My discovery of cycling is just a metaphor for the whole country.
Mia Birk, 44
Alta Planning & Design
THE STORY OF MIA BIRK, the activist and thinker who helped make Portland the nation’s cutting-edge capital of bike transportation, begins with chomping Dunkin’ Donuts, watching Gilligan’s Island, and rolling along the highways, Texas style.
“By the time I was a teenager, I was overweight,” Birk says. “I rode in the car every day, everywhere, in the car-addicted culture of Dallas. I was Middle America in every way.”
She started riding a bike in college, at first to stand up to her brother’s whimsical challenge to her environmental leanings. Biking soon blossomed into an obsession, and later—after her Johns Hopkins masters degree in international relations and economics and a stint working in energy conservation—it became a job, too. Birk served as the City of Portland’s bike coordinator from 1993 to ’99. In those days, she recalls, Stumptown was almost as bike hostile as any strip of American asphalt.
“People think Portlanders just drank some microbrew one night and started riding bikes in the morning,” she says. “Not the case at all.”
In fact, Birk faced bitter public meetings and a car-centric official culture. But her greatest asset may be her ability to create change inside the inertia-laden system. Early on, she mobilized citizen support to push a bike-network plan through city council. She then nudged that plan into reality, one grisly traffic-engineering problem at time: fighting federal regulators, facing down a dubious Oregonian, and cajoling reluctant city maintenance workers to get actual things, from colored bike lanes to the Eastbank Esplanade, built.
In each case—and Birk’s recent memoir, Joyride, recounts dozens—she applied an idealistic belief in cycling to a specific urban obstacle and the practical politics required to overcome it. “There are political battles behind every single piece of infrastructure that exists,” she says. “To succeed in that arena, you have to build teams.”
By the time the Portland changes truly took hold, Birk herself had moved to a team of her own. Now president of Alta Planning & Design, she leads a 75-strong staff of engineers, planners, and landscape architects who execute similar plans for cities large and small, in the United States and around the world. (The firm even completed a cycling plan for, yes, Dubai.)
“It seems like, again and again, I’ve worked to take something that’s really small and make it into something larger,” Birk says. “I’m trying to teach people to look at their cities’ landscape and imagine what might be possible.” —Zach Dundas