Bicycle lessons from Portland

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Bicycle lessons from Portland



has been a lot of hype circulating around Indianapolis' growing bike culture,

and for good reason. The city's new Indy Bikeways plan issued last November has

the Circle City on its way to a bicycle revolution, with a goal of creating

more than 200 miles of bike lanes in the next 15 years.


lanes and off-street paths, like the cultural trail, are becoming integrated

into our everyday transportation system, and Indianapolis is heading in the

right direction toward becoming a healthier, more sustainable city.


organizations around Indianapolis have been instrumental in furthering this

movement, hosting races, car-free days or events like the Mayor's Bike Ride for



key player in Indianapolis' push for bicycle and pedestrian transportation is

Health By Design, an initiative of Alliance for Health Promotion. Health

By Design is raising awareness about bicycling with their Urban Scholar

Planning Series, which organizes educational events designed to inform

professionals, policy-makers and community members about public health,

environmental concerns and quality of life in an urban area.


next addition to the quarterly series features Mia Birk, former Bicycle

Coordinator of Portland, Ore., one of the country's most bike-friendly cities.


Irwin, Executive Director of Health by Design, explained that the organization

chose to bring in Birk for their series because of her accomplishments out west.

"A bicycle-friendly community doesn't happen by accident," Irwin said. "You

have to be very intentional about setting goals and directing policies and

getting funding to create that community, and that's something Mia can really

speak to."


journey in Portland began in 1993 when she started working as the city's bike coordinator.

She was intrigued by the opportunity of experimenting with bicycle-friendly

transportation in America.

Birk had studied cities around the world that

had shifted their transportation models, and was curious to see how it would

fare in the States. The result: Portland became one of the best bicycling and

walking cities in the country.


spoke with Mia Birk about the transportation transformation.

NUVO: When first assessing

Portland's bicycle infrastructure, what was the most obvious problem you


Birk: The most obvious

problem was the lack of bikeways and bicycle infrastructure.The first bike ride I went on in

Portland was terrifying—it was a nightmare. There were a couple nice bike

paths, but they weren't integrated in the transportation system. My job was to

fix all that.

NUVO: What was the least

obvious problem you encountered?

Birk: The behind-the-scenes

retraining of the bureaucracy. My assumption was that my job was convincing

people to get out and ride. Which, to me, just seems like a good idea. But to

others, it was not such a great idea. They felt like since no one was biking

now, why should they put in bike lanes? The majority of the transportation

system was against integrating bikeways because it meant reforming the whole

transportation infrastructure, and a radical change like that is always

difficult. We needed to retrain everyone in urban function and gain a

tremendous amount of support and get them on board with this mission.

NUVO: What sort of

techniques or tactics did you use when retraining the bureaucracy?

Birk: First, you have to

respect other people's jobs and their training. I needed to learn what these

people did for our transportation system. Then you have to add all these steps

to help urban function comply with the new rules—like bike rack locations

and leaving space for bike lanes or having curb ramps. I found that the best

way to do this is to show the bureaucrats what it's like to be in a

bike-friendly city—actually take them to a place where bicycles are part

of life. Once they see how easy and convenient and even fun it can be, their

objections are gone.

NUVO: How did you engage the

community in the development of bikeways?

Birk: We set up a program

that allowed people to complain about problems they saw with the bikeways. We

had a web form, a phone hotline and cards all over the city for people to fill

out. We learned where the problems were and came up with ways to fix them.

NUVO: What were some of the

most successful ideas implemented in Portland?

Birk: The off-street trails

in downtown Portland are a huge success, as well as bicycle boulevards in

residential neighborhoods. Bridge transportation has also been a high point —

in the past 20 years, human transportation on bridges has increased 20 percent,

but none of that has impacted traffic congestion, meaning that that 20 percent

was alternative transportation like bicycling, walking or transit. Events

promoting bicycling were also very successful, and still are. They help people

see that bicycling is normal and part of everyday life.

NUVO: Which ideas didn't see

that same success?

Birk: Bike lanes in outlying

parts of town were not as successful because the less-confident riders saw them

as scary or unsafe. For these areas, off-street trails or bicycle boulevards

away from the main streets would work better. Bike lanes work really well in

certain parts of town, but not others—they aren't always the solution.

Instead, they're like part of a tool kit used to fine-tune and apply proper

transportation to the right environment.

NUVO: How does negative

media affect bicycle transportation development?

Birk: The media side of it

always was and continues to be a challenge. The media cycles in and out of

stoking the controversy, but it's not necessarily bad to have a story that's

inflammatory or negative. It gets people talking and puts the issue in the

public consciousness. It opens up a dialogue about bicycling. If you're not

getting any attention in the media at all, you're probably not doing enough.

NUVO: How has this bicycle

revolution impacted the city of Portland?

Birk: There's an economic

boom on the business side of things. A whole culture is blossoming around

bicycles, including shops, manufacturers, distributors, lawyers, consulting

firms, advocates and educators. Along with creating jobs, this industry helps

Portland's tourism, with the healthy lifestyle being a selling point. There are

so many events like car-free events, festivals and races that promote

excitement about bicycling. There's a big impact in schools, too. Some schools

have nearly 40 percent of students bicycling or walking to school.

NUVO: What are some

suggestions you have for Indianapolis' bicycle revolution?

Birk: Get a really good bike

plan that is big and visionary. Use that blueprint to engage the

community.Second, send a team of

people to bike-friendly cities to get a feel of how bicycle transportation can

impact a city and also debunk some of the myths about the problems with

bicycling. Third, have a game-changer, like the cultural trail [is she

referring to Indianapolis' specifically? If so, do we capitalize that?], or

something that will make people excited about bicycling. Car-free events or

other things of that nature are also great because they show people how fun

bicycling can be. If it's seen as a drag, it won't work.

NUVO: What are some words of


Birk: Expect negative

pushback. After 20 years of working on bicycle infrastructure, Portland is

still receiving negative feedback and people tend to get nervous when they hear

bad things about bikeways. Don't back down because you're headed in the right

direction. Second, really invest in changing your transportation system. If you

want to do it right, commit to the plan and institutionalize bicycling within

the entire city's government. Third, be patient. Changes won't happen overnight

— a real cultural change takes about a generation, but Indianapolis is

headed in the right direction.

To learn more about Mia, visit To learn more about Health

By Design, visit

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