Mia Birk avidly endorses bicycle commuting.
By Jake Thomas
When Mia Birk took a job in the city of Portland’s Transportation Bureau managing its new bike program in 1991, she knew promoting bicycling was something no other city had attempted, and wasn’t sure it would work.
“It was an experiment, to be honest with you,” she said.
But nearly two decades later, the experiment seems to have worked.
After the city poured money into bicycle infrastructure, over six percent of Portlanders now say two wheels are there primary means of transit. Portland regularly receives coverage from national media outlets for its unusual usage of bikes, and a slew of other cities are following the City of Roses’ lead.
But city hall wants even more.
Earlier this month the city’s Transportation Bureau unveiled plans that aim to make Portland the Amsterdam on the Willamette, with up to a quarter of people relying on two wheels to get around by the year 2030.
The city cites a simple set of reasons for launching such an unorthodox transportation strategy: Bikes reduce global warming. More bikes mean fewer cars, which mean less carbon emissions.
Bikes are more affordable and accessible than budget-busting cars, and the infrastructure to support them is much cheaper too.
Bikes are healthier and safer. The Transportation Bureau cites a Center for Disease Control study that on its website that states that encouraging people to
bike contributes to their physical well being. It also asserts that people experience fewer car-related injuries when there are fewer cars on the road.
Bikes keep money in the economy. The Transportation Bureau cites numbers that show that bicycle-related businesses have sprung up in Portland, contributing to economic growth.
The city also argues that bikes strengthen ties between people and their neighborhoods.
The bike plan establishes a hierarchy of projects for city funds that will deliver the best results for the money. It states that polling shows that one of the biggest impediments that keep people from cycling is lack of safe infrastructure.
“Portland has already demonstrated that bicycles and cars can co-exist peacefully,” said Birk, who cites numbers that show that cycling accidents have gone down over the years.
Birk, now a consultant and professor at Portland State University, said that having more bikes on the road gets drivers accustomed to them, making everyone safer.
She doesn’t expect the bike plan to produce a “radical alteration” of existing bike infrastructure. Instead, she hopes that it builds upon its existing network of bike lanes, with emphasis on creating more “bike boulevards,” which are streets with little or no car traffic. She points to places like the Ladd’s Addition in southeast, and the east bank esplanade as examples.
In addition to infrastructure, education is also a critical component, said Birk, who characterizes the relationship between them as “fingers on a hand.”
Earlier this month, the city began showing an educational video to police officers on how to better handle bicycles. The video notes that “the outlaw edginess” that was associated with bikes is now a thing of the past.
In downtown, and elsewhere, some businesses have asked that their parking spaces be replaced with “bike corrals” that allow more people to lock up their bicycle.
Jean Baker, the president of the Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Associations, said that having more bike infrastructure can sometimes help businesses since the clientele it attracts can access them more easily.
She generally doesn’t anticipate more problems for businesses from increased bicycle infrastructure because city streets are often wide enough to accommodate both.
“The streets are wide downtown, and not a problem,” she said.
While Portland mulls over its plans for increasing its bicycle infrastructure, many other U.S. cities are quickly catching up, said Birk.
“New York is blowing us away right now,” said Birk of the Big Apple’s investments in cycling. She also points to Minneapolis, Seattle, and San Francisco as cities to watch for bikes.
“There’s a lot cities out there that are going to give us a run for our money,” she said.