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June 12th, 2013 AARON MESH | Cover Story
 

Bikelash

Mia Birk takes bike share to New York—and sparks bedlam in Gotham.

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Three weeks ago, an invading fleet arrived in Manhattan.

Nearly 6,000 cobalt-blue bikes appeared in gleaming silver docks. They materialized in Brooklyn, too, near co-ops and bodegas. Citizens stood in wonder, lining up to swipe their credit cards so they could pay $9.95 a day to pedal around the city.

Bike share—what cycling activists say is the future, making riding a two-wheeler as easy as hailing a cab—had hit New York.

Then the city hit back.

The tabloids screamed about the dangers posed by the blue bikes and their kiosks—they would block building entrances, lower property values and invite naive tourists on a suicidal ride through the city’s harrowing traffic.

“Take them all out,” cried the New York Post on the program’s first day. “Don’t wait for a tragedy.”

For the past three weeks, New Yorkers have quarreled over whether the Citi Bike program (named after its corporate sponsor, Citibank) is a marvel, a blight or a boondoggle.

SHARE AND SHARE A BIKE: New York City’s streets now feature nearly 6,000 rental bicycles managed by Portland company Alta Bike Share.
IMAGE: Shinya Suzuki

 

And who is behind the bicycle blitzkrieg? Portland, and its No. 1 trafficker of two wheels, Mia Birk.

Birk, 45, is the president of Alta Planning + Design, a Portland company that designs and builds bike routes and lanes in cities across America.

In the 20 years since she started her career as the city of Portland’s bicycle coordinator, she has acted on her belief that bicycles can save the planet.

Birk also thinks they can turn a profit. Four years ago, she helped launch Alta’s bike-share spinoff. The company quickly cornered the market—running bike shares in Washington, D.C., and Boston, then winning contracts in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.

The New York debut gives Alta Bike Share 10,000 rental bicycles worldwide, more than double that of all its competitors combined. By 2015, it expects to be managing 23,000 bikes.

But Alta has also been wracked with problems in every city it has started a bike-share program. 

Competitors have accused Alta of graft, and employees claim they were underpaid. Often, the systems simply haven’t worked: Computer software glitches in New York and elsewhere have delayed launches and exasperated customers.

In Portland, where Alta won a bid last year to bring bike share to its hometown, the program is a year behind schedule and still more than $6 million short despite $2 million in government subsidies.

Now Birk has taken the bike-share experiment to New York, the world’s harshest stage. She’s fighting to prove that bicycles can be trustworthy daily transportation for everybody—not just the true believers.

Can Birk—a self-described “Trekkie” who bikes to work in high-heeled shoes—bravely go where many men have failed before?

“We’re out there in the public light,” Birk says, “and some of the things weren’t that great. New York City has a very big spotlight.”


Birk grew up in Dallas, Texas, as she has put it, “TV remote in one hand, Dunkin’ Donut in the other.” Her father develops machinery software, her mother is a financial adviser. She went off to the University of Texas, studying government and French, and emerged with dreams of becoming an environmental activist.

During a break from graduate school—she was studying international relations at Johns Hopkins University—her brother taunted her into taking his 10-speed Schwinn when she went back.

“Miss So-Called Environmentalist,” Birk, who told the story at a 2011 TED Talk in Portland, recalls her brother saying. “Why don’t you get off your lazy butt? Then maybe you’ll stop whining about being so fat.”


She fell in love with riding bikes and lost a dress size while doing so. As she wrote in her 2010 memoir, Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet, she studied the snarl of road congestion and consequential air pollution in Africa, Asia and Latin America. She nearly died of an asthma attack in India because of diesel fumes and dust.

“I wanted to transform American cities,” she said in her TED Talk, “into bicycle-friendly places.”

In 1993, Birk took a job as bicycle coordinator for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. The job existed in part because the nascent bicycle lobby in Portland had  successfully sued the city for failing to provide adequate bike lanes, as required under the state’s 1971 “Bike Bill.”

Birk plotted out the city’s bike-lane network, chose the date for the first Worst Day of the Year Ride, and propelled Portland into national prominence for bike friendliness—all while working closely with then-City Commissioner Earl Blumenauer, now a U.S. congressman.

Colleagues say she only had one gear.

