When one of the Netherlands’ major advocates for bicycling was asked this fall to what he attributed Portland’s success in becoming one of the world leaders in alternative transportation, he furrowed his brow. “Strong leadership,” he said finally. From whom? Another pause. “Mia Birk.”
In Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet (Cadence Press, 225 pages, $19.95), Birk, the bike advocate Congressman Earl Blumenauer calls “pathologically optimistic,” artfully mixes personal history and facts to create a candid, compelling memoir. With help from city officials and advocates, this feisty visionary transformed Portland into the near-bike-vana so many of us happily pedal today. Newbie Portlanders who take for granted our wonderful Eastbank Esplanade and hundreds of miles of bikeways will learn just what a struggle they took to achieve, while others can take inspiration from the story of how an idealist with persistence and flexibility can change a city literally from the ground up.
During Birk’s ultimately triumphant tenure as Portland’s Bicycle Program manager from 1993 to 1999, the erstwhile “car-addicted chubster” successfully battled institutional ignorance— including her conservative Dallas family, the Oregonian editorial board, indifferent city and federal bureaucrats, inebriated school district representatives, greedy building management lobbyists and other recalcitrant, often male-dominated, institutions. Telling this potent story via anecdotes (tense public hearings, “wheel and pony shows” and, of course, bike rides) provides a much livelier read than a polemic or wonky policy paper, although the reconstructed dialogue often sounds more expository than the way real people talk. Birk isn’t a professional journalist—as the occasional cliche or editing lapse demonstrates—but her humor, determination and idealism shine through.
Birk isn’t afraid to call out opponents, nor to admit her defeats and failings (poor event planning, impatience), but her refreshing candor recedes a bit when we don’t learn exactly what happened when Portland’s bike program was “downsized” in 1999. Her firm still works with the city, including a major contract this year, so maybe it’s unrealistic to expect a full accounting.
After her city service, Birk joined a private planning firm, Alta, a major player in making cities more livable. Joyride recounts how, in a decade of consulting from its Portland office, she finds hope and makes progress even in small towns like Government Camp and otherwise benighted suburbs—including in her hometown of Dallas. Birk remains one of Portland cycling’s most influential figures.
The book provides clear lessons for anyone who wants to foment change, including a handy, step-by-step postscript. The ride appropriately ends at Portland’s Sunday Parkways, a microcosmic but tangible realization of the powerful, ever-spreading vision that Birk and her allies have spent two decades turning into reality.
GO: Mia Birk talks about Joyride at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 4. Free.