Portland’s Mia Birk gives Chicago a pep talk on handling the bike lane backlash


Mia Birk – photo by Serge Lubomudrov

Last week Steven and I attended Active Transportation Alliance’s 25th anniversary celebration, where we heard legendary transportation guru Mia Birk deliver an inspiring speech to the crowd of city officials, transportation planners and advocates. Birk helped turn Portland, Oregon, into a cycling Mecca when she served as bike coordinator there in the 1990s and now heads Alta Planning + Design, specializing in biking, walking and trails projects.

Birk gave a warning about the media backlash that is likely to result as Chicago implements Mayor Emanuel’s plan to construct 100 miles of protected bike lanes (and launch a large-scale bike share system and build the Bloomingdale Trail and Navy Pier Flyover). She also offered some words of encouragement about how to deal with this criticism.

Here’s the full text of Mia Birk’s anti-backlash advice:

I want to finish up here by talking about backlash. I’ve been working in a lot of cities and I think that as soon as you start making hard trade-offs on some of these streets where you want to put the protected bike lanes that you might actually experience some of this backlash, particularly if you’re starting to talk about maybe, possibly trading off a few parking spaces. I’m worried for you.

And you may have heard that places like New York and Vancouver B.C. and still Portland and others are really getting a lot of backlash. And we have learned that this is because changing built infrastructure and deeply engrained habits is really hard stuff. It touches people in a very deep and visceral level, so of course there’s a reaction.

I’ll just give you an example. In Portland in 2001 we opened up a really stunning new path. Maybe some of you have been to Portland and seen the East Bank Esplanade in downtown Portland. It floats in the river, it rises with the tide and it’s absolutely stunning. And the day it opened the Oregonian wrote a nice editorial saying it was just a noisy new pencil-thin park along the freeway, the costliest bike path in America, no one would ever use it and it’s a waste of money. And all the other media picked up on that so everybody was out slamming the East bank Esplanade. And of course as soon as it opened lots of people came out and rode it and it’s absolutely beautiful.

But then, we all know what happened on September 11 in 2001. And on September 22nd thousands of people came down to downtown Portland and stood on the East Bank Esplanade and on the bridges connecting to the other side of the river and made a loop of people holding candles and singing and crying in solidarity with the victims of 9-11. And the next day the Oregonian ate their words. And by the end of the year they declared it the best investment of the year. I know, maybe this is actually a story about how pathetic the Oregonian is.

But I came to learn then, because this has happened over and over and over again, with all the bike lanes that I put in Portland as the bike coordinator and with the colored bike lanes that we started to use, and … all the innovative bikeway stuff that we’ve now gathered together in the NACTO [National Association of City Transportation Officials] Urban Bikeway Design Guide. But it was really tough to get a lot of that in.

[Birk spent a few minute or two discussing the creation of the design guide.]

I’ve come to learn that this initial backlash is normal. When I saw Janette Sadik-Khan, who’s [Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner] Gabe Klein’s equivalent in New York at the National Bike Summit last year, well she had been ripped up and down by the New York Times, just ripped to shreds. And went over to her and I said, “Girl, you must have some seriously thick skin.” And she did not even hesitate for one second. She points at her arm and says, [in a New York accent] “Rhinoceros thick.”

So I just want to warn you, politicians that are in the room, the aldermen, the mayor [not present] and Gabe, just get ready for it, because you know you’re heading in the right direction. And you all as members of the community and leaders are going to be there to support them so that they will be able to do their job.

I’m going to run through a few Portland statistics because I’m a data geek at heart. In the early 1990s we had less than one percent of people biking. Today 6.5% of commuter trips are by bike, more than 18% of the city uses the bicycle at least part of the time, as high as 30% in some neighborhoods. As bicycle use has shot up the crash rate has plummeted. Bonus, improved air quality, improved health, and a $100 million local bike industry and 1,500 jobs to along with that.