Jim Middaugh, spokesman for regional government Metro, met Birk during his time on the board of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Portland cycling’s political lobby. He recalls her working all day on bicycle issues, then convening after-hours meetings in her office to keep plotting strategy.

“It’s a lifestyle for her,” Middaugh says. “It’s not a job.”

When Birk was hired, she set several goals: open new bike lanes, create at least one safe bicycle route through each section of Portland that leads to downtown, and build more bike storage and parking downtown. She accomplished it all.

Birk also became the public face for Portland residents who saw bicyclist activists as demanding and elitist.

FIRST WE TAKE MANHATTAN: Mia Birk says she’s used to people having strong feelings about bicycles. “If you’re telling me to bike,” she says, “you’re telling me that something in my life is wrong and needs to change.”
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott

 

In her memoir, Birk recounts her early arrogance. At one public meeting, she wrote, she dismissed a mother’s concern that bike lanes would make it easier for her children to run out in the street.

“I’m not sure it’s our responsibility to keep your kids from running into the street,” she replied.

Today, Birk looks back on her own reactions with some chagrin, and sees this period as combative. 

“There was a time when I stopped saying I was the city’s bicycle coordinator, because people would just say, ‘Rawr, rawr, rawr’—[and] say something nasty about bikes,” she tells WW. “At a certain point, I just said, ‘I’m a flight attendant.’ It felt less personal.”


In 1999, Birk jumped from city government into consulting, becoming a partner at Alta Planning + Design, a California-based company that soon moved its headquarters to Portland. The company quickly became one of the leading national consultants for scoping and designing bike routes, lanes and other street improvements.

“Everywhere where bicycles are involved, Alta is there,” says Dan Bower, manager of PBOT’s Active Transportation Division. “It’s one thing to win the contracts. It’s another thing to do all the work. That’s a lot of work for a little company on the inner east side of Portland.”

CAPTAIN BIRK: Mia Birk is president of Alta Planning + Design, vice president of Alta Bike Share, and a dedicated Star Trek fan. “I like the team model that Picard brought in,” she says.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott

The company’s relationship has been especially close to the city bureau where Birk worked for six years. Since then, Alta has won five contracts with the Bureau of Transportation worth $3.4 million—more than half from the bike-share contract.

In 2010, Birk helped shape the city’s Bicycle Plan for 2030 as co-chairwoman of its steering committee. Her company then landed a $214,000 contract to design projects for that very plan. That contract eventually went up to $227,865.

That design project turned into a powder keg the next summer on North Williams Avenue, where African-American residents saw bike lanes as a sign they were being pushed out of the neighborhood. In 2011, someone began laying metal tacks in the Williams Avenue bike lane to puncture bicycle tires. The city and Alta diversified the advisory committee and approved a plan.

“We have worked on thousands of miles of bikeways across the country, and occasionally we run into challenges,” Birk says. “But more often than not, we don’t.”

In 2009, Birk and six partners launched Alta’s bike-share business. Bike-sharing programs—essentially short-trip rental systems, often run by private vendors on public property—are common in Europe and Asia. But they were largely new and untested in the U.S.

They work much like Zipcar or other short-term rental businesses. Once you’ve signed up for the program, you can rent a bike from an automated kiosk and unlock the bike by inserting a key fob.

In New York, you can rent access to a Citi Bike for a day for $9.95. If you sign up as a subscriber, it costs $95 a year, but you can ride for 45 minutes at a time at no extra charge.

New York is the fifth city in three years where Alta has launched a bike share. (Along with Boston and Washington, D.C., the others are Melbourne, Australia, and Chattanooga, Tenn.) It has secured contracts in another six cities, with programs slated to begin this year in Chicago; San Francisco; Columbus, Ohio; and Vancouver, B.C. It plans to launch Portland and Seattle systems in 2014, and is in conversations with Baltimore.

HAVE SPONSORS, WILL TRAVEL: Alta is seeking sponsors for Portland Bike Share with this brochure. It also includes a letter from Mayor Charlie Hales, urging companies to plaster their logos on the bikes.
IMAGE: Alta Bike Share

“If you can imagine starting something like TriMet in every city, that’s our challenge,” Birk says. “I start the day on the East Coast.”

