Last month, Dottie and I were offered a chance to read Joyride, the new memoir from Mia Birk. Birk was the Bicycle Program Manager for Portland from 1993-99, and at the end of her tenure there, Portland had become the most bicycle-friendly city in America. Her fight for more bike lanes, sharrows and more is chronicled in Joyride—her first step as Bicycle Program Manager was to take her own bike on “dog and pony shows” to various civic groups, educating them on the “win-win” of cycling for transportation, whether they liked it or not. If you read Joyride (and if you can’t tell, we recommend it!) you’ll finish the book impressed by Birk’s accomplishments and inspired to take steps in your community. In addition, it’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at civic life: how and why bike lanes get made, for example, and the reason there aren’t more bike paths on bridges.
Birk is currently President and co-owner of Alta Planning + Design, an international firm dedicated to creating active communities where bicycling and walking are safe, healthy, fun, and normal daily activities. She took the time out to answer a few questions about Joyride for LGRAB readers.
Mia Birk: photo by Beth Nakamura
You faced a lot of obstacles as Portland’s bicycle coordinator. Just reading about them raised our blood pressure! What kept you motivated to press on?
Every challenging battle was mitigated by the awesome stories of people starting to bike, getting fit, changing their lives for the better. Plus, we (remember, it wasn’t just me alone – I was working with a team of terrific folks) were/are 100% solid in our commitment to bringing bicycle transportation — a simple, win-win solution to our many complex problems – to Portland. Anything worth doing is worth fighting for.
Giving up then was not an option, nor is it today. We are not just fighting for a bike lane here and there. In my mind, we are engaged in a larger struggle for a healthier planet for our children and generations to come. It’s an honor to have been able to build a career on this, to work side by side with a bunch of great people doing this great work.
The “dog and pony shows” you went on to explain cycling to the community made for some good stories. It must have been nerve-racking to face these audiences, some of which were quite hostile to the idea of bicycle transport. Why did you choose this approach?
The City of Portland has an extensive history of involving the public in decision-making. This can make for maddening slow processes, but on balance ends up creating better, longer lasting outcomes, as evidenced by the many good facets of our city. My bosses at the time had had positive experiences conducting outreach for concepts like traffic calming and light rail, so the bike-oriented outreach made sense.
These days you work as a consultant on cyclist/pedestrian issues in cities around the world. Is there a city you see as the next Portland?
A bunch of cities are full-steam ahead doing incredible things very quickly. These include New York, Long Beach, Minneapolis, Seattle, Washington D.C., Chicago, and Vancouver. There’s probably another 200 cities making great strides all across North America.
What was/is the most effective way to humanize cyclists for drivers? The one-on-one approach – cajoling and charming colleagues and friends to give it a try. Bike commute challenges and celebrations. Big, game-changing, eye-opening events like Portland’s BridgePedal, Sunday Parkways, and other such Ciclovias. Connecting community to the many joys of bicycling through repurposing used bikes to needy families. Empowering women through bike maintenance classes and rides. Modeling that you can look fashionable while on a bike (like you women do!); it’s not all about lyrca and speed. And starting safe routes to school programs. Many aggressive drivers get awfully tame around kids. All in all, the more we get motorists to ride bikes at least part of the time, the better it will be.
Our latest Roll Model is Joanna Goddard, Manhattan blogger extraordinaire. Not only does she maintain her own personal site, Cup of Jo, she also blogs (and writes) for Glamour magazine. Joanna and her husband Alex are expecting their first child–a boy–any day now, and she has continued riding her vintage 3-speed throughout her pregnancy. Read on to learn what plans she has for cycling after baby and what the best thing is about riding a bike.
Joanna on her bike, 33.5 weeks pregnant
Tell us about your cycling history — when did you start? What do you ride? What drew you to cycling?
My family has always been really into bikes. My dad, sister and I biked all the time, and we always took bikes on vacations. I had a blue bike with a banana seat. When I moved to New York City nine years ago, I got a bike, and I LOVE riding here! It makes the big city feel much smaller, and it’s great to feel the wind in my face. So refreshing and invigorating. (Read a story Joanna wrote about herfirst bike here.)
As a blogger who mostly works from home (I assume), how does cycling fit into your lifestyle?
