Editor’s note: This book review by David Boerner first appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #12, published in August 2011.
Portland, Oregon, wasn’t always the cycling utopia that it is today. Once it was an auto-centric American city like any other. Former Portland Bicycle Coordinator Mia Birk details this transformation in her book “Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet.”
When Birk arrived in Portland in 1993, the city had 65 miles of bikeways, and most were unconnected. Ten of those miles were a dirt road on the side of a hill in Forest Park—great for recreation, not good for getting anywhere. By the time Birk left her post in 1999, Portland had 215 miles of bikeways, mostly interconnected. She was instrumental in getting bike lanes added to bridges, a critical connection for Portland. She pioneered the use of innovative facilities (innovative here in North America, anyway) like colored bike lanes, shared lane markings and bike boxes.
Thanks in great part to the efforts Birk started, Portland was awarded the first Platinum Bicycle Friendly Community rating from the League of American Bicyclists in 2003, and has the highest bike commuter rate of any big city in America (5.8 percent vs. second-place Minneapolis’ 3.9 percent).
Birk fought many a battle, and her book gives great blow-by-blow accounts of specific victories for Portland cyclists, like the time a group compared her plan to paint bike lanes on Willamette Avenue (today an extremely popular bike route) to the building of the Berlin Wall. Or the many times Birk circumvented guidelines of “The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices”—the federal guidebook for traffic engineers—and laid down “non-standard” facilities. In the end these facilities worked, nothing blew up and some have been adopted by other cities.
“These things don’t happen by accident. One person was at the center of that work, pushing on policy, addressing the politics and fine-tuning the details to make it all happen. That person was Mia Birk,” writes United States House Representative Earl Blumenauer in the book’s foreword.
Joyride is certainly a great read for anyone who rides a bike in Portland, but the important message for those outside of Portlandia is that it is not all that different from any other American city (no matter how much its citizens like to think they are). Portland was built for cars, but with a little work, a little support from the right politicians and insiders, some good leadership and a little money, Anywheresville, USA, can become just as bicycle-friendly as Portland, if not considerably more so.
Birk rolls out a precision toolkit for us in “Joyride,” and any bike advocate would be wise to try picking up a few of these instruments. Applying those tools elsewhere is Birk’s job these days as a principal at Alta Planning + Design, a bike-centric consulting firm, where she spends much of her time traveling across North America working on bike planning with advocates and governments. She’s also an Adjunct Professor at Portland State University, where she co-founded the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation in the College of Urban Studies.
“Everyplace has the opportunity to become bike friendly,” Birk writes. “Nowhere will be exactly like Portland; Portland won’t be exactly like anywhere else. In hundreds of communities all across North America, we’ve been making tremendous progress. Portland is magic on some levels (I’m highly biased of course; I love Portland!) but the tools can be applied anywhere.”Tweet Print