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
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.
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 www.miabirk.com. To learn more about Health
By Design, visit www.healthbydesignonline.org.