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.
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.