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.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle to turning any city into a cycling city?
Your children are also cyclists. Were they always enthusiastic about traveling by bike? What setup did you use to get them around before they could ride on their own?
My son Skyler hated the helmet when he was little, so that made for some miserable rides in the trailer or bike seat, both of which we used. My daughter Sasha is pretty much always happy so she was fine with however we transported her. Each was on a trail-a-bike for a while. Now my son (age 12) rides my old Trek 1420 road bike. He likes it because it’s speedy and light.
Working as a liaison between cyclists and motorists isn’t an easy job—both groups often see the other as threatening. What was the best way to diffuse this tension? Is there anything you think cyclists can do to make drivers understand them better, and vice versa?
The tension is still there, although in my neighborhood, it’s gotten way better. I think this is because so many around here people now bike – so chances are, when you come up to a stop sign and that motorist waves you through even though they have the right-of-way, they are a cyclist at least part of the time.
I think all of us can behave better, no matter how we get around. Let’s all take a pledge to do, shall we? Ready?
When I am driving, I pledge to drive slowly on neighborhood streets. I will be patient and calm, especially around bicyclists. I will scan for and stop for pedestrians, always. I will refrain from talking, dialing, texting, or otherwise messing with my cell phone, as well as anything else that takes my attention away from my responsibility to the road. I am pleased to see cyclists on the road, and I hope to get on my bike for my next trip.
When I am riding, I will not blow traffic signals. I will look for and yield to pedestrians. I will stay in the bike lane (if there is one and it is safe to do so) or over to the right to the best of my ability. If you behave aggressively toward me, I will repeat to myself, “serenity now, serenity now,” rather than flipping you off or confronting you. I will smile and wave thanks whenever you offer me the slightest bit of courtesy, because I know it can only help to be gracious to you, whoever you are.
One of the most inspiring moments in your memoir is when the city of Dallas hires your company to help them make the city more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians in a short timeframe. Instead of moving incrementally, like Portland, they’re proposing things like cycle tracks and bike parking facilities. Do you see this happening in other cities these days?
Yes, I sure do. The Dallas is personal, since I grew up there, but is meant to represent all the large auto-oriented cities taking their first steps toward a more bicycle-friendly future. That interest and confidence in bicycle transportation is growing is evidenced by my company’s growth, even in this down economy. And it’s also evidenced by the increased competition we face; large engineering and planning firms all now have bike/ped specialists on staff, and compete against us for even the smallest projects.
Near the end of the book, someone says he used to think you were crazy but now realizes you were just “ahead of your time.” What do you think of that statement? Has the time come for transportation cycling to be more than just a crazy idea?
That was my stepdad Tommy, who I adore. He’s in good company with dozens of old friends and family who thought my work promoting bicycle transportation was silly at best. Follow-up story: Tommy was at the dentist, and the person working on his teeth started telling him about this lady on the radio from Portland who was talking about making Dallas more bike-friendly. Tommy just about spit up with joy – it was me! Nowadays, very few people react with derision or amusement; rather they say things like “I wish we could bike… I’ve been to Portland/Copenhagen/Amsterdam and it’s so cool that so many folks bike…We sure need you here…” stuff like that.
Given your line of work, there’s probably only one way you can answer this question, but do you believe the U.S. can match Europe in terms of the percentage of the population that cycles?
Yes and no. (is that what you expected?) We are relying on a carrot approach by providing bikeways and encouraging people to bike. Europeans do that (often with higher degree of separation) but also use economic strategies to shift people to more sustainable means of transportation (biking, walking, transit.) I think we can definitely match the better European cities if we are willing to create higher quality bikeways and make it more expensive to drive. Otherwise no.
The final section of your book is filled with great tips for becoming a cycling advocate in your community, and throughout you share some incredible stories about how individuals can make a difference. Can you suggest one thing that any cyclist can and should do to promote bicycle/pedestrian friendliness in their community?
Raise money to send a delegation of key city officials to Copenhagen or Portland or Boulder. Portland’s already enlightened traffic engineer, Rob Burchfield, said the week he spent in Amsterdam and Copenhagen was the equivalent of 15 years worth of conferences and trainings. He already was on board conceptually, but experiencing it in real life made it real for him.
In Portland, we host tours almost every week for transportation officials, politicians, civic and business leaders, and advocates through Portland State University’s First Stop Program. There’s no better sales pitch for bicycle transportation than a ride on a lovely Summer day.
After years of working as a cycling advocate, what inspired you to share your story?
A number of goals, actually. First, I wanted to tell our story – how we transformed a fairly typical auto-oriented city into a bicycling mecca. So many folks come to or hear about Portland and accept it for what it is today. I hear it all the time: “Oh but that’s Portland… you’re so bicycle friendly, we can’t possibly be like Portland.” But it didn’t just happen, we made it happen, and it wasn’t easy. It gives people a lot of comfort to learn how hard we’ve fought in Portland, and how far we’ve come.
My goal was to also share my experience with the students and professionals in the planning, design and engineering fields, the healthcare officials, professors, national and local advocacy leaders, environmentalists, politicians and anyone interested in changing their communities for the better. Joyride is my way of offering a big bouquet of thanks to all of these awesome heroes, because we achieve nothing, not one thing, in isolation. It’s a team effort, 100% of the time. We’re all in this together.
As to what inspired me specifically, one night, a few summers ago, I was having a drink with my mentor and friend the Honorable Earl Blumenauer. He’s a U.S. Congressman now, and was my boss when I worked at the City.
“So, how ya doing?” asked Earl innocuously, politely.
Suddenly, I was choking back tears. “I’m just so stressed at work, Earl…I’m busy all the time, and my head is bursting with stories.”
Earl locked my eyes with his usual intense gaze. “You need to write it, Mia. Now. It’s our excellent story of hope and change. Believe me, people want to hear it. And Barack Obama is going to win. I want to get our story in the hands of Obama and every congressperson. The time is now. Stop whining. Start writing.” (How many of you have been ordered to stop whining by your congressman?) And so I did.
Mia Birk lives in Portland, Oregon, with her two children – ages 12 and 8. Bicycling is her main means of transportation, and a winning strategy for maintaining her family’s health, safety, budget, and community connection. Order Joyride, read Birk’s blog, check out her speaking calendar or follow her on twitter @miabirk. The book is just $15 +s/h through the holidays, and sales support non-profit organizations working to creating a healthier, more sustainable world.