Dreaming a Tea Party in the Middle of Traffic

I never met Sara Cogan before she was struck by a Honda Accord while crossing NW 23rd Avenue at Quimby Street. It was the evening of January 31, and she and her daughter-in-law, Danielle, were heading home. It was a rainy night. The car, driven by 23-year-old Colleen McClure, apparently struck Danielle first, and then Sara. Danielle is recovering. Sara’s head collided with the windshield, and she died at the hospital from the injuries she sustained.
I never met Sara Cogan before she was struck by a Honda Accord while crossing NW 23rd Avenue at Quimby Street. It was the evening of January 31, and she and her daughter-in-law, Danielle, were heading home. It was a rainy night. The car, driven by 23-year-old Colleen McClure, apparently struck Danielle first, and then Sara. Danielle is recovering. Sara’s head collided with the windshield, and she died at the hospital from the injuries she sustained.

As chance would have it, my husband and I were riding our bikes homeward on Raleigh Street about an hour and a half after the crash. We saw NW 23rd Avenue closed by police cars, and the police taking measurements in the street. That’s not a good sign, I remember thinking. Chris Smith and his partner also passed the scene, walking their dog, as he reported the next day in these annals. Chris wrote that he couldn’t help but wonder if he should have pushed harder for something to break up the long stretch from Northrup to Thurman.

The next night I got an e-mail from Jay Margulies, who twenty years ago recruited me to the Northwest District Association Transportation Committee that he and I and Chris all chaired or co-chaired at one time or another. Sara Cogan was a close friend of Jay’s; he was badly shaken. Echoing Chris’s words, he wrote that he felt in his 15 years on the Transportation Committee he hadn’t pushed pedestrian safety enough.

It is devastating to lose someone dear to you under any circumstances, but the senselessness of a pedestrian death is especially hard. This month will mark the fourth anniversary of the death of Susie Stephens, a leading light in the national bicycle advocacy movement, who was also killed crossing the street. I will never stop missing her 1000-watt smile.

Back to Northwest Portland: the Northwest District Association has asked the City to do something, and the City thinks maybe it can do something, and maybe there are some physical changes that will make things safer.

But — why don’t drivers drive slowly enough when it is dark and raining that they could see a pedestrian in ordinary clothes? This is a systemic issue: we have a culture that values driving over any other way of getting around.

According to the Oregonian, even Commander Bill Sinnott of the Portland Police’s traffic division is thinking along these lines. “Does the culture of Portland have to change around issues of traffic safety?” he is reported to have asked.

How do you change a culture? For the better part of a year (since my own pedestrian crash) I’ve been revolving ideas about civility in the right-of-way. I think of the work of David Engwicht. I’m seeing him seated in the middle of the road on a colorful throne. A thread of an idea is forming. “Was Sara the kind of person who liked tea?” I asked Jay.

I am imagining a tea party right in the middle of 23rd ­ what could be more civil? I see a large tables decked with flowers and flamboyant tablecloths, and brightly painted chairs. I see all the folks who¹ve been part of the NWDA Transportation Committee, past and present ­ and maybe future, and Sara’s friends, and members of the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, all gathered around the tables. I see cars on 23rd slowing to a crawl, and stopping, drivers uncertain and intrigued, as Engwicht so eloquently describes.

Jay replies that Sara drank a lot of tea, and that just recently she brought back from abroad some Chinese green tea as a gift; he hadn’t opened it yet.

I can dream the tea party, but I can’t do it. But you ­ you are reading this, and now I¹ve helped you see it, and you can make it happen. Let me know when; I¹ll be there for Sara, for Susie, and for all those whose lives have been cut way too short.

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