember [the cyclist],” Chadbourne said.
“In heaven, everyone rides a bicycle,” Reis said. “That’s something we say every time.”
Myles Gough is grateful for ARC’s work.
“They have done this for my brother and we’re thankful for it. It’s important that people remember Nigel, and also it raises the profile of cyclists in a big city like Toronto – that cyclists are using the road as well, and you can’t be reckless around them.”
“Was it wrong for him to go out without a helmet on, or without a light on his bike? Yes,” Myles said, though he speculates that there were other factors at play that night that may never come to light.
“Drivers just need to be aware. I’ve had people open their doors into me while I’m cycling. Just parked cars, just people not checking their mirrors. It’s just being a careful driver — it’s one of the fundamentals of driving.”
Both ghost bikes are still there, a reminder to motorists and cyclists of the need for caution.
In 2010, the Gough family started their own memorial for Nigel through the Toronto Community Foundation, in the form of the NigE Shine On Foundation, a fund to support young actors and playwrights in Toronto.
Myles said he believes the responsibility for avoiding accidents rests with both drivers and cyclists.
“There’s an onus on both drivers and cyclists to take all necessary precautions,” Myles said. “My brother’s dead and there are drivers out there who are psychologically scarred because of it.”
— Photo courtesy of Martin Reis