‘Ottawa’ Reevely: Battle Escalates Over ‘Ghost Bike’ at Bank and Riverside — and the City Deserves It
The city’s efforts to squelch protests over its unsafe bridge across the Rideau River have turned a small memorial on the bridge into a petty war zone.
Fifty-five-year-old Meg Dussault was killed there, at the south end of Billings Bridge, when she was “right-hooked” by a cement truck that turned across her path. Three years ago this past weekend.
Since then, someone put up a white “ghost bike” as a reminder of what happened there. Dussault’s family adopted it and turned the spot into a bit of a shrine, with flowers and decorations that changed with the seasons. After a while, and a couple of complaints, the city adopted a citywide policy limiting such memorials to six months and took everything away.
Then, more recently, someone drew a bike on the concrete end of the bridge in chalk.
“I had talked about wanting to do it, because chalk is totally legal, there’s nothing wrong with it, you can just do it,” said Kathryn Hunt, who rides through that spot every day on her commute between her Herongate home and her job downtown. She wasn’t the first, she said, but when this year’s rare rains washed the chalk away, she started drawing new bikes with chalk of her own.
“I noticed a few weeks ago that the bike was disappearing even when it wasn’t raining,” Hunt said. “I would put a bike up in the morning or in the evening and it would be gone again.”
The residue of chalk on the sidewalk suggests somebody comes with a full bucket or watering can, at least daily. “It’s clearly political. It’s somebody who has a problem with memorials to cyclists specifically,” Hunt said.
This weekend, Dussault’s loved ones re-posted a photograph of her at the corner, three years after her death, and chalked their own messages of gratitude to the people who keep drawing the bikes. The chalk-washer rinsed the bike off in the night.
Then somebody put the bike back up, this time with white spray-paint. Hunt swears it wasn’t her. She’s there twice a day anyway and chalk is cheap.
“I have no problem with people putting chalk on a wall, as long as it’s as simple as that,” said Coun. David Chernushenko, who represents the area and regularly bikes to work from Old Ottawa South. But he’d hoped that by now, people who wanted to memorialize Dussault would have moved their memorial someplace private.
“When you choose to put a memorial in the public space, you are choosing also to allow people to undo your memorial in the public space,” he said.
(The city says it never washed off any graffiti. It will clean off the paint within a week, said Quentin Levesque, the public works department’s manager of road services in the area.)
The city has been maddeningly obtuse about this all along: ghost bikes, in whatever medium, aren’t only reminders that a person is no longer with us because of the perfidy of the universe. They’re accusing fingers pointed at City Hall.
Billings Bridge is 100 years old so it has heritage protection — it’s a menace, but it’s a heritage menace. The rules require that we treat it delicately, so fixing it will cost money.
Everyone knows Billings Bridge is dangerous. Everyone. Chernushenko said he’s studied it with city staff repeatedly and always reached the same conclusion: Only a major renovation can fix what’s wrong with it. It’ll be seven years or more before that happens — there’s no money budgeted for it and that’s the very soonest any might be. In the meantime, everyone needs to stay alert and cyclists shouldn’t slip up the right side of stopped traffic on that bridge, which is both illegal and dangerous, he said.
Keeping to the right invites aggressive drivers to pass you very closely. Taking the full lane invites them to honk and yell. The sidewalk is protected from motor traffic but riding there is illegal and, because it’s so narrow, inconsiderate and dangerous in its own way. It’s a no-win.
When the next person dies, we’ll have a brief dignified pause and then go back to pretending that gosh, it’s just one of those things.