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Women’s (Bike) History: Mia Birk

Guest post by Fionnoula Quinn, civil engineer at Alta Planning + Design and board member for Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling

Mia Birk fell in love with bicycling while attending graduate school in Washington, D.C. Having grown up in suburban Dallas, Texas, she was used to driving everywhere. Informed that there was no parking available near her school, she borrowed her brother’s 10-speed Schwinn.

Within a few weeks, she was in the best shape of her life and a lifelong love affair had begun. Since then, she has been a dedicated bicyclist for recreation, touring, exercise, and daily utilitarian trips. For four years she was an advocate with the International Institute for Energy Conservation, and in 1993 became the Bicycling Manager for the City of Portland, Oregon, where she helped get the city to adopt a ground-breaking Bicycle Master Plan and network expansion.

The implementation of Portland’s visionary concept has been an inspiration throughout the country for the development of bicycling-friendly infrastructure. In 1999, Birk left government to help found Alta Planning + Design, of which she is now President. Alta has become one of the country’s pre-eminent bicycling and pedestrian planning, design, implementation and encouragement firms. Its affiliate, Alta Bike Share, deploys and operates public bike share systems in Boston, Washington, D.C.; Melbourne, Australia; and Chattanooga, Tennessee; and is working to launch systems in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Columbus, Vancouver and Portland.

Through her role at Alta, she has been involved in helping many communities and individuals, expanding the industry, and creating jobs around the country. As a leader of Alta, Birk has been at the forefront of developments in the bicycling world, helping write a major study on Rails with Trails for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which opened the door to hundreds of miles of Rails with Trails project across North America. The various studies of new and innovative facilities such as blue bike lanes, sharrows and bike boxes led to the development of the Urban Bikeway Design Guide for the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).

The NACTO Guide is advancing the craft of building protected bike facilities and bringing about bike-friendlier streets. Her favorite projects have been those that have the biggest, most long-lasting impacts. Birk has always believed strongly in the importance of advocacy and education. She was a founding member of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycling Professionals (APBP), which named her “Professional of the Year (Private Sector)” for 2007. 

Since 2002, she had been an Adjunct Professor at Portland State University where she was co-founder of PSU’s Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation (IBPI). She authored Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet (2010) about the story of Portland’s journey to bicycling mecca.

The book describes in equal parts, the delights and frustrations of dealing with municipal and elected officials and getting things done. Her story has proven very inspirational to many working to change their own communities and she loves connecting directly with so many great people through the book. Birk can frequently be seen bicycling around her neighborhood in Portland. As a business leader, professor, advocate, author and mother of three young children, Mia doesn’t have time to waste on finding a parking space.

Hear more from Birk on the Women’s Work: Bicycle Friendly Communities by Design” webinar from the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals this Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern. On this free session, Birk will be joined by Linda DuPriest, Member and Mentor, Women’s Transportation Seminar; Jennifer Hefferan, Safe Routes to School Coordinator, District of Columbia Department of Transportation; Norma Moores, Senior Transportation Engineer, IBI Group – Toronto; Jennifer Toole, Principal, Toole Design Group.

Click here to register! Photo by Jonathan Maus / BikePortland  

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