Birk doesn’t dress the part of a hardcore cyclist. When she rides her Trek Allant bicycle each morning to Alta’s Eastside Industrial offices, it’s not in the Lycra and windbreaker of the weekend triathlete, but in a violet lace shawl and 4-inch-heeled wedges.

On a recent afternoon, she was sitting on a purple exercise ball in the center of her corner office in Alta Planning + Design’s headquarters on Southeast Grand Avenue, on the second floor of an 1892 office building tucked behind River City Bicycles.

Her office is scattered with trophies and photos: Blumenauer cutting the ceremonial ribbon for bike lanes on D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue, next to portraits of her husband, three children and her posing with pacifiers in their mouths. 

But her day on Eastern Daylight Time actually begins with meetings conducted from the two-story, $685,000 home she and husband Glen Coblens purchased last year in the North Tabor neighborhood.

First comes the 8 am conference call to Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel became the first member of Divvy Bike Share, scheduled to open later this year. Then Birk checks in with New York City and the Citi Bike team. In between, she feeds her 1-year-old son, Levi.

One marvels at how she can possibly do all this.

“I’m telling you how I do it,” she says, and returns to reciting the schedule.


The $47 million Alta-run Citi Bike program in New York is largely bankrolled by Citibank.

But elsewhere, Alta’s programs wouldn’t exist without big government subsides.

In 2010, Alta launched its first bike share in Melbourne with a $5.5 million government-funded project.

The same year, Alta won a contract to replace a small bike-share program in Washington, D.C., previously run by media giant Clear Channel. Alta has expanded it with at least $7 million in government subsidy.

Much of that money is federal transportation funding passed through regional governments. In Chicago, the feds have kicked in $18 million for a $22 million bike-share program Alta is supposed to launch there.

In Portland, $2 million in federal money—passed from the state to Metro and finally into the city’s hands—is supposed to help launch the program here (see sidebar).

“The automobile is heavily subsidized by government as well,” Birk says. “We are simply the contractor playing the hand that is dealt.”

Alta has a key friend on Capitol Hill: Blumenauer, who is chairman of the Congressional Bike Caucus and consistently calls for more federal grants for bikes.

CAPITOL PAL: U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) is an influential fan of Citi Bike. “If there’s decent weather,” he says, “I for one plan never to take a cab south of Central Park.”
IMAGE: earlblumenauer.com

 

Middaugh says Alta has spotted a golden opportunity and knows the right people, including bicycle-backing Blumenauer.

“It’s a bit of good timing, a bit of hard work, and a bit of business need and a bit of good connections,” Middaugh says. “The baby boom is part of the timing. There’s a bunch of middle-aged white men trying to stay ahead of mortality.”

Blumenauer says he’s proud to have advocated on Capitol Hill for bike-share funding.

“It’s what we hoped would happen with these flexible funds—to get things started that are cutting-edge,” he says. “I think having a small Portland company have more than 500 employees, that’s a good thing. It’s good for us, and it’s good for the country.”


In the month leading up to the launch of Citi Bike on May 27, and nearly every day since, New York newspapers have whipped themselves into a froth over it.

“The city’s dastardly bike-share program begins today,” blared a May 27 item in the New York Post. “Yet it’s already threatened the well-being of an elderly man.” (Citi Bike had removed a 15-foot segment of bike stations after the Post incorrectly reported it got in the way of an ambulance pickup.)

Other Post stories featured New Yorkers dumping trash on the bike racks (“Bike share is ‘wasted’ space”), a Lower East Side bike-shop owner concerned about competition (“Hell on wheels for my bike biz”), and glitches at the rental kiosks (“Citi Bikes made me late to work”). 

The newspaper even found a government recommendation that people weighing over 260 pounds might damage the bicycles. “Can obese cyclists sign up for the city’s new bike-share program? Fat chance!”

But the greatest umbrage came from the Post’s august sister paper, The Wall Street Journal, also owned by Rupert Murdoch.

In a June 3 video that went viral nationally, Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz condemned the rental bicycles that had “begrimed” the New York streets. 

“Do not ask me to enter the mind of the totalitarians running this government of the city,” says Rabinowitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, speaking with a patrician sneer that recalls Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development. “The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise.”


David Bragdon, the former Metro president who moved to New York to work for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s planning department and now leads a transit nonprofit, was member No. 1,047 of Citi Bike.

