Posted by Curt Dewees (Contributor) on February 23rd, 2011 at 11:04 am
It is truly the end of an era: Local transportation activist and bicycling superhero Karen Frost, who has provided graceful leadership in the Portland/Metro area for over 20 years, has announced she will retire by the end of March.
Frost, who turned 66 earlier this month, was the first-ever executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (from 1995-98) and currently serves as executive director of the Beaverton-based Westside Transportation Alliance (WTA).
“She was (and is) the perfect ambassador, humanizing the bike community for the outside world and smoothing ruffled feathers within it.”
— Matt Giraud
Frost first became interested in bicycling as transportation in the 1980s, when she worked as a graphic designer in Sandpoint, Idaho. She pedaled around town on her bicycle, towing a trailer. She used a bike trailer both for her work and for hauling her young son. Frost moved to Portland in 1986, continued to ride her bike, and soon got involved with Portland’s nascent bicycle-advocacy movement.
“Karen has made a real difference everywhere and with everyone,” says Rex Burkholder, a Metro Councilor. “We will miss her.”
Burkholder was one of the founders of the BTA back in 1990. “Karen was the heart and soul of the BTA,” Burkholder recalls.
“I remember when we had our first office, on the third floor of the old Portland Telegraph building. It was mostly abandoned, and Karen would cheerfully march in, and then get going on making our world safe for cycling. Karen supplied warm muffins, coffee, and amazing inspiration. She was someone has truly “walked her talk,” riding her bike to work every day.
Karen brought warmth and an aesthetic sensibility, making the BTA a place that swarmed with volunteers and good feelings… I think this made the difference: We weren’t ‘angry activists,’ we were spirited citizens helping make a better place.”
Frost joined the BTA in 1991, first as a volunteer and then as a board member, before being hired as the group’s first-ever executive director in 1995. “We always looked bigger than we really were,” Frost remembers. “We were a combination of rabble rousers and suits-and-ties… and skirts!”
- Watch them here-
Matt Giraud was another BTA founder who worked closely with Frost in those early days. As a graphic designer, Giraud helped develop the BTA’s “look,” and he also renamed the organization (originally called the “Portland Area Bicycle Alliance”). Giraud remembers when he and Frost worked together to produce and direct the BTA’s series of television PSAs, called “Decide to Ride” (watch them here).
“Karen played such a key role in Portland’s bike revolution,” Giraud says. “She had no shortage of energy, passion, and ideas… Confrontational situations — no shortage of those in the early days when cars roamed the earth unchallenged — seemed to melt before her. She was (and is) the perfect ambassador, humanizing the bike community for the outside world and smoothing ruffled feathers within it.”
In all, Frost worked for the BTA for 12 years (1991-2003), starting as a volunteer, then a board member, then serving as executive director, and finally working as a program manager, “doing what I loved most, developing programs and working with volunteers,” she says.
During her time at the BTA, here’s what Karen recalls as her proudest accomplishments:
- organizing BTA members to lobby for bikes on transit
- convincing Multnomah County and the City of Portland to develop bike plans for each of the Willamette River Bridges
- reviving the dormant 1971 Bicycle Bill, which required bike lanes and sidewalks to be built on new or reconstructed streets statewide. (This law was on the books but largely ignored until the BTA sued — and won — in the Oregon Court of Appeals.)
- starting the Bike Commute Challenge in 1995
- starting the Alice B. Toeclips Awards Gala in 1996
- expanding the scope of the BTA from a Portland-only organization to a statewide organization.
After leaving the BTA in 2003, Frost worked on her own as a consultant before eventually being hired as executive director of the Westside Transportation Alliance — a group that promotes biking, walking and transit to all of Washington County.
with businesses in downtown Tigard.
“I’m proud that me and my staff ‘walk the talk‘, showing up at meetings and employer sites by bike and transit,” Karen says. “We show it can be done.”
She’s also proud of the WTA’s Tigard Bike Rack project. She wants to take this service to other cities in Washington County to help manage the installation of bike racks serving retail stores and customers.
Now that Frost has announced her forthcoming retirement, she’s focusing on wrapping up loose ends. “I’m interested in finishing well,” Karen says.
So what does Frost plan to do after she retires? “I’m looking forward to it [having more free time],“ Frost says. “I have no idea what I’m going to be doing. I’m going to take a break; I’m not going to join any committees! I want to read to children.”
— Publisher’s note: Much of the comfortable bicycling environment we enjoy today in the Portland region — both in terms of politics and infrastructure — we owe to people like Karen Frost. Thanks Karen! Also, thanks to guest contributor Curt Dewees for writing this article. — JM