Those multi-coloured bikes that have been popping up at locations across the city? Turns out the colours each represent something.
An orange bike at the corner of Queen and Dovercourt acknowledges Erin Stump Projects as a supporter of emerging artists, as part of the Good Bike Project. Photo by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.
Bed bugs are so 2010. Recently, we’ve noticed a new infestation on the city’s streets—but this time it’s pretty, heartwarming, and a few Toronto artists and community builders are working hard to spread rather than eliminate it.
Over the past few weeks, more than 30 brightly painted bicycles, a few featuring baskets of potted plants, have popped up all over the city—orange at Queen and Dovercourt, blue at Dundas and Sackville, and pastel pink at College and Robert, among many others. On their own, the bikes may seem like isolated or even arbitrary acts of street art, but in reality, they’re part of a citywide network of bikes, their colours and locations carefully and specifically chosen to commemorate a piece of history, an urban hot spot, or a personal memory.
As with any infestation, even the nice ones, it started small—Vanessa Nicholas and Caroline Macfarlane, two OCAD U Student Gallery employees, found a creative way to deal with their distaste for a rusty, derelict bike abandoned on the street outside their place of work by painting it bright orange and planting flowers in its basket. They were met with enthusiasm from passersby but also with a big, angry ticket from the City of Toronto calling for its removal. With support from fans and friends interested in protecting public works of art, accelerated by media reaction and councilors Gary Crawford (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest) and Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) City Hall eventually changed its mind and even Rob Ford hopped on the idea to turn the now-famous Orange Bike into a citywide project, in partnership with Macfarlane and Nicholas, known as the Good Bike Project.
“[The City] promised to give us bikes that were confiscated, and we would return them to the cityscape. Right now Caroline and I are working to actually realize the project,” says Nicholas who, together with Macfarlane and Councilor Crawford, added two more Good Bikes to the Yorkdale and Harbourfront areas late last week, bringing the number of bikes on the street to over 30. By the end of the month, the two artists hope to have all 60 in their designated locations.
As the project has expanded in number, so it has in concept. The bikes are now colour-coded according to six categories (see map above), chosen primarily to reflect the visual arts community and urban issues: orange is for locations supporting emerging artists, hot pink designates venues of historical artistic significance, blue represents strong community builders, yellow marks community hubs and hot spots (like Honest Ed’s in the Annex), green flags the victories and failures of Jane Jacobs’s urban theories, and rose bikes commemorate a personal memory from a Torontonian (they’re actually in need of five more bikes in this category—so anyone with a positive memory shared with a loved one at a particular location who would like it marked with a pastel bike is encouraged to get in touch).
To keep track of the intricate network of the two-wheeled monuments, Macfarlane and Nicholas have been chronicling the bikes and their meanings on their blog, which will eventually be turned into a limited-edition publication, handmade with custom artwork by local artist Andy Callahan, hopefully by the end of September as long as fundraising and writing goes according to plan, says Macfarlane.
“Once we set up the colour-coded system it seemed like a huge number and we wanted to make sure every bike was documented in some sort of record, or mind map. It’s been a crazy summer, the project has been getting a lot of media attention, and we wanted a way to write down what we wanted, what [the Good Bike Project] was meant to be,” Nicholas says.
In the meantime, the two creators of the Good Bike Project have been hard at work just getting the bikes sanded, primed, painted, lacquered, and installed—a process that is much more labour-intensive and time-consuming than they anticipated. During last week’s outing, between driving from Yorkdale to the Harbourfront and finding the right thematic and logistical spot to lock up the bike, they were only able to place two bikes in four hours.
“Everything takes a little longer than you think,” Nicholas says. “We fit it when we can. If we’re running an errand, we’ll usually take a bike with us. Or if we have a spare minute we’re like ‘Why don’t we go out and paint a bike?’ It’s becoming a ‘do it yourself whenever you have the time’ kind of thing.”
Luckily, they’ve had plenty of support from other community members, with friends, artists, and local businesses lending a hand in painting, installing, donating supplies, even taking care of the bikes and basket planters once they’re out on the street. Not that that has protected the bikes from falling victim to Toronto vandals. As noted recently on their Facebook page, “some of the good bikes, especially around the parkdale area, are being ripped apart and are laying partly in the street.” Nicholas says even the original bike outside OCAD suffered repeated flower thefts and beatings until Nicholas and Macfarlane gave it shelter inside.They say they’ve developed a maternal sense of ownership over the once-neglected cycle.
What started as an innocent attempt to beautify a workspace has now become an internationally recognized symbol of hope in the face of Toronto’s “war on cycling.” But as far as infestations go, this is one we’re hoping will keep spreading.
Map by Max Hartshorn/Torontoist.