Pioneers in the Bike Advocacy Movement: Susie Stephens

Susie Stephens speaks at the Thunderhead Retreat in Montecito CA. From left: Randy Neufeld, Tim Young, John Kaehny, Susie Stephens, and Chris Morfas.

Susie Stephens speaks at the Thunderhead Retreat in Montecito CA. From left: Randy Neufeld, Tim Young, John Kaehny, Susie Stephens, and Chris Morfas.

We were on a road trip from Seattle to San Francisco in 1998 promoting bikes on buses. Susie was driving the big white support van. We were just south of Eureka in the Redwoods headed South, and I was riding shotgun giving my usual expert counsel on everything. When I finished reciting some miracle I'd performed in Texas as the executive director of the Texas Bicycle Coalition, Susie let a beat go by and using her best Washington nice voice cut me down to size with, “Well Charlie, that’s one way to do it.”

In that moment she reminded me that there are usually a lot of ways to solve problems, or take advantage of opportunities, my way was only one of several. Ouch, but thanks.

Susie Stephens was the 2nd Executive Director of Washington Bikes, the Washington State bike advocacy organization. She started that job in 1995 with a skeptical board of directors, a handful of volunteers, and a few hundred members. Her youth and inexperience was typical of those of us who had found our tribe in these early days of the bike advocacy movement. Most of us were environmentalists, or urbanists, and could see how bicycling was part of the transportation solutions our communities were looking for. We weren’t non-profit management professionals, we were political activists pioneering bike advocacy. And we knew we needed to build people based, powerful and sustainable bike advocacy organizations to keep the movement going long term. So we banded together to learn from each other.

This year, 2016, this band of brothers and sisters is celebrating the 20th Anniversary of our first gathering at the spectacular Thunderhead Ranch outside Dubois, Wyoming. Using foundation money raised by Bill Wilkinson of the Bicycle Federation of America, he set me to organizing a training session for a handful of professional bike advocates who were running non-profit advocacy organizations in their cities or states, along with some promising newcomers such as Susie representing fledgling bike advocacy organizations.

Susie’s inexperience was balanced by three other traits she possessed and honed as she matured as a professional bike advocate. She was constantly learning and applying new skills. Susie tapped into her mentor and peer network with a student’s curiosity and innocence. In return she gave freely of her talents and skills at Thunderhead Gatherings, and as a co-creator and first Managing Director of the Thunderhead Alliance. Her style set a tone of giving freely among our growing network of advocacy professionals. Over her career Susie established herself among the seasoned, inspirational advocacy leaders of our movement.

Like her peers, Susie was an ambitious risk taker. She knew she had to work hard and over-perform to create confidence and momentum. She knew she had to be thinking three moves ahead and anticipating outcomes without assurances of success. So she was bold and fearless in service to her mission. And as she would confide in me, the fearless part didn’t come easily. When she first started standing before audiences to share her vision and invite them to participate she would simply role play. Gradually she built her confidence and became a dynamic and persuasive public speaker.

The last trait Susie Stephens possessed and went with her in her untimely death in 2002, was her sunny spirit and optimism for bikes role in the future. Susie was famous for hitting the road on her bike and traveling the back roads of Washington, gathering her members and interested folks together in small groups to discuss their future together. She could teach, charm, persuade and recruit better than anyone in the nation at the time. And as an early adopter of technology, she used the internet to amplify her voice telling tales of the road to her fans across the state. As a consequence Susie was beloved indeed.

In 1996 a small group of seasoned bike advocacy veterans decided at the Thunderhead Ranch that they valued the type of peer training and inspiration they received from being networked with each other. They pledged to nurture a sustainable organization that would continue this mission and expand the network. Susie was among this group of visionaries who started the Thunderhead Alliance, now the Alliance for Bicycling and Walking.

After this decision was made Susie and I went for a walk and talk. As the guy who had organized the first two Thunderhead gatherings, my role was that of default leader of this group of peers. Being sensitive to my sense of ownership, she told me of the groups plans. My surprise was not that they wanted to take ownership but that it came faster than I anticipated.  I was expecting a slower progression. As the idea sunk in to my head Susie could tell I needed reassurance. She provided it with this prediction. “Charlie,” she said, “you will be proud of what we do with what you started.”

