Mia Birk Praised Chicago’s Bike Gains at Yesterday’s Meet-and-Greet

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Mia Birk talks to Streetsblog readers at yesterday’s meet-up.

It was great hanging with Streetsblog Chicago readers at yesterday’s meet-and-greet with noted bike and pedestrian planner Mia Birk, co-hosted by her planning firm, Alta Planning + Design at Vinyl in River North. Birk also heads Alta Bicycle Share, which runs the Divvy program for the city of Chicago. She served as Bicycle Program Manager for the city of Portland, Oregon, from 1993 to 1999, and helped launch the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Birk recently published the memoir Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet.

Speaking before the group, Birk heralded what she called a sea change in transportation planning across the country in recent years, and in Chicago in particular. “Chicago has already been on the leading edge because of Active Trans and because of former Mayor [Richard M.] Daley,” she said. “This city was already a bright light. But then, in the last few years, some things kind of clicked.”

“In my mind, those cities that are really clicking have some human elements that fall into place all at once,” she said. “They have really great advocacy organizations, but it could also be a blog, and it could also be a bike commuter group, or it could be neighborhood associations, or business associations. It’s leadership at the community level, clicking at the same moment that the political leadership is really not just saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, bikes, I like bikes, bikes are good’ — but is really leading on bikes, loves bikes, wants bikes, gets it.”

She noted that the movement towards a more bikeable Chicago picked up speed after Rahm Emanuel took office as mayor, and appointed former transportation chief Gabe Klein and current commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. “Amazing things have happened over the last few years in Chicago,” she said.

She brought up the thriving Divvy program, now approaching its one-year anniversary, as proof of the current administration’s success in getting big things done for biking in a short amount of time. “Divvy is really a great example of how game-changing bike-share can be,” she said. “If you’d asked me five years ago where city governments should put their money — protected bike lanes or bike share — I probably would have said protected bike lanes. Now, I would say both.”

Birk said bike-share has done wonders to normalize cycling. “It changes the rhetoric from ‘cyclists’ to just ‘people,’” she said. “We’re just people. We get around by bike sometimes, we drive sometimes, we walk sometimes, we take transit sometimes. That’s my vision.”

She praised Chicago’s PBLs as “fantastic,” and asked how many miles have been installed to date. We’re currently at 40.5 miles of buffered lanes and 16 miles of protected lanes, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Mike Amsden. When attendees pointed out that the vast majority of the new bikeways are simply paint on the road, rather than physically protected, Birk said, “It’s a good start in a congested city.”

She closed by talking about how her companies try to stay on the cutting edge of transportation planning, which is not always an easy place to be. “Innovation can be scary, and it can get pushback on a lot of levels,” she said. “That’s what led to the NACTO Urban Bike Design Guide: the resistance that had cropped up over a hundred years of standards and designs, being meant to facilitate the extreme dominance of motor vehicle thinking. There was no room for balance within that.”

After spending many years trying to get European-style bike infrastructure, like colored bike lanes, bike signals, and separated lanes, approved by authorities like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Birk and her colleagues decided to branch out on their own. “20 years of trying, studying, pushing, sitting on committees, begging, pleading, whining, and we finally said, ‘We’re tired of playing in this sandbox, let’s go create a new one.’ That’s kind of where we play, in that part of the realm. It can be really fun and rewarding, and it can be really challenging.”