Set off on your bike in the early morning dew on Portland, Oregon's, Lincoln St. Bikeway and you will be in good company. Follow fellow cyclists' blinking red lights to downtown. Cross on one of our renovated bridges, marvel at the floating path on the Willamette River, and then park your bike in one of thousands of covered, secure racks. Walk into a meeting holding your helmet and not one person will snort in amusement or derision. They've probably biked in themselves, if not today, another day. If not yet, soon. Take a deep breath and let your pulse rest, but know that you've started the day healthily, economically, safely.
It would be easy to think that the celebrated Portland of today has always been this way — the nation's #1 bicycling city, a place where bicycling is a normal way to get around. Easy, but wrong. It didn't just happen. And it wasn't easy. The 15-year battle to evolve our auto-dominated transportation system started practically from scratch.
Portland circa 1970 was a typical American city: auto-addicted, congested, polluted, and searching for a better way. It began investing in light rail, traffic-calmed neighborhoods, parks, and walkable streets. By the early 1990s, when I began my job as bicycle coordinator, the city had looked to Europe and found another piece of the puzzle: bicycle transportation. The task placed in my hands was to create conditions that would allow a skeptical public to choose to bicycle for transportation, and then convince them to do so. If that wasn't enough, my job was also to evolve the city's bureaucracy, which, like most every American transportation department, was almost entirely dedicated to moving and parking motor vehicles.
The conceptual recipe for change — build bikeways and bike parking, hold encouragement events and activities — sounded strikingly simple. Translating the recipe into reality would prove to be a modern-day series of revolutionary battles, clashes of wills, subterfuge and betrayals, heroes and leaders, joy and frustration, all on the way to what would prove to be one of the best bang-for-buck investments in the history of American cities.
Far beyond Portland, from New York to Dallas to San Francisco and parts in between, Joyride celebrates people making a difference, individuals becoming empowered, and communities becoming better places. My own story — getting fit through bicycling — is but a backdrop for a much larger story about change, about creating safer communities and improving our health, and about hope for a brighter future for us all.
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Mia Birk fell in love with bicycling in 1990 while attending graduate school in Washington, D.C. She was the City of Portland's bicycle program manager and is now a principal at Alta Planning + Design, specializing in bicycle and pedestrian planning projects. She also teaches planning at Portland State University. Joyride is her first book.
Books mentioned in this post
Mia Birk is the author of Joyride: Pedaling toward a Healthier Planet