December 30, 2013

Joy Riding with Mia Birk

Native Texan, Mia Birk, a woman who used to drive everywhere, embraced biking as her primary mode of transportation when she was forced to commute to grad school on her brother’s bike due to a lack of available parking on campus.  Over time, she discovered that biking made her feel more empowered and energized than ever before, thereby starting her transformation into the patron saint of bike-friendly cities across the country.

Mia Birk, President of Alta Planning + Design.Mia Birk, President of Alta Planning + Design.

In her role as the City of Portland’s Bicycle Program Manager, Mia helped transform Portland into the vibrant bike-friendly community that it is today.  As the President of Alta Planning + Design, she brought bike sharing to many cities like Boston, Washington DC and even Chatanooga. Today, biking has become an essential piece to what Mia considers a “mobility toolkit” – a combination of many things like walking, transit, and biking. She and her team recognize that people are attracted to cities that can accommodate car-lite or car-free living. 

Mia recently spoke to Zipcar about the road to building cities that accommodate alternate forms of transportation.

Zipcar: What are the biggest benefits to building bike-friendly cities?

Mia:  Personally, I’ve seen a more civil society; especially in Portland, the positivity is apparent. Media like to focus on conflict (between motorists and cyclists) but the goodness created far outweighs those negative interactions. Bike-friendly cities also often have cleaner air and water, better noise quality, and relieved parking congestion. Individuals who embrace biking will see health benefits. Municipalities experience financial benefits and the business community can attract more top talent. Bike-friendly cities are often seen as better places to live, with a more vibrant community and a sense of caring.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face when trying to convince cities to become more bike-friendly?

Infrastructure. Along with bike lanes, available transit and walking are key to helping people see biking as a feasible option. The introduction of bike sharing can be game-changing. DC is a great example of a city that didn't seem particularly bike-friendly until bike sharing was added and it became obvious that biking was a viable option.

In our life we evolve and so do our transportation choices. What’s important is to have the right tools to make the right choices.

What cities are among the most/least bike-friendly?  Why do you think that is?

Cities like Portland, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Montreal have done a great job embracing biking. Seattle is getting there, Boston is improving and places like Fort Collins, Colorado, have successfully crossed over from a sporty bike culture to a more of a bike-commute culture. When you can find a way to bring biking into the mainstream, that’s when you’ve really succeeded.

My hometown, Dallas, may never embrace biking, but there are always things people can do. Even in Atlanta, areas are currently being developed to foster bike-friendliness. Overall, I tend to not look at the whole [population] when determining if a city can embrace bikes since parts will always have challenges. In Portland we have areas that are very bike-friendly and other parts that are too narrow or hilly. It really is very localized.

What do you think the future or urban transportation hold?

It’s an evolution. We’ll likely never move fully away from any single mode of transportation. In our life we evolve and so do our transportation choices. What’s important is to have the right tools to make the right choices.

Never tire of two-wheeled wonders? Throw on a kooky costume for the Baltimore Bike Party or cruise around with one of our own roving fleet associates.