I was and am proud of our progress as a movement. Susie Stephens is remembered as a leader in the top ranks of bike advocacy and as a pioneer of the profession. She was also a very good teacher and friend.

More About Susie Stephens (from the Alliance for Biking & Walking Website)

Susie worked with several key local advocates from around the country to form the Thunderhead Alliance, now known as the Alliance for Biking & Walking. Susie served as the Alliance’s first managing director. After serving as the Alliance’s founding director, Susie started her own consulting business to help communities and government agencies better plan for bicycling and walking.

In 2002, Susie traveled to St. Louis on her second consulting job. The task at hand: train National Forest Service employees on better planning for bicycle and pedestrian use. While in town, she walked across the street to make copies and grab a cup of coffee. On her way back across the street, she was fatally struck by a turning tour bus. She was 36.

Learn more about Susie and the powerful impact she had on those who were fortunate enough to know her at the

About Charlie Gandy

Charlie Gandy consults with cities promoting active living. He is a nationally recognized expert in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy, and a popular consultant and speaker known for sparking innovation. Charlie founded Bike Texas, and has hosted biking and walking advocacy trainings across the country, including the groundbreaking Thunderhead Alliance retreat. In the mid 90's he played a key role in the original "Bikes Belong" national political campaign to re-fund biking, walking and public transit at the federal level. During his time as the Mobility Coordinator for the City of Long Beach he originated and developed the Bike Friendly Business Districts program. Reach Charlie at gandy.charles [at] Image by Allan Crawford.



Why I'm Walking California's Coast

Pick some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.
— Henry David Thoreau
California's stunning Central Coast.

California's stunning Central Coast.

Making the decision to walk the California coastline from Mexico to Oregon without using cars along the 1,200 mile route was easy.  Doing it is hard. I’m about a third of the way to completion of this big, hairy goal and am ready to answer the obvious question, “Why?”

Guys like me get dared into doing things that we sometimes regret. Jumping off scary cliffs, running for office, talking to pretty women – dares either kill us or make us stronger.

What is most interesting to me is that the dares that matter most and those we action most often are the ones we generate within. We dare ourselves much more than others dare us. Why? Stimulation and recognition. We want to be excited so we push ourselves out of comfort zones, or ruts to find it. And most of us like someone listening or an audience. Young men in the south are best at expressing this sentiment when they direct us to, “Hey, hold my beer an’ watch this!”

So the first reason I'm taking about two months to finish hiking California’s beaches, bluffs and roads from Mexico to Oregon is to respond to my own dare. What makes you think you’re up for this adventure? Do you have the courage to step into the unknown with all the risks involved? Are your explorer skills up to the challenge of hiking 1,200 miles through one of the most dynamic places on earth? What makes you think a 57 year old can average hiking 20 mile days with a backpack and no car-support? How are you going to turn this experience into something useful for others? What if you fail? Who cares?

Great questions self! I’ll get back to you with answers soon. Meanwhile what are the other reasons for a car-free, carefree, California coastline exploration?

The second reason I'm hiking the California’s coastline car-less is because it is exploration, the route is rough, the hike is hard, and the experience is beautiful.

Living in Long Beach for the last seven years, my coast hike is inspired by experiential learning along the California coastline and educated myself on the history of the California Coastal Trail or CCT. This place where the Pacific Ocean’s edge blends with California’s 1,200 mile coastal zone produces California’s dynamic pulse. You can feel it strolling any beach where seawater ebbs and flows. Waves of enormous energy crash and recede, crash and recede, generating the rhythm of California. In this ribbon of energy rests the California Coastal Trail, an unfinished walking and biking route that promises to showcase the true natural beauty of this state.

Surprisingly the CCT is not like any of the celebrity long distance trails such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. The AT and PCT are well marked, mapped, and trodden. The CCT is a “braided route” which means it’s a combination of road shoulders, bluff trails, beach paths and raw rocky or sandy beaches. Path selection is determined by many factors including tide levels, difficulty of terrain, land ownership, and personal skills/conditioning.

