Mia Birk Has a Message for Seattle Cyclists

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Portlander Mia Birk will bring her new book “Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet” and her cheerful cycling evangelism to REI at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday for an informative and entertaining evening. Try to go, you won’t be disappointed.

At a time when cycling advocacy is in Seattle’s political crosshairs, Birk has just the right message to the bike community: Don’t get defensive, hold your ground and push ahead, because in the end even your opponents will come to appreciate the progress you make.

Birk has the wherewithal to talk. She was bicycle program manager for Portland through the 1990s and shaped the foundation for Portland’s bike-friendly reputation today. She then joined Alta Planning + Design, expanding it to more than 100 employees and the nation’s leading firm specializing in bike and foot planning, design and implementation. Using a winning smile and political savvy, Mia has fought battle after battle for the things we take for granted today: Bike lanes, bike paths, bike parking, bike culture.

“Joyride” chronicles the behind-the-scenes battles that Birk and bike advocates engaged in to bring progress to Portland and turn it into the nation’s No. 1 cycling city. It’s easy to forget that before Birk’s tenure, Portland was a cycling also-ran. Portland didn’t have a lot of bike facilities, “and people didn’t ride,” she notes.

What the years of trench warfare taught her was that “it’s never easy,” she said.

“The first reaction (to bike progress) is always, ‘That’s a little scary’,” Birk said in a phone interview. “Change is hard.”

There can be resistance and even anger. But eventually “people figure out that life goes on, and everything we do to enhance cycling is good for the life of the city.”

So when you bring up the midterm elections, where some key cycling advocates were defeated … or when you think about how Cascade Bicycle Club is suffering internal tension over how to approach cycling advocacy … or when you hear the terms “bike backlash” or “war on cars” — to all those things, Birk says hey, “Welcome to the bike world, it’s always been this way. We’re making progress, so there’s a perceived threat.

“We’re driving a cultural shift where you trade off motor vehicle space for bike lanes. This is deep, fundamental change. It’s not like just adding a bike lane and Boom, you’re done.”

There’s always a few outspoken business owners who oppose cycling interests — while getting mischaracterized as “the business community” in general. Many leading cyclists in any city also belong to “the business community,” Mia notes. A great strategy is for “cyclists who are business owners to get involved in business groups as business owners.” Over time, they can work their cycling agenda into the business community through organizations like downtown associations, chambers of commerce, business alliances and other key outlets.

“You just have to keep emphasizing the message that cycling transportation works,” Birk said.

Another strategy is simply to get associates out for a ride. “I can talk sometimes till I’m blue in the face without making any dent,” Birk said. “But when you get people out on a bike, things start to change.”

As for the elections, Birk is not as cowed as some within the cycling community appear to be.

“We lost Jim Oberstar but still have Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio and a number of leaders,” she said. “I don’t see we’re going to roll back any of the progress we’ve made.”

The midterms may have impacted bike policy at the national level, but that’s not where most of the key initiatives are being made, Birk noted. Federal money can help fund projects but does not carry thumbs-down weight. If local communities want to build more bike infrastructure, they can come up with dollars from other sources.

Seattle is a shining example, she said:

“It’s very impressive the amount of fundraising Seattle has done at the local level for bicycle projects. You’re already ahead of the game.”

Birk also has some penetrating wisdom to share regarding turmoil at Cascade Bicycle Club (Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance went through similar contortions in firing a popular director, Scott Bricker, a year ago), the future of the “Missing Link,” how cycle paths and bike access create opportunities for business development, and how elected leaders can expand bike infrastructure.

“Joyride” is available through local bookstores and Amazon.com, and Mia will have copies on hand at her REI appearance. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. at REI, 222 Yale Ave. N. More about Mia at her Web site. Mia also posted at Cascade’s blog.

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5 thoughts on “Mia Birk Has a Message for Seattle Cyclists”

  1. Sounds like a great talk, she is doing some really good work. Cycling is such an amazing way to travel, and to get fit, and to reduce the amount of cars and pollution. I sometimes think that they should close off a lane of traffic and hand it over to the cyclists on the way into town centres during the rush hour – it would be such an incentive for people to ride.

  2. Thanks for the article – Mia’s very excited about the event! One small change: The event is actually starting at 7pm, not 7:30(Doors open at 6:30). We’re sorry if there’s any confusion.
    All the best,
    Arielle
    Executive Assistant
    Alta Planning + Design

  3. Not to disparage what she’s done because I think it’s important… BUT… I find it highly ironic that Portland has the “No. 1 cycling city” sticker yet precious little love if those bike tires find dirt.

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