BTA Column: By remembering one we lost, we celebrate those we have

By Rob Sadowsky, Contributing Columnist

On May 12th, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and community partners held a special tree planting ceremony to remember loved ones lost on the roadway and recognize those who are committed to creating a safe environment for all people on the road. The event was an opportunity to both commemorate loved ones who lost their lives through traffic tragedy and also an opportunity to celebrate their lives by showcasing improvements in the street environment that will prevent future fatalities.

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), Friends of Trees, Willamette Pedestrian Coalition and the Beaumont Wilshire Neighborhood Association all cosponsored the tree planting.  The tree is the first tree planted as part of the Susie Forest in Portland.  The Susie Forest honors Susie Stephens. Susie was a bicyclist, an environmentalist, an activist, and a world traveler. She was dedicated to educating others about bicyclist and pedestrian safety, and she was killed in 2002 after being struck by a bus while legally walking across the street in St. Louis. The Susie Forest is a living, growing, legacy to Susie and her commitment to creating livable communities. 

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance worked with Susie early in our history to build the organization and is proud to honor her commitment. BTA cofounder and Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder says, “I remember Susie’s incredible, radiant smile and her confidence in the rightness and inevitability of her work. When we bicycle and pedestrian advocates felt like tiny Davids with our knees knocking nervously in front of the indifferent Goliaths of the auto juggernaut, Susie was a bright spot of vision, can-do-it-ness and indomitable spirit that brightened up the room and gave hope to our small band of cranks, dreamers and wonks.”

When you go by the tree near Going and 33rd Avenue, you’ll see ribbons tied to the young branches. These ribbons capture fond memories of loved ones lost in tragic traffic fatalities. Stop by, read some of the messages and add your own to this living memorial to hope. The Susie Forest is a project of Susie’s mother Nancy McKerrow, a resident of Spokane, Washington.  I made a personal commitment to Nancy last August to plant a Susie Tree in Portland and was excited to have Nancy came down for the tree planting bringing her special little Peppernut cookies aptly renamed Tree-Kibbles to pass around.

Each tree planted is a reminder that life goes on and starts anew, and except for the two trees planted every year on Susie’s birthday and the anniversary of her death, every tree planted in The Susie Forest is associated with someone else. Whether it is to celebrate the birth of a newborn or a special anniversary, as a memorial for someone else taken too soon, or to celebrate a reading program at a local library or school, each Susie tree is deeply rooted in personal connection.  There have been more than one hundred Susie trees planted so far.  Want to plan your own tree, learn more about Susie Trees and the Susie Forest at http://www.susieforest.com.

The event was also an opportunity to honor one of our local champions, Steph Routh, the Executive Director of the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition.  Steph recently won the Susie Stephens Joyful Enthusiasm Award from the national Alliance for Biking and Walking.  Steph has that same radiant smile and confidence in the rightness and inevitability of her work.

“Susie Stephens was a remarkable, energetic, and strategic advocate for biking and walking and one of the pioneers of our movement,” Jeff Miller, Alliance for Biking and Walking President/CEO, said. “Everyone who knew Susie remembers her contagious enthusiasm. Bicycle and pedestrian advocates face daunting challenges with limited resources, but, inspired by unforgettable leaders like Susie, we have a passion and commitment that prevail. The Alliance celebrates this energy by annually recognizing a leader who exemplifies Susie’s enduring spirit and joy.”

Steph embodies Susie’s joyful enthusiasm in spite of the daunting task she has at work fighting to save lives and make the region safer for pedestrians. The Willamette Pedestrian Coalition advocates for better laws, enhanced enforcement, more sidewalks and signed crosswalks, education programs, community improvements designed for pedestrians, and increased funding to support these activities. It is simply more fun, more energetic to work with leaders such as Steph.

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