Since the CCT is long and vaguely routed, it is rarely hiked as a thru hike, all the way from Mexico to Oregon or the reverse. From limited research I estimate that fewer than 100 people have thru hiked the CCT. Coastwalk is a non-profit organization in San Sebastopol focused on improving the entire route and it hosts several multi day outings using sections of the CCT.

So that’s where the beauty part comes in. Hiking northward at about a 3.5 mile per hour pace I am immersed in one of the most dynamic places on earth. Natural beaches, bluffs, wetlands and dunes are off my starboard shoulder. On portside waves are washing up, crashing up, splashing up, then receding and revealing pools of sea life, as fish and seals swim just offshore and whales are spouting plums beyond them. Each day the early morning sun stretches shadows across fresh, cool, wet sand and at lower tides offers a strolling surface rivaling European promenades.

At about midday I stroll into the next beach town. Another significant difference between the CCT and traditional trails is where the CCT becomes urban and social, the traditional trails tend to go around and avoid people. Also walking into a town or city by beach or bluff trail means missing lots of what makes a place ugly (sprawl, highways, billboards) and is usually a flattering experience for the place. So I experience beauty along the CCT by hiking a few morning miles along a beach at low tide, then arrive hungry into the heart of a beach town, and finally set down to a large plate of something local and delicious to eat. All is good.

I got started on this journey when I took Henry David Thoreau’s suggestion, “Pick some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.”

I fell in love with California decades ago, long before I moved here seven years ago. Having traveled around the world as a student and tourist and then to all fifty states during my time as a political organizer for bicycling and walking, I’ve experienced some inspirational places. California has all of it, at least what I deem all. In fact, California has more that its share of natural beauty. Reverence comes in the form of dramatic mountain ranges guarding postcard perfect valleys, bucolic plains and rolling hills punctuate and frame California’s quaint beach villages and sophisticated cities. What an invitation to inspiration.

See, I didn’t expect to live this long.  At about eleven years old I had rheumatic fever which theoretically caused my heart to weaken. I really didn’t expect to live beyond about thirty years old. An upside to this death sentence is that it created a sense of urgency for me to get things done. And not wait around for permission or approval from others. As I have come to know, thinking that I would die at thirty helped me focus on and be very conscious of the time left. It has helped me to author a life.

So when that birthday came in 1988 I put my bike on an airplane and flew from Austin, Texas to San Francisco, got on Amtrak and went overnight north to Klamath Falls, Oregon, then rode that bike down the coastline back to San Francisco. It was an act of defiance about a supposed weakened heart and an attempt to learn what I would do for the rest of my life. As I rode through the redwoods south of Crescent City I remember consciously opening up to new ideas, new possibilities, new meaningful commitments. I also remember being overwhelmed with the majesty of the massive redwood groves and the moment to moment considerations of bicycling along a road shared with cars whose drivers are equally overwhelmed and distracted.

So while I didn’t find a magic answer along that route and the corresponding clear path forward for my life and career, I did fall in love with northern California’s natural beauty and progressive magic. I was impressed by early adopter cities and towns attempting to embrace bicycle touring. It reminded me of more sophisticated bike systems I had experienced riding around and through European countries. Very civilized.

My final reason for a car-free hike up California’s coastline is to witness climate change’s dramatically impacts. Every inch of the coastline is being affected by rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Big questions are on the horizon for communities along the coast related to resilience and whether to amour up or retreat, resist or re-adapt. For the CCT, these conditions and questions pose a rare, generational opportunity to improve the condition of the trail and complete the vision on its founders and today’s advocates. My role is to help make that happen.

About Charlie

Charlie consults with companies, cities and states interested in promoting active living. He's a nationally recognized expert in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy, and a popular consultant and speaker known for sparking innovation. Charlie founded Bike Texas, created the Thunderhead Alliance retreat for biking and walking advocates, played a key role in raising funding for and running the original "Bikes Belong" national political campaign to reinstate funding for biking, walking and public transit at the federal level, and originated and developed the Bike Friendly Business Districts program in collaboration with Bike Long Beach for the City of Long Beach.

Charlie is currently section hiking up the California coastline. He's finished Southern California in the past year and looks forward to the Central Coast next. Reach him via email here.