Mia Birk: Transportation Reformer, Bicycle Advocate

She has transformed our urban streets by organizing bike-sharing programs across the country.

AFFILIATION: Alta Planning + Design
LOCATION: Portland, Oregon

“I think of myself as a transportation reformer,” says Mia Birk. It’s an apt description for a woman who, between 1993 and 1999, transformed Portland, Oregon, into one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the United States. As the president of Alta Planning + Design, a firm specializing in the creation of bicycle, pedestrian, trail, and greenway systems, Birk presides over a 20-city organization with a staff of close to 90 on the design and planning side, and a nearly equal number of employees devoted to operating urban bike-sharing systems (including the markedly successful Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C.). “My skill is being able to bring them all together to make change happen within cities,” Birk says, adding modestly, “I’m a big generalist.”

Birk’s abilities will be tested to the maximum this summer when Alta launches the largest bike-sharing system in the country, in New York City. Beginning with 10,000 bikes and 600 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the program will expand to all five boroughs over the next five years. Birk says that, as with similar Alta-developed systems in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Virginia, “anybody will be able to hop on a bike, take a short ride”—46 percent of NYC trips are under three miles, and the initial rollout will focus on those users—“and drop the bike at another station. In a city where you have so many nondrivers, it’s a great partnership with the other transportation modes, and a great boon to the city.”

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“My background is in international relations,” Birk says, training that stands her in good stead in her present occupation. “Much of what I do is bridge gaps between different worlds: police, fire, parking, permitting, maintenance, traffic. Change takes time, and it’s very deep. On the surface, what the public sees is, okay, you’re putting in bike lanes. But they don’t see the institutional reform that has to go on to rebalance our transportation system.”

Remembering that “the opposition we faced in Portland came from every level,” Birk and her team are planning a series of exhibitions of both bikes and stations over the next few months, to get Gothamites comfortable with the system. She remains enthusiastic. “It’s the largest rollout in North America, but that’s how New York is,” Birk says. “They go big and do it well.”

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