When author Mia Birk first moved to Portland, Ore., in the early `90s, the city was in bad shape. After a century of building highways and freeways around the vehicle-centered society, especially big developments in the `50s and `60s, Portland was rife with congestion and poor air quality. Because of the health concerns of living in the city, many middle-class families moved into the suburbs and lost business in downtown Portland.
Today, with help from Birk, Portland is now a bicycle Mecca and is internationally known for its bike-friendly roads, trails and bridges.
Since her success in Portland, Birk has visited more than 60 cities, trying to push bicycles as a major mode of transportation and transform cities to enable this. Pullman is her current destination, hoping that, with the, university’s help, this city can also become more bike-friendly.
Tuesday night, Birk, author of “Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet,” greeted the crowd a peak into her early life.
Birk said she was overweight as a child, spending her afternoon with the TV remote in one hand and a Dunkin’ Donuts donut in the other. It wasn’t until she was headed off to graduate school in Washington, D.C., and her brother told her to take his bike with her that she realized that bicycling was the way to go. She went without a car for four years.
During her studies, she noticed that international cities such as Bangkok, which focused on developing roads; tended to suffer from more congestion and poor air quality. Meanwhile, cities such as Amsterdam, which focused on housing and bike development, had overall better health among their people and less congestion.
This was Birk’s first epiphany. If cities in Europe could make bike-friendly cities, so could the United States.
When she was hired as the bicycle coordinator in Portland, she decided to put this epiphany to action.
There were many keys to Birk’s success. First, one needed the involvement of political leadership. Birk had the support of the city commissioner and her boss, Congressman Earl Blumenauer. Blumenauer, too, had seen the “Promised Land” of Europe.
He said to Birk, “We will become the most bike-friendly city in American and you will make it happen.”
The second key, Birk said, was community advocacy. They had help from many local groups including the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Sensible Transportation Options for People (STOP).
There were, of course, challenges faced along the way. The actual roads of Portland were the biggest problem. As a highway and bridge based city, Portland had little room for bicyclists or bike lanes. This was solved by either removing lanes of traffic or narrowing the lanes just enough. Bike boulevards have also been put into place, which are streets that usually have low traffic and are generally quiet.
A system of education for kids in schools has also been implemented as well as enforcement and encouragement measures around the community.
There was no quick and easy fix. Birk realized it would have to be a full systemic change in order to fully realize this dream.
Another key to Birk’s success in Portland was thick skin. They were at first met with much resistance, even from the press, about the building of bike lanes and trails, specifically on the floating bridge along the Willamette River. When it was first opened in spring of 2001, The Oregonian criticized it, calling it a “noisy new p long park.”
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the bridge found a new use as the location of a candlelight vigil. Attendees formed what Birk called a “circle of solidarity” in mourning of the terrorist attacks. The Oregonian then called the path one of the best investments of the year.
Since the bikeway network was adopted in 1996, Portland’s bike-friendly routes total more than 320 miles around the city and in some areas more than 30 percent of residents ride their bikes to work. It’s a very “build it and they will come” scenario. Give people the means and they will take advantage.
Birk shows that any city can become a bicycle city and the advantages of implementing bicycling as a major mode of transportation far outweigh the disadvantages. In Portland, the bicycle path maintenance budget is less than 1 percent of the total transportation budget.
There is a great call to action in Pullman. Birk also met with city official members and WSU service members about her plan. She is confident that it will work. For now, as one questioner requested, a continuation of the bike lanes on Stadium Way is needed and the bushes should be trimmed to clear the bike lanes that are already there.