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Trail Voices: Mia Birk

This September, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) caught up with Mia Birk, CEO and Principal for Alta Planning + Design in Portland, Ore. From her groundbreaking work shaping Portland into the gold standard for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, to her project consulting all over the country, Birk has helped cultivate a national movement for more trails, walking and bicycling. She's been a close partner with RTC's Campaign for Active Transportation, as well as one of the leading experts on rails-with-trails (pathways alongside active railway corridors).

Most recently, Birk completed her new book, Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet, a compilation of stories spanning two decades of experiences in cities across the country and around the world. "I purposefully wrote Joyride as an accessible series of stories," she says. "It's not a technical book, but there's plenty of technical information woven into it."

Her chapters, broken down into bite-size anecdotes, revolving around such issues as the challenges of retrofitting streets with bike lanes and building off-street paths, encouraging people to incorporate bicycling into their daily lives, gaining community support, overcoming opposition, and much more.

"Far beyond Portland," Birk says, "Joyride showcases progress from west to east and parts in between. 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."

These stories begin in suburban Dallas, where Birk grew up with parents who drove to get everywhere. Her only memories of riding a bike, in fact--crashing into a hydrant, getting attacked by a dog--hardly endeared her to it.

But when she moved to Washington, D.C., for graduate school, Birk found herself living a few miles from campus in a neighborhood somewhat removed from easy Metro and bus service. She didn't have a car and it was too far to walk regularly, so her brother offered his 10-speed. After a few shaky weeks, Birk started losing weight and felt in shape for the first time in her life--and she was finally able to make it all the way up the big hill on her way home. "I absolutely fell in love in that moment with biking as a way to get around," she says.

In her coursework on international environmental issues and then at the International Institute for Energy Conservation (her first job out of graduate school), Birk focused on transportation in cities of developing countries. In her research and travels, she grew increasingly aware of how cities in the United States were overwhelmingly developed around the automobile, and how there needed to be a cultural and practical shift in transportation strategy. From those early days in D.C., Birk committed her personal and professional life to advancing the walking and bicycling movement--to re-thinking American cities around active transportation.

Birk next took on the role of bike coordinator for the city of Portland, Ore., helping launch the city's transformation into the leader for bicycling infrastructure. What she stresses, though, is that Portland wasn't always that way. "We made it this way," she says. "It was really hard, and we started in a place where most American cites are today. It took a lot of people working together and ferocious battles being fought out in the media, in neighborhoods and in business associations. But every time we came up against obstacles, we found a way to keep going."

"There are a lot of hurdles and challenges," she says, "but ultimately anything you want to succeed is going to take some work. Things do not get built overnight. But it's worth it--it pays off in the long run."

After six years as Portland's bike coordinator, Birk began working in 1999 as a consultant with Alta Planning + Design, a Portland-based planning and design firm dedicated to "creative active communities where bicycling and walking are safe, healthy, fun and normal daily activities." This position has taken her all over the country, from rural to urban communities and all sizes, shapes and flavors in between, to assist with projects from rail-trails and bikeways to bike parking and improving pedestrian conditions. What she's witnessed, she says, is an incredible surge in support and eagerness for trails and bikeways. While Portland was in the forefront, the movement has expanded enormously in the past two decades. "There's no question that it's happening everywhere. Every community that takes that first step, whether it's putting in that first mile of rail-trail or starting their first safe routes to school program ... all they do is whet the appetite for more."

You can learn more about Birk's life and work at www.miabirk.com. Joyride will be in bookstores and on Amazon.com in October, or you can order the book today through www.miabirk.com. Make sure to enter "RTC" in the promo code/comment box. Birk is donating a portion of those proceeds to support our work at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy! 

Photo of Mia Birk and sharrow by Deborah Moon. 

Posted Tue, Sep 7 2010 3:33 PM by Karl Wirsing (RTC)

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