Mia Birk: Redesigning North American Cities For People

A profile of Mia Birk, who works to make North American streets better for cyclists and pedestrians.

Written by:

By Mia Kohout

Mia Birk, Principal at Alta Planning & Design in Portland, Oregon, is a 42-year-old mother of two who believes she has the best job on the planet. Every day, she gets to work with colleagues and clients to make North America more bicycle and pedestrian friendly.

Birk’s career began when she was hired by the City of Portland as the first Bicycle Coordinator. Birk later shifted gears and was hired by Alta Planning, where she started the Portland office in 1999; she has since turned her office of two into an office of sixty. Over the past 20 years, Birk has witnessed the radical growth of cycling infrastructure and culture in Portland firsthand. Initially, she says, it was an experiment but now no one can deny Portland’s radical transformation over the past two decades: the city is North America’s leader in bicycle-friendliness and numbers of transportation riders.

To Birk, “Biking is a simple solution to a lot of problems.” It has a transformative effect on cities and for societies problems such as stress, caused primarily by sitting in traffic; health issues related to living sedentary lifestyles; environmental and safety problems (the leading cause of death among young children is car crashes), and to economic and political problems such as our dependency on oil which also leads to wars.

Birk’s work at Alta Planning & Design is to plan for a more balanced use of public space where cities allow people to use their own bodies for transportation. As Birk says, “We can’t expect people to bike and walk if we don’t provide them with the infrastructure to do so. Vast amounts of public space in our cities are dedicated to moving motor vehicles, and we need to shift this balance back to prioritizing biking and walking.”

When designing a new facility, Birk adds that the highest priority is creating separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians because the three modes – cars, bicycles and pedestrians – operate differently and need to be treated differently. “So far in North America pedestrians and cyclists have had to share the cookie crumbs of public space, where cities have only allocated three meters for both cyclists and pedestrians. In my experience, this isn’t good enough. In almost every instance of building new infrastructure, upon completion the space is at capacity.”

Although infrastructure is crucial to the growth of biking and walking trips in North America, education and encouragement are also vital to this process: “We need to educate drivers about sharing the road and the best way to do this is to have them start biking too.” Birk offers ideas on how to do this: Drivers Ed classes needs to incorporate sharing the road with bicycles; it has to be tougher for young people to get their drivers licenses; elementary schools should require bike safety education starting in the 4th and 5th Grades. And, Birk adds, “Parents need to realize that the choices they make for their kids affect the whole community – sending kids to private schools far away will change their kids’ behavior forever.”

Birk also talks about the importance of culture and how we encourage bicycle use in the mainstream. “First and foremost the bicycle has to be seen as fun, relevant, exciting, easy and comfortable. Playing on people’s guilt is not nearly as effective as showing how fun it is.”

Birk, along with other parents, successfully launched a Safe Routes to School Program at Abernethy Elementary, her children’s school in Portland. They added bike parking and the kids learned how to ride safely and properly fit helmets. The parents started “Bike and Walk Fridays,” where stylishly dressed parents rode with their kids rain or shine; the kids arrived at school smiling and happy. The adults made themselves available on the playground to answer questions so other parents could learn from them. They particularly wanted to show working women that they could dress nicely and still bring their kids to school on a bike. “It had to feel normal and daily. No Lycra needed!” Birk and her fellow mothers wore high heels and skirts and stashed their rain gear in their panniers. “We are looking fabulous while biking and this is such an important message to get across. This is not a sporting event; this is just how we get around.”

When Birk and the other parents launched the program there were 20 kids who biked to school regularly. This year there were 100 kids on bikes for the first day of school, a five-fold increase. Now 40-50 per cent of students bike and many others use school busses. The program has transformed the entire neighborhood and parents rarely drive their kids to school anymore.

Birk sums up by saying, “People also need to realize that change is not going to happen overnight. In reality, it takes a generation to change things.” Birk uses recycling as a perfect example of this. “People are addicted to driving and addictions are hard to break.”

What does being a self-propelled person mean to you?

“Health – I never get sick, I rebounded from two pregnancies very quickly, I have fabulous legs and I don’t worry about what I eat.”

“Empowerment – particularly as a woman”

“Being Free – I smile every single day when I ride my bicycle.”

Mia Birk is working on a new book, Joyride: One Woman’s Journey to Empower People and Transform Communities, that will be released in the fall of 2009.

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