“If you read some of the tabloid opinions, it’s easy to detect how driven they are by ideology and some type of cultural animus,” Bragdon says, “akin to how they react to having an African-American president or seeing two women marrying each other. Every time I have been at the stations, people have been coming up asking how to join.”

But Citi Bike has received criticism from the left as well—for catering mostly to rich whites. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have reported that the vast majority of Citi Bike stations are concentrated in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s posher neighborhoods.

The Daily Show got in the same dig—interviewing a man in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood who declared, “Ain’t no Citi Bike in the ’hood.”


The opening of Citi Bike was nearly a year late—partly because much of Alta’s equipment was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

The biggest delay facing Citi Bike, however, came because Alta’s Canadian equipment supplier, Bixi, had a falling-out with the company that designed much of the computer software. The replacement software has been riddled with glitches—in New York, Chattanooga and Chicago—that didn’t affect earlier systems in Washington, D.C., and Boston. 

Alta has also run into trouble in other cities.

In Chicago, two competitors who lost bids to Alta to run Divvy Bikes filed a complaint last year with the city alleging graft in the program selection, because the city’s transportation commissioner is a former Alta consultant. (Chicago’s inspector general is conducting an investigation; the Alta program is scheduled to start this summer, a year late.)

Last month, The Washington Post broke the news that 18 current and former Alta Bike Share employees filed a labor complaint over what they say is $100,000 in back and withheld wages. Most of the employees work as truck drivers who “rebalance” the Capital Bikeshare system by hauling bicycles between docking stations.

The workers, led by former employee Samuel D. Swenson, say in a petition that when they were hired, Birk gave each of them a copy of her book.

“The title left some of us wondering where we fit into that ‘healthier planet,’” they write, “as we worked without health care, doing dangerous jobs on busy streets and in a filthy warehouse by the Superfund section of Southwest D.C.”

Birk says Alta is addressing its mistakes.

“As a young company, we are constantly facing new issues and learning as we go,” she says.

In the face of big government contracts, malfunctioning equipment and media scrutiny, Birk points to the 263,456 miles pedaled on Citi Bikes in the first 10 days as validation. And she remains as combative as ever.

“What a scrappy, determined company,” she says. “Despite government bureaucracy, despite challenges on the part of our supplier, despite a hurricane, despite media derision, we launched. We’ve got 36,000 annual members, and we’ve been to the moon and back.” 


WW news interns Alex Blum and Ann-Derrick Gaillot contributed reporting to this story. 



Portland’s Share

The first bike-share program in the United States started in Portland in 1994.

It was a fiasco.

A group of volunteers affiliated with the Community Cycling Center began the Yellow Bike Project with 90 bikes for anyone to borrow, free of charge. They hoped people would simply leave the bikes where the next rider could easily find them.

Within months, most of the yellow bikes disappeared. At the time, WW went looking for them and found only one—in the possession of a homeless man who said he slept with it under the Burnside Bridge. He was very protective of it.

“It took me two days to find this goddamn bike,” he told WW.

Mia Birk, then with the city of Portland, watched the Yellow Bike failure with horror. “That was the hippie-dippie utopian version,”
she says.

But the proposed version of Portland Bike Share has its own problems.

City documents show that Portland’s program will cost $15 million over the first five years—three times the $4 million price tag on the original proposal approved by the City Council. (That’s because city officials approved only the startup costs, not the price of operating it.)

The program will not get any city money, but it has received a $2 million federal grant. Alta is trying to sell naming rights for the program, which could be worth up to nearly $4 million. The hope is that the balance will come from revenues from cyclists or more sponsorships.

News reports have said Regence BlueCross BlueShield might be the major sponsor—but sources tell WW the health-care insurer backed away. Birk says Alta is close to announcing sponsors, but won’t say who.

“Alta is our contractor, and they’ve said they can do this,” says Dan Bower, manager of the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Active Transportation Division.

Alta has now scheduled a launch for the spring of 2014.

Birk is already worrying about next spring’s weather.

“I watched the Portland spring—every day was so beautiful—and felt the pain of not having bike share launched,” she says. “Next spring, it’s going to rain every day. We’re going to get so much blame: ‘Why did you start it so early in the spring?’”

—Aaron Mesh

 
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