Up Close and Personal with Mia Birk

A feature chat with the author of Joyride, Portland’s first bicycle coordinator and present chief executive officer/ principal at Alta Planning + Design.

Mia Birk didn’t grow up riding a bike. Her childhood in Dallas, TX, revolved exclusively around the automobile. Even a trip to the grocery store, right across the street, meant hopping in the car, blasting the air conditioning and driving just a few hundred feet.

“By the time I was a teenager, I was really overweight,” Birk said. “Being kind of a short-ish, fat, big-haired Jew wasn’t a great combo in Dallas. And I just didn’t know how to break out of it.”

Until she discovered bicycling.

Lucky for all of us in the bicycle and pedestrian movement, Birk fell in love with her bike while attending graduate school in Washington, DC. That love affair led her to Portland, OR, where she helped to transform the town into the nation’s most bicycle-friendly city. When she left her post as Portland’s Bicycle Coordinator, she took a position at Alta Planning + Design, a bike-ped focused engineering firm that she helped grow from a two-man shop to a multi-office firm with projects around the globe.

Over the past two decades, Birk has been a key player in shifting the North American mindset, convincing politicians, the public and transportation professionals that bicycling is both a legitimate form of travel and a solution to many of our most pressing social problems. But nobody could accuse this vibrant advocate and engineer of resting on her laurels. This fall, Birk added author to her lengthy resume with the release of her first book, Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthy Planet.

In Joyride, Birk takes readers behind-the-scenes of Portland’s bicycle revolution and her efforts in the private sector to mainstream bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure even in cities strangled by sprawl. There are far too many juicy stories to summarize in a single interview. So, when I sat down with Mia Birk at the Pro Walk Pro Bike conference in Chattanooga, we chatted about her passion for storytelling.

Momentum: Raising two kids, teaching at Portland State University, and helping to run a successful, growing engineering firm, you’ve already got a lot on your plate. Why write a book?

Birk: Well, there is no rest for the committed (laugh). But life is short and it’s my belief that we have to get everything out of every day that we have on this planet. It’s been fantastic growing Alta into a much larger firm and growing the industry, too. It’s like a circle: We’re creating more opportunities for people to bike and walk and that creates more desire for our services which create more communities where people bike and walk.

But I wanted to give back and teach what I had learned to students, try to turn out a generation of planners and designers and community activists who understand the lingo and understand what I’ve learned. So we set up this whole program at Portland State University. But my head was still bursting with these stories of what we’ve done. And it’s not just what we did in Portland; it’s not just what I did in Portland. There are all these other great stories of all these other people; stories of people all across North America. So I just had to [write the book]. I was making myself ill because these stories needed to get out!

I know that you had a little help for a humorous guy who calls himself the Metal Cowboy; how did author Joe Kurmaskie influence Joyride?

Well, I’ve written a zillion reports and technical narratives and when I handed him my first draft, it was pretty boring (laugh). It was really bogged down in technical stuff with long lists and lots of really detailed footnotes and he was kind enough to come back and say things like, “Um, we could use a little color here.” There’s a section now called “Plant seeds and the garden will grow,” which is all about growing the movement, getting people out biking, bike commute days, the Bridge Pedal, the women on bikes program, Safe Routes to School and the Community Cycling Center, a wonderful program getting kids to fix up bikes. That whole section was, like two-and-a-half pages in the first draft! So Joe said things like, “We need to create a little narrative here. Tell me these stories.” He really helped me shape it into a narrative, showing me how to tell these stores in funny way, in a lighter way.

Whenever it got too dark or too serious, he’d say, “Let’s use a little gallows humor here.” So he really took it from technical tone and helped turn into something that’s breezy and fun and easy to read; not something you’d put down.

You know, I thought a lot about what the style was and I read a ton. I like the memoir style but I didn’t want it to be a dark memoir of bad things in the world. It’s the memoir of a car-addicted, sedentary girl getting it; seeing the light and finding a career built around a passion. It’s a story of a community going from being a traditional, car-oriented community to one where bicycling really is part of daily life. It’s the story of traffic engineers seeing the light and community members seeing the light and our nation struggling with our old ways and trying to figure out, how do we evolve those ways to something that allows communities to become more healthy.

What’s your hope for this book? Clearly it connects with folks in the bicycle movement but do you hope it moves beyond that audience?

Let me just be ambitious for a moment: I hope we can go far and wide with this book, that it’s a crossover. We know that lots of people want to be healthy and they’re just looking for an answer. Bicycling offers them something so positive and they want to start but they’re not quite sure how… I’m really hopeful folks will buy it — or buy a whole bunch at a wholesale rate! — and get it out there to their mayors and bike committees.

There’s also a lot of people who ride bikes who are not part of the bicycle movement. I mean, they are because they’re doing it or because they’re racing or into cyclocross or mountain biking or just ride their bike casually, but we need them all to have their voices heard. We need to show that it matters; that bicycling is not a toy. It’s not some wacky thing. It’s not on the fringe; it’s part of the mainstream and we want our leaders to pay attention to that and put their money where their mouth is. And I’m very hopeful it gets into university courses and into the healthcare community.

A big part of the healthcare crisis is our sedentary lifestyles and our addiction to prescription drugs — which is caused by our sedentary lifestyles! I’m very hopeful this can cross over and get to a very broad audience, which is why I tried to keep a light and breezy and narrative tone so anybody, like my mom in Texas, will read it because it’s just fun stories. But then, on some level, they’ll say, “Well, I never thought about bicycling like that before.”

As Joyride attests, you’ve been part of this movement for many years now. Where do you think we stand in bringing these issues into the mainstream?

I feel like I’m often on an emotional roller coaster. You know, I get these emails or I’m at a big Trek dealers conference and I watch the president of Trek empower 2,000 bike dealers across the county that bicycle-friendly communities are their business and they need to participate and be part of the solution. I gave four sessions and a lot of bike dealers never thought they should get involved in Safe Routes to School or sponsor a ciclovia and their eyes were wide open, like “Wow, I never thought about that before!” I get really hopeful in those moments and I think “We’re there!” But then in the next moment I’m sitting in a meeting with traffic engineers or I go to city and I’m driving through sprawl or I hear about some Congressman railing that the Denver bike sharing program is a UN conspiracy to take over the world. So I feel really up and down with my emotions as to where we’re at.

But I have to say, because my firm works all over the place, because I’m teaching, because I’m spreading word with this book that I’m the eternal optimist and I’m pretty convinced we’ve grown this movement a lot. We are penetrating and it’s only matter of time. Bicycling is good. We know that. It’s good for your health. It’s good for your family. It’s good for the environment, the community, your pocketbook. And when something is so good on so many levels, it is going to succeed in the end.

To order a copy of Joyride, visit Birk’s website, or purchase it on Amazon.

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