So this is another key that I want to leave you with for Chicago and that is, document your progress. Count bicyclists on your roads and trails before and after you do things and regularly from then on. Pull it together in a report, report it back to the media, get your story straight and use these statistics over and over and over. You guys can become a very disciplined group and say the same statistics over and over, because everybody in Portland knows these same numbers that I just said.

And the $100 million bike industry comes from a study I did for the city of Portland. The results of that was incredibly positive media attention and increased government involvement in that sector, and dozens of new businesses and jobs, and most important, acceptance amongst Portland’s political and business leaders, many of whom were extremely skeptical up until that moment. So tell your story.

And for Chicago, I wish you that kind of success. I want you to be [League of American Bicyclists Bike Friendly Community rating of] platinum [Chicago is currently rated silver]. This whole ratings system is only so that we can compete with each other. But Portland is only the size of one of your neighborhoods, so you can do better than us, for sure. It’s flat here and you’ve got a complete grid, so of course you can.

So I wish you the kind of success we’ve had in Portland. I wish you a city full of stylish women and fit kids on bikes. I wish you gold and then platinum, and then you’ll crack the list of the world’s best cities, because, let’s face it, all of us are kind of in another low tier, relative to the world’s best cities. And along the way, as you’re doing it, enjoy the ride.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

14 thoughts on “Portland’s Mia Birk gives Chicago a pep talk on handling the bike lane backlash”

  1. I’d say a big thing not to do is go advocating for places where a protected lane would be insane.  There are plenty of roads where it makes sense.  eg, Elston, where there’s already a bike lane on lots of it, so moving the lane to the curb inside the parked cars is doable without impacting the car traffic (maybe lanes narrow a bit, but it’s still a 2 lane road).

    An insane example I’ve seen in comments here (don’t think it was from either of you running the place) is Western.  I’ve also seen it listed as a BRT possibility.  None of that makes sense on Western.  You’re talking a street that has 4 lanes plus parking and doesn’t have width to give in most places.  You’re also talking a street that is clogged with traffic.  So, take it down to 2 lanes?  All that’ll do is push the traffic onto Damen and California, both of which have problems of their own.

    1. We need to have a comprehensive and high quality bicycle route network, just as there is for automobiles and transit.   Many roads will not seem suitable to be included in this network, and Western is among them.  However, a corridor will have to be found in the vincinity of Western, and Pulaski, and Irving Park, etc…, whether it is on these roads, or on a parallel road.

    2. While Western might not be the best choice for a protected bike lane (although I once biked on Western from Blue Island to the Handlebar in record time and found it surprisingly bikeable) it seems like an ideal street for bus rapid transit (BRT). There’s plenty of width and it would be a great north-south transit corridor, connecting all of the CTA train lines. Sure, the cars would lose a lane. But think how many people would switch from driving to transit if buses were able to move quickly on Western in their own corridor, unhindered by auto congestion. I bet the remaining car traffic would actually move more efficiently after a travel lane is replaced with BRT.

      1. John, please post your analysis of BRT, the time savings it creates in a standard per-mile breakdown, the cost of retrofitting current buses with an honor-based fare collection mechanism, and the differences between it and other investments (LRV, subway, etc.). Since you’re encouraging BRT so heavily, and a transit expert, this analysis would be much appreciated.

          1. Thanks, and please do the actual research and don’t just regurgitate the numbers CDOT hands you… they’re incorrect (I’ve seen them, run them myself, and they are *way* off). If you need primers to get your number crunching moving, reply back.

  2. Thanks Mia, but Chicago has done a kick-ass job of building it’s own bike system (which makes Portland look like some tiny little suburban bike venture) over the past 10 years. Compare our bike lane mileage to theirs, then let’s talk.

    1. Bike lane mileage is one measure of a kick-ass bike system. 

      The Portland bike system is something to envy. They have, among other unique facilities and ideas, bike boulevards (streets that have facilities that prevent it being used as a through street for drivers), a trail to the airport, and 6% of their population commuting by bike to work. (And 6% of their population is a greater number of people than 1.0% of Chicago’s population.)
      They’ve also had 5 straight years with zero or one cycling fatalities. 

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