Yes, I work from home. I’m actually claustrophobic so instead of taking the subway, I ride everywhere, pretty much year round (except for those insanely cold days). I ride to appointments, dinners, parties, errands, etc. (I recently rode to a big meeting in a pencil dress and super high heels, which was a bit of a feat!) My husband and I also take evening rides by the water, and we often take long weekend rides from our West Village apartment up to the lighthouse at the George Washington Bridge. It’s funny because in New York, you see everything on the bike path–teenagers on unicycles, dudes on Penny Farthings, we even recently saw a group of nuns rollerblading in their full habits!
You’ve kept riding throughout your pregnancy. What reactions have you gotten from family/friends/strangers? Have you made plans for riding after baby?
My trusty bike has saved my life during my pregnancy! Walking (i.e., waddling) has been uncomfortable during my seventh and eighth months, but biking feels amazing, since I can sit up straight and feel free and strong. Strangers are incredibly sweet, actually. Bike messengers and guys on the street will often yell out, “Hey, mama!” or “Congratulations!” as I ride by, or they’ll tell other bikers, “Be careful, she’s pregnant!” It’s really sweet — it’s like the pregnancy version of catcalling. After the baby arrives, we can take him on the bike with us once he’s a year old and strong enough to sit up in the bike seat. I’m excited to take him on his first ride. We already bought a bike seat in anticipation.
What tips would you give other moms-to-be about cycling while pregnant?
Do it! Ask your doctor first, of course, but mine encourages it. Biking feels easier than walking when pregnant, I think, and it’s wonderful, gentle, low-impact exercise. Just remember to wear a helmet, of course, and ride carefully.
How does your style conflict with or contribute to your cycling? Do you have any guidelines you apply to yourself when dressing to go somewhere on your bike?
I pretty much dress like a ten-year-old boy (jeans, sneakers and T-shirts), so my style fits pretty well with biking. But if I’m going to dinner in a dress or skirt, that works, too. The only big fashion guideline: Wear a helmet! I love this one from Bern, and I put reflective tape on it.
Joanna's Bern "Watts" helmet
What’s the best thing about riding a bike?
Those magical moments that you can’t plan, like right after a rain storm when the sun comes out and you’re biking by the water, and the air is perfect and beautiful and the water is sparkling and you’re just flying along.
Thanks, Joanna! For more of Joanna’s beautiful pictures and inspiring posts, visit A Cup of Jo.
Last month fate (and couchsurfing.org) brought a special guest to my door. I’m normally very selective about who I choose to host on couchsurfing, perusing their profile and references with care, but when I got Victoria’s request, I couldn’t email her back fast enough. Riding from Boston to LA by bike? on her own? In four months? this was a person I wanted to have a conversation with.
Intelligent and inspiring, Victoria did not disappoint. It only took a few minutes’ conversation for me to feel comfortable enough to invite her to a girls’ night with a good friend of mine — and to know that I wanted to share her story with LGRAB readers. So I emailed her a few questions, asking her to answer as time permitted from the road. For more on Victoria’s epic ride (as I write, she’s made it to Texas!) check out her blog.
What inspired you to take this trip?
Generally I just love adventure and long-distance feats of endurance. I’ve done a couple week-long hiking trips, a two-mile ocean swim in New England in November (brrrr!), and attempted to walk 100K in one day with my brother (I only finished half of it before my body shut down on me.)
I can pinpoint a couple of sources of inspiration for the cross-country bike tour specifically:
I started using my bike for transportation when I moved to Boston for college in 1994, and found I really enjoyed getting around on a bike.
I grew up just off Route 20, the longest road in the US, which goes from Boston to Oregon and has all kinds of cool little towns and tourist attractions along it. I always thought it would be fun to travel the whole thing, either by biking or driving really slowly.
I have an uncle who rode horseback from our hometown in upstate New York to Wyoming. Sort of captures your imagination when you’re 8 years old.
Tell us about your touring setup (bike, panniers, etc.) and how you chose it.
I have only ever ridden mountain bikes around the city, and knew nothing about road bikes or touring when I started preparing for this trip. I got online and did some research, mostly reading other people’s blogs and equipment lists, and came up with a list of Things to Care About When Bike Touring. These included: