It's 1993, and I start this new job: bicycle coordinator for the city of Portland. "Bicycle Coordinator?" says my Texas family. "What the heck is that and why don't you get a real job like your brothers?" I had no idea then that it would be such a challenge or have such an impact on me, the City, and the nation.
But nearly twenty years later and twenty pounds lighter, I can tell you this: it's been quite a ride, a joy ride.
For less than the cost of one mile of urban freeway, for less than one percent of Portland's transportation budget, we have created a city where thousands of people can and do choose bicycling as a normal, everyday means of transportation. We have more money in our pockets. We are fitter. Our kids arrive by foot or bike at school energetic and ready to learn. We are less stressed. We are more free.
I have worked to spread this message far and wide, all across North America. From the small towns to the suburbs to the large cities and ex-urbs, even to my hometown Dallas TX, we have been finding ways to make communities more human, healthy, safe, and splendid.
Joyride is about change – about creating healthier communities and improving our health. It's about the people behind the scenes, the battles we fought, our successes and failures. Today, as we face the undeniable and horrific consequences of our addiction to driving – the unrelenting Gulf of Mexico oil spill, air pollution, traffic crashes, and obesity, asthma, diabetes, stress, and other diseases directly tied to our sedentary, auto-oriented lifestyles, Joyride offers hope, for a brighter future for us all.
Enjoy the ride!
Downloaded PDF files require Adobe Acrobat™ Reader
Listen to Mia sharing an excerpt from Joyride to the Portland City Club during her 'All About the Bike' presentation.
"Mia Birk helped shape remarkable transportation changes in Portland that have made it the number one cycling city in the country -- changes that I'm confident her hometown of Dallas can learn from. Joyride is a great chronicle of the vision and tenacity that it takes to transform a city's mindset and infrastructure, and is a great handbook for those of us who want to bring change to our own cities."
-- Angela Hunt, City Councilwoman, Dallas TX
"The Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP) was proud to award Mia Birk the 2007 Professional of the Year Private Sector Award for her force of nature leadership in creating more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly communities, bringing back bicycling and walking to schools, and advancing the professional capacity of the planning and transportation field."
-- Kit Keller, JD, Executive Director
"For a long time, Mia Birk has been a leader in the transformation of cities into better places for people traveling on foot and by bicycle. Her work strikes at the heart of what it means to make cities healthy and rewarding places to live, create, and thrive. Students and professionals will find both practical knowledge and inspiration in this important new book."
-- Ethan Seltzer, Director, Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University,
From childhood, I struggled to keep my weight down, squandered a small fortune on gym memberships, and dieted furiously. Leaving for graduate school in D.C., my brother insisted, “Take my bike, Miss so-called Environmentalist. Maybe you’ll stop complaining about being fat.”
Bicycling didn’t feel like exercise since I was getting where I needed to go. One hundred weekly pedaling miles sculpted my calves and quads into Tina Turner-esque things of beauty. I could hardly believe they were mine! I looked good. I felt even better. The insecure young woman who had so struggled with her weight and body image felt like a ghost of the past.
On a schizophrenic Spring day, I might get pelted by hail and then warmed by a double rainbow. Spring in Portland is stunning in its beauty, week after week offering new tantalizing eye candy: swirls of cherry blossoms, breathtaking lines of white ornamental pear trees, pink Magnolia explosion, and a dazzling array of yellow, green, pink, white, and purple Camellias, Dogwoods, and Rhododendrons. You just don’t get the same level of flowery intoxication sitting in a car.
I wave constantly at my neighbors and at strangers who stop for me at a stop sign. Often, they wave me through although they have the right-of-way. For many years, I would assert my presumed equality by motioning, “No, you go ahead, really.” But then I realized that when someone offers me kindness, it’s my responsibility to graciously receive. Besides, when you’re on a bike, momentum is your friend, and I think that the motorists waving me through must understand that. Perhaps they themselves bike from time to time. I always smile and wave in gratitude. And since this happens numerous times a day, I’m always smiling and waving, waving and smiling, happy, happy, happy as I pedal along, until I arrive at work or a meeting or home feeling pleasantly hungry, energetic, even buzzed.
Yes, Grasshopper, these pleasures can be yours too… but only if you try it. How to impart upon the masses that bicycling, particularly on the network of bikeways we’re speedily creating, is pleasurable and fun, something delightful to do, not a chore, not a hassle, not scary, not a pain in the ass? If I can walk the halls and pedal my wheel-and-pony show and simply through talking to folks, break down enough barriers to rally five, 10, or 20 percent of folks to at least give it a try, what would happen if I could multiply myself? Or, since cloning is not an option as of yet, how can I spread the fun farther and faster?
Clearly, I can’t do it alone.
Environment – Air Quality
The coup de grace in my health nightmares was getting stuck for several hours in a cloud of dust and diesel at a stalled train in Varanasi, India. My sinuses went haywire and asthma flared. I used my inhaler over and over, and it didn’t make a difference. When I started blacking out, a colleague called for a doctor who immediately diagnosed the severity of the situation. I was in real danger of joining the multitudes that come to this ancient city by the Ganges to die. Worse still, the doctor couldn’t get a lock on any of the small, rolling veins in my arms.
Seconds turned to years as he poked in vain. Slim rivulets of blood ran down my arms and onto the floor.
“Hold her down,” the doctor ordered, and stabbed a vein in my foot. The epinephrine kicked in almost instantly. My lungs relaxed and sobs racked my body as air flowed into my lungs. Independence has been instilled in me since I was a baby. I was taught to be reliant on myself, and to be strong, no matter what. In that moment, I just wanted to crawl into my Mom’s arms. I wanted to go home. I wanted to be in a place where the air is clean.
“How many people across the world experience similar harmful effects of polluted air?” I wondered. Something shifted in me that day, pushed my psyche to a visceral daily commitment to ensuring that the air we breathe is as pure as the water we drink (or should drink).
The more I traveled and learned, the more I felt like I was a preacher with no moral ground on which to stand. The U.S. accounts for about less than five percent of the world’s population but close to a quarter of its oil consumption; our transportation sector alone consumes about 16 percent of the world’s oil. Our Middle East policies are integrally linked with this insatiable oil consumption. How could I be explaining to developing country officials how important it is to consider investments in bicycling, walking, and transit when we have failed to do so ourselves?
It’s a lucky person who finds the perfect career at a young age, sticks with it, and spends an obsessive amount of time just about every day for 20 years, so far, in a state of joyous decision making, networking, creative problem solving, mentoring, learning, and giving. The world is full of jobs that feed our bellies not our souls. Somehow, I found this strange and wonderful path from which I empower people and transform communities, one pedal stroke at a time. If you had told me, when I was a 15-year old miserably trying – and repeatedly failing - to pass the parallel parking part of the driver’s test so I could be a teenage soccer-Mom, “yo Mia, you’re going to be the queen of bicycles,” I would have doubled over in hysterics, spewing Diet Coke out my nose.
And yet, here I am, having watching a steady stream of pedaling, walking, smiling, laughing, talking, weaving families on N. Willamette Boulevard, a long-ago battleground over bike lanes. It is our darkest moments that teach us our greatest lessons, no?
Each challenging bike lane, path, boulevard, and bridge made its way through obstacles and opposition to a place of undisputed success. Not one of these existed 15 years ago. We’ve come such a long way.
And yet, we’ve still got such a long way to go.
My first day as Portland’s Bicycle Program Coordinator finds me slotted into a meat locker-sized, burnt-orange cubicle, identical to the ones on my right and left. Suddenly, a woman with short spiky hair and flowing fire engine red dress is in my space. She barks at me, “I’m telling you right here and now. Whatever you do, do NOT speak to the media!”
Apparently, an advocacy group has filed a lawsuit to force the City to put in bike lanes on a road adjacent to the prominent new TrailBlazer NBA stadium. My impression had been that the bulk of the job would be convincing a skeptical public that bicycling is a viable means of transportation. Apparently, my job is also to evolve the bureaucracy, which, like every American transportation department, is almost entirely dedicated to moving and parking motor vehicles.
Health and Safety – Getting the Message Out
I load up a bike trailer with two trays of slides and projector, plus bike maps, surveys, and brochures, and head east to a Denny’s five miles out and a world away. I talk about the health impacts of sedentary lifestyles, and the increasing problems in air quality and congestion. I discuss the need for a comprehensive bikeway system and describe the options available – bike lanes, off-street paths, neighborhood bicycle boulevards, bike parking, and education, encouragement, and enforcement.
Most folks seem confused. I seem to have landed from Mars, onto their planet, and am speaking Martian about a topic that could not be less important. When I’m done, they run for the doors – and their cars. “Phew,” they sigh in relief as they caress the dashboard. “That crazy woman was trying to get me to give you up, my precious...”
But, a few linger. Jack, the furniture store owner, tells me that his doctor says he needs to get more exercise to help with his high blood pressure. He asks where he can get his bike tuned up. Another couple signs the mailing list and leaves with bike maps.
And then there is Paula, built frail and dressed plainly, with short blond hair and cracked hands, face like Carmela Soprano, a tough woman who has seen her share of hard times and will defend herself and her family with all her heart and soul.
Her son, she quietly tells me, was badly injured in a car accident when he was in high school and, has never been the same again. She wants to keep her grandkids from driving for as long as possible and wants to know where they can learn bike safety.
I bike away with a light spirit. In this group, four out of 20 had taken the time to talk to me. I’ve got more than 60 more wheel-and-pony shows scheduled. If every group I talk to has 20 to 50 participants, and two or three or even 10 open their minds to bicycling as a result, that means I am influencing 10 to 20 percent. If each of these folks start bicycling, and their friends see them getting healthier and fitter, and then their kids start biking… I seem to be on the right track. Better keep going.
Bicycle transportation is a simple, win-win solution for our complex energy, environmental, livability, and health problems.
We have created, in less than a generation, a City in which people can and do choose bicycling as a normal, everyday means of transportation. Many of us live a car-free or car-light existence. We have more money in our pockets. We are fitter and healthier. Our kids arrive by foot or bike at school energetic and ready to learn. We are less stressed. We are more free.
As of 2008, five to eight percent of Portland commute trips are bicycle trips, up from 1% 15 years ago. For less than one percent of Portland’s transportation budget, we’ve increased bicycling from negligible to significant. For the cost of one mile of freeway – about $50 million – we’ve built 300 miles of bikeways. That’s one heckuva bang-for-buck investment!
Notwithstanding a few skirmishes, by 1997, we’ve gained more than 100 miles of bike lanes through the low-hanging fruit, complete streets road diet. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance dropped its lawsuit. Our engineering staff is mostly on board with the program.
Now, we are faced with an opportunity to improve a short but critical link, NE 47th Street as it crosses an interstate freeway. Low-hanging fruit it’s not. Bike lanes can only be put in via trade-off of one side of on-street parking.
To pick this prickly pear, we are going to need some thick gloves. Even still, we may bleed. And, based on what I’ve learned about people and their attachment to on-street parking, I may very well get booted back to Texas if we fail.
Once upon a time, river commerce ruled the day in Portland OR. As time wore on, the Willamette became an industrial toxic stew, keeping boats afloat but devastating all its living creatures and degrading its majesty. Portland’s dark history of shanghaiing people to build tunnels may have faltered in part because the slaves were able to simply walk right across the thick sludge to freedom.
Jumping on the river-destruction bandwagon was the Federal Highway Administration, which invested $26 billion in 41,000 miles of federal highways, a surface area equivalent to that of West Virginia. The concrete would build six sidewalks to the moon. One of those highways, I-5, was plopped right next to the Willamette in the heart of downtown in one stupendous example of short-sighted use of prime riverfront property.
It took no time at all for City officials to realize what a lemon they were stuck with. City Council spent the next two decades debating whether to move, bury, or make peace with the beast, reversing itself time and again depending on the office-holders of the day. Finally, in the early 1990s, Mayor Vera Katz and Commissioners Earl Blumenauer, Mike Lindberg, and Gretchen Kafoury declared they would see the downtown portion of I-5 in hell, but, in the meantime, Portlanders and visitors alike would get to experience the Willamette’s eastbank by foot or bike despite the freeway’s looming presence.
“Hang out there if you want to, you miserable monster. We’ll be over here ignoring you while we recapture the precious riverfront you stole from us.” Thus began the reclamation of the Willamette River and the quest for a crucial connection in our bikeway system.
From the day the mile-and-a-half Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade opens, bicyclists ride, and joggers and plodders stride. The path’s graceful curves, budding vegetation, art, interpretive panels, and luminous views do exactly what City Council intended: they distract you from the freeway. On September 22, 2001, more than a thousand candle-holding citizens turn the 2.5-mile loop into a circle of post-9/11 solidarity, mourning, faith and, most of all, community.
Firecracker ex-Texan Janis McDonald is on a mission to help women overcome their fears about bicycle transportation. One late fall evening, I click on various blinkie lights, pull on wool tights under my skirt, wrap a scarf around my face, and pedal hard over to Janis’s Women on Bikes repair class. About 20 middle-aged women are standing, with their bikes, in a chilly warehouse-like room among rows of new bikes.
“Come on in!” she invites, and hands me a cup of hot chocolate. Her first simple lesson: put one hand on the back downtube and one on the front fork, lift, and flip.
Janis encourages, “Ladies, don’t be afraid!” A palpable sigh of relief raises the room temperature a couple of degrees as each woman successfully balances their bikes on their handlebars and seats.
“Now, we’re going to take the front wheel off and repair a flat tire. Locate the valve stem…” And so on, until every one of them vanquishes their monster under the bed. Knowledge is power.
Teach a man to fish and he’ll have food for his family. Teach a woman to fix her bike, and she’ll understand that nothing is outside her potential.
It’s an interesting paradox that the clothing revolution associated with the bicycle afforded women a quantum leap in basic freedom back in the 1880s. Today, the clothing associated with bicycling holds many women back. Take, for example, Vivian, a blond, blue-eyed beauty who happens to be the fashion editor for the Oregonian, and who also happens to be decidedly uninterested. Her objection stems first and foremost from the common misunderstanding that bicycling requires jamming one’s legs into thigh-pinching butt-pad shorts.
“Mia,” she explains with a touch of disdain. “You are not going to convince me that lycra shorts are fashionable.” We’re at a somewhat schwanky reception, and I’m sporting a flouncy, knee-length, linen black skirt and lacy pink chemise under a black/white silk/wool cropped v-neck sweater with tiny pearl buttons. Caressing my feet are waterproof knee-high black suede boots. And yes, I did ride my bike to the event.
“Heck no! I’m not even going to try!” In my world, fashion is about showing up at a meeting by bike, looking fabulous, without having to change a single thing. “Vivian, I’m with you: padded lycra shorts are not our friend. Not sexy. Not sassy. We look like we’re having a maxi-pad disaster.”
She looks me up and down, intrigued, but unconvinced. For close to 20 years, her husband has been setting off for long rides, thighs crammed into tight shorts, chest inflamed in loud logos.
For the next 10 minutes, I do my best to convince her that cycling fashion has nothing to do with speed-demon apparel. First the bike: look to a utilitarian beauty with a step-through frame, fenders, rack, kickstands, skirt-guard and lights. Solid, upright, comfortable, and stable… this is what you want to be the bedrock of your fashionable bicycling look. Then the clothes: skirts of a certain length and style, breathable fabrics, and solid heels of just about any height. Finally, the delightful, delicious accessories. From pink-flowered waterproof Ortlieb panniers to a front-mounted Toto-basket into which you fling your briefcase or purse, there’s an option for all of us when we free our minds of the notion that cycling attire is intended to facilitate long-distance racing.
“Cy was a nightmare,” John tells me, as I adjust the helmet of his developmentally disabled son. This is one of the things I’m most proud of: in preparation for the Tour de Ladd ride, we’ve gotten our whole school properly fitted with helmets.
Cy has a fairly complex set of issues requiring an ever-evolving regimen of drugs and medical appointments. One thing for sure: he is highly prone to emotional volatility. By fifth grade, Cy’s condition was compounded by a ballooning weight problem caused by a combination of metabolism-affecting drugs and inactivity. In this, he mirrors close to 50% of our children nationwide.
But then, an amazing thing happened: Cy won a brand spanking new mountain bike in our safe routes to school raffle and learned how to ride. Since he started biking to school, his weight dropped and moods mellowed. Often, their family rides turn into an adventure. They stop for fresh, locally grown food at the Farmer’s Market. They run into friends, or stop to snack on juicy wild blackberries. They catalogue all the wildlife they see – hummingbirds, butterflies, beavers, nutria, red winged blackbirds, and robins.
“Bicycling saved us,” declares John. Earl would be so proud. Cyrus gives me a big smile and heads off to find his bike.