Interview with National Bicycling Expert Mia BirkInterview with National Bicycling Expert Mia Birk

You've been very instrumental in the rise of Portland as a leading bicycle city. We don't want to carbon-copy Portland, but to make a supremely livable Minneapolis/St. Paul. What are the most important conditions for this to happen?

Let me start by saying you have a tremendous base upon which you're building with your world-class off-street bikeway system; it's truly phenomenal. And you already have a lot of riders and enthusiasm, political support and leadership and a wonderful community that's health oriented and excited about the changes. So I think you have a lot to build on. I think what's needed is an on-street network to connect to the off-street network. I think the off-street network is phenomenal, but on-street bikeways are the best advertisement for bicycling as a form of transportation. We have to get to the trails, and if we have to drive to the trails we don't succeed.

I think there also needs to be a shift culturally towards accepting bicycling and walking as integral components of daily life-not for every trip, but for some trips, for appropriate trips, for some times of the year if not all times of the year. And so I think awareness needs to grow and I think people need to try it because I think there's a lot of opportunity here and the more people try it the more they're going to like it.

What do you think is the most exciting development in the Twin Cities?

I am excited about all of it. I'm really excited about the bike boulevard corridors. I would like to encourage the designers and planners to be bold and think of them as demonstration projects and not be afraid because people are going to oppose them. You have to have a really thick skin in this field because we're trying to change behavior in ways that are extremely beneficial and wonderful, but it is a change, and change is very hard for people to accept. So, I really encourage folks to be bold because it will pay off, it will get the politician reelected, it will pay off for the community. Most ofthe people that oppose these ideas will come back and embrace them eventually. It doesn't really benefit us to weaken our ideas in the face of opposition. I think of it sort of as affirmative action: we have to do a lot to overcome institutional barriers, institutional and ingrained attitudes, and we do take these things step by step and we see progress over time, but the bolder we are the more it pays off in the long run. Sometimes you have to take really bold steps to really affect change at a core level.

I am excited about the changes in Minneapolis I saw Downtown, the designs on First and Hennepin. They're not perfect, that's probably not the way I would have done it, but I think it's a bold statement and I'd like to see more of that-very visible types of bikeways. And I've very excited about all of the different kinds of encouragement campaigns that I've learned about, particularly the ones TLC has been spearheading. I've really enjoyed hearing about all the really exciting things that Lynnea's working on with the City of Minneapolis with the bike rides that she just led and the work around schools, and the Smart Trips campaign, I think all those things are planting seeds that are really going to pay off and are really going to have a really major impact.

Pretend you don't know how we've been spending the NTP dollars and you were coming to our area with 22 million. What would you lay as the groundwork and the guidelines?

I think that world-class trail system is your biggest asset. I always try to take whatever your biggest asset is and build on it. So I probably would have created a regionally coordinated strategy to get more things connected directly to the trail system. Maybe you've prioritized that already, but that would have probably been my strategy.

I think we would have been really thoughtful about getting folks to embrace a common thematic design to get those facilities built in terms of training of the staff and consulting firms and others who are involved, to try to steer it towards the best world-class designs that are available. And I think you've done a lot of that already. It's a difficult one because of your structure, the way it was legislatively set that you're going to have grants run through TLC that are granted to the agencies. The capacity that you've built within the local agencies and consulting firms is terrific. Tenthusiasm that you've built in the different communities is going to go well beyond the boundaries of this grant and is going to last for a long time and keep things moving.

I think in terms of planting seeds you've got a very compelling story to tell with this 22 million dollars. Adecade from now, you're going to be able to look back and say that 22 million dollars leveraged something like 22 billion dollars worth of investments and benefits in terms of health and air quality and congestion savings and other projects and development and economic benefits. I think that is going to prove to be an extraordinary investment. TLC should be proud of its leadership role in building  relationships and the collaborative way that it has managed the program. Despite the fact that a collaborative process can be kind of painful and take longer, the best communities are usually the ones that are built on that collaborative model.

And I will just say this: nobody expects to be like Portland and Portland doesn't expect to be like anybody else. When I'm in Portland talking about Amsterdam and Copenhagen, people would go, "We can't be like Copenhagen, we can't possibly be like Copenhagen." Everywhere else I go in the country they say "We can't possibly be like Portland." I'm not trying to say that any place should be like anyplace else. I think we have to all start where we are and create systems that are unique to our own communities, but at the same time we can learn from the experience that has been effective in other cities. And Portland has done some very good things that have really paid off in the long run. One of them that Portland does that is very similar to the Twin Cities is that Portland is very process oriented,; we have a lot of public process and neighborhood involvement and a lot of talking things through for many years before decisions are made, and then talking some more before things are built, and then talking some more, maybe adjusting it as things go on over time. The proof is in the pudding: Portland is an excellent place to live and it's a thriving community and it's a beautiful place, and so is the Twin Cities. Even though process-oriented decision making is messy and time consuming, it ultimately produces a more long-lasting outcome than more of a heavy handed approach.

What kind of message would you give to planners and engineers who have to do some extreme shifts in thinking? They were trained to design and to think about cars and moving cars. What kind of encouragement might you send their way?

You know, we all have different ways we can contribute with our work that we do on a daily basis. Traffic engineering and planning and transportation systems are really important jobs. Everybody has to move around cities to do anything, and yet it's a really under-celebrated and mis understood part of our thinking. We talk a lot about basic needs being in housing and we'll pour a lot of money into a housing strategy, we'll talk a lot about job creation, and we'll talk a lot about health and healthcare. The underpinning of all of it is transportation. Every single bit of the rest of it fails if people cannot move around. And we have created a system where people have to move around in a way that is unfortunately not healthy, not sustainable, that has created unhealthy habits, and has contributed in unhealthy ways to our daily lives. Sure, you can drive and get to jobs and that's beneficial to the economy, but the negatives of everybody driving for every trip outweigh the positives and it's simply not sustainable. There is no equation anywhere in the entire world that leads one to a conclusion that we can have a transportation system based on every single person driving their own personal automobile for every trip. There is no possible way that that is a sustainable path. And so if we, as transportation professionals, whatever part we play, if that is what we're basing all our decision making on then we're contributing to a serious problem. And if we can open our minds to the reality that we need to create more balance in our transportation system, and not only that we need to but we can, that we have the tools, that it's a simple win-win, cost effective strategy for multiple benefits achieved, then we contribute to being part of the solution.

Bicycling and walking are win-win, cost effective strategies for improving the quality of all of our lives and it works and it will work, but you have to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. And that is going to mean a shift in thinking and an open mind, listening and having faith. And I guess that's the hardest part, that if you haven't seen it and you haven't experienced it and you've grown up a certain way and you have a certain training, and your citizens are telling you a certain thing it's very hard to understand that the auto-based isn't working and that this path isn't sustainable. To believe that something else can work is a hard pill to swallow, but the more I travel around the country and the more I work in communities the more I see people opening their eyes and coming to me and saying "We get it now, we just don't know how to get there." And wherever it is you are, that's where you start, and you take some steps forward, and then you keep going. Because once you get started there's no need to stop, because you can see the benefits and how it's really affecting people in a positive way. Just start. Take that first step, take those first ten steps, and then you'll be able to keep going from there.

Are there some overarching guidelines to make it safer out there for the most vulnerable city travelers?

We have a tremendously ironic situation in that people are afraid to get out of their cars and bike and walk because cars are so dangerous. And so we're caught in a catch 22. It's just this irony: "I can't let my kids bike and walk to school because it's so dangerous around school zones." But that's why it's so dangerous around school zones, because they're driving. The target of any kind of safety and enforcement campaign has to be definitively targeted at motorists. All of us drive and we all have to be very conscious of our behavior and the fact that we, as drivers of metal boxes with very limited sight and very limited hearing, are all psychologically affected by the conditions. And we all, therefore, respond to whatever the conditions are. If we design systems for cars to go really fast, if we create conditions for people to speed, they simply will. If you allow people to talk on cell phones in their cars, they simply will. It's human nature and there's a ton of deep psychology behind it. Even the nicest people in the world, when they get behind the wheel of a car, , turn into curmudgeonly monsters that are in a hurry and are disconnected from their communities and the people around them. When we bike and walk, we start to gain back some of our humanity and some of our connection to the world and people around us. However, there are jerks in every field, there are jerks that drive, there are jerks that bike, there are jerks that walk, there are jerks that take transit. I don't think we're going to solve the problem of all the jerks that are out there. But I do think that behavior starts with us and we contribute to the solution by being extraordinarily courteous drivers first and foremost, and that means going the speed limit and yielding actively to every pedestrian in a crosswalk. So any time we see a pedestrian and slow down we are part of the solution. We absolutely slow down in school zones, we yield to cyclists and we allow cyclists the courtesy of going through stop signs without having to put their foot down. We let them go because it is a higher priority for us to allow the most vulnerable road users to move safely.

The biggest lesson I've learned from looking at the Dutch and the Danish traffic laws is that they put the onus of responsibility on the motorist and as a result of that it is deeply ingrained into their society. We do not have that deeply ingrained within us, but we have to start ingraining that in ourselves. It's going to have to start with us as drivers taking that very seriously and not talking on the phone and keeping our hands on the steering wheel. That even means not handing the sippy cup to our kid in the back seat. It really means that our kids start seeing us behaving courteously and observantly as drivers. I had to change my own behavior in the car. I had to really say to my kids, "Kids, I'm not going to hand you that sippy cup right now because Mommy needs to keep her hands on the wheel, but when we get to a good stopping point I'll hand you that thing." We all have that responsibility. Obviously I also think that goes for good, safe bicycling behavior, particularly in places where bicyclists are coexisting with the more vulnerable user, pedestrians. But I do think that over time it will come to be recognized, as it is becoming recognized in Portland, that the laws that were built around motor vehicular movement, that's exactly what they are for, and they do a pretty good job of assigning right of way and keeping motorists from crashing into each other.

We have tried to modify the vehicular code a little bit to allow for bicyclists to have rights and therefore we have accorded them the same rights and responsibilities as motorists, but bicycles are totally different from cars, bicyclists are totally different vehicular operators than motorists are, and we will start to see a different code of conduct for cyclists that will be entirely different from the code of conduct for motorists. As more and more people start to cycle, more and more people start to recognize that the code of conduct for motorists is not directly applicable and we need to modify it, just like we're modifying everything, we're modifying our traffic models, our land use planning models, our policies, our codes, our design standards. In other words, we also need to evolve our laws and our practices related to behavior and traffic enforcement.

When ISTEA was first passed in 1991, it was actually passed by bicycling advocates, who pushed congress to set aside funding for biking projects. What happened was, they started saying "Let's add the word 'walk wherever we say 'bike,'" since there are more people walking than biking. So that's how it became a more balanced bill.

This is how it is