Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mia Birk, Portland OR, Car-free American profile

photo by Jonathan Maus
Tell me a little bit about you (name, age, occupation, married, kids, carfree or carlite, where you live)?

I’m Mia Birk, the 43-year old President of Alta Planning + Design, whose mission is to create active communities where bicycling and walking are safe, healthy, fun, and normal daily activities. I’m also Adjunct Professor, Portland State University. My family and I (partner Glen, kids Skyler and Sasha, ages 12 and 8 respectively) use our bikes as our main means of daily transportation from our home in SE Portland. We do have a car, a Prius, which we’ve driven less than 10,000 miles in two years.

When did you start using a bicycle for transportation and what other forms of transportation do you use?

photo by Beth Nakamura

I fell in love with bicycling in 1990 while attending graduate school in Washington DC. Having grown up in suburban Dallas, Texas, I was used to driving everywhere. Informed that there was no parking available near my school, I borrowed my brother's 10 speed Schwinn. Within a few weeks, I was in the best shape of my life, and a lifelong love affair had begun. Since then, I have been a dedicated bicyclist for recreation, touring, exercise, and daily utilitarian trips.

What is a day in your bicycling life like?

Ride with my daughter to school, then to play tennis, work, go to meetings, pick up Sasha, stop at the store, or pretty much whatever I need to do.

Do you recommend cycling to friends/family members/others? Have any taken you up on it?

My entire career - has been about creating conditions so that people can incorporate bicycling into daily life and then encouraging people to do so. This has included:
• Alta Planning + Design, co-owner and CEO 1999-present                                             
• Bicycle Program Manager, City of Portland, Oregon, 1993-1999
• Transportation Program Manager, International Institute for Energy Conservation, Washington, D.C., 1989-1993
• Founding Member, Initiative for Bicycle & Pedestrian Innovation, Portland State University
• Member, Portland's "Go Platinum" Bicycle Master Plan Steering Committee
• Fellowship Recipient, the German Marshall Fund Environmental Program, 1996. Visited 15 bicycle-friendly European cities to learn new ideas for making U.S. cities more bicycle friendly. Subsequently implemented numerous innovative ideas in Portland.
• Advisory board member, Community Cycling Center, Portland, Oregon
• Member, Transportation Research Board, Bicycle Subcommittee
• Board Member, Cycle Oregon

From developing hundreds of bike plans to designing bikeways, holding bike events, leading safe routes to school, speaking at conferences and forums, and writing and promoting my book Joyride, every facet of my life involves spreading the gospel about bicycling as mainstream transportation.

(Mia with music legend David Byrne, author, Bicycle Diaries, and Jeff Mapes, author, Pedaling Revolution

photo credit: Jonathan Maus)

What kind of bikes are you currently riding?

Daily commuting: Trek Allant. Cargo: Madsen. Folder: Breezer. Road bike: Trek Madone.

In your opinion, what’s the best part about cycling for transportation?

It keeps me in shape and my legs toned. And it keeps me smiling, reduces my stress, connects me to my neighbors, and makes other people smile when they see this 40-something mom in a flowy skirt and high heeled boots.

As a mom, I want to model a fit, responsible, active lifestyle. It’s important for my kids to grow up thinking that bicycling is a normal way to get around. I know they will carry that forward throughout their lives. Bicycling also empowers them to be independent.
As a community member, it pleases me to keep my carbon footprint low and my contribution high.

From a professional standpoint, I am really lucky to have found the perfect career at a young age. It makes me wildly happy to bike around Portland every day and see the fruits of my labor, to know that I’ve made and am making a positive difference, not just here but everywhere I go. The world is full of jobs that feed our bellies but 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. I end the book on the word ‘gratitude,’ for I am deeply grateful every single day to be working with cool people making the world a better place.

Do you have a favorite carfree/carlite story?

“Whoa Mom, beep beep beep, turn around!!!”

Sasha, my delightfully-spunky kindergartner, has spotted her new best friend, a big pink stuffed something – unicorn? Bear? She’s got a million of them. Before you know it, my wallet is empty. Thank goodness they don’t take credit cards at this garage sale.

Sasha, standing by the ever-increasing pile of merchandise, clutching her pink gorilla, looks worried. “Mom, I think you got too much.”

“Silly Sasha,” I smile. “When I was in India I saw a guy carrying improbable amounts of stuff by bike. He was carrying a big crate of dishes, a load of rebar, his wife, uncle, and four kids!”

She looks confused. What does this have to do with her?

“Just last week at the market I tied a box of butternut squash, oranges, apples, onions, grapes, and zucchini to the rack, stuffed my pockets full of garlic and shallots, and dangled two plastic bags of baguettes, flowers, goat cheese curds, lettuce and kale from the handlebars. When there’s a will, there’s a way, honey.”

I stuff one pannier full to bursting with the kids’ new jeans, socks, athletic pants, and shirts, the other with two super cute pairs of boots (only $2 each!)

“Hand over your backpack,” I order, then jam it with 50 cent videos, books, and Othello (the board game), which I know will provide me and Skyler hours of entertainment.

A bungie-cord takes care of a white and pink flowered twin-sized sheet set and comforter set.

“But Mom, where am I going to sit?” Sasha points to the pile on the rack.

“Ohhhh, right. You’ll just have to sit on top of the mountain, honey.”

I perch her up top, and start wheeling the bike to the street. She screams, “Stop!! We forgot Sweet Pea!” She points hysterically at the pink hippo.

“Well, honey, we can’t carry another thing, so Sweet Pea has to stay here.”

Her big green eyes fill with tears, plump cheeks quivering with emotion “But, Mom, I need her. Please? Please? Please?”

My resolve turns to mush. I plop Sasha on the ground. Finally, we take off, to great fanfare from the garage sale shoppers, who have gathered in the front lawn and cheer as I pedal away, with a giant pink elephant strapped to my back and Sasha holding it from her perch above my shoulders. In hindsight I realize that I could have come back later to retrieve my purchases instead of turning us into a carnival float, but where’s the fun in that?

What are three pieces of advice you would give to someone starting/ considering commuting by bike?

From Joyride, Chapter 24:

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.

Anything else you would like to add?

Let me tell you a little about Joyride:

First, I wanted to tell a great story – how we transformed a fairly typical auto-oriented city into a bicycling mecca. So many folks come to or hear about Portland and accept it for what it is today. I hear it all the time in my work around the country: “Oh but that’s Portland… you’re so bicycle friendly, we can’t possibly be like Portland.” But it didn’t just happen, we made it happen, and it wasn’t easy. 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.

For many years, I lived and breathed every battle, public meeting, behind-the-scenes roller coaster debate and City Council hearing, cataloging our progress, celebrating our successes, bemoaning our failures. I told these stories in my classes at Portland State University, where I began teaching bicycle and pedestrian planning in 2002. Over and over, I heard from students, staff, clients, and colleagues about how my stories affected them in a positive way. Further, as I travelled across the country, I found so much hope. But so many of the books in our field and much of the daily news bemoan the terrible state of our environment, land-use patterns, traffic, air quality, health, etc… I wanted to be a bright light, sharing what I see every day: positive energy, people making a difference, individuals becoming empowered, communities becoming better places.

I purposefully wrote Joyride as an accessible series of stories. The technical keys to making communities bicycle-friendly reveal themselves in the witty anecdotes throughout. Bite-size chapters revolve around such issues as the challenges of retrofitting streets with bike lanes, building off-street paths, adopting and enforcing bicycle parking codes, encouraging people to incorporate bicycling into their daily lives, gaining community support, battling negative media stories, overcoming business opposition, evolving national standards, and much more.

Far beyond Portland, Joyride showcases progress from west to east and parts in between, even my hometown Dallas TX. My own story – getting fit through bicycling – is but a backdrop for the much larger story about change – about creating safer communities and improving our health, the people behind the scenes, the battles we fought, our successes and failures, and hope for a brighter future for us all.

Wow, thank you Mia! You are an inspiration.

If you like to get a copy of Joyride, click here!

I have been reading it and I am loving it!


  1. I just started reading Joyride and I'm loving it (also developing a huge crush on Mia: Gotta love her enthusiasm). Smart and funny, Mia is the perfect advocate for bicycling.

  2. Keep up the great work, Bill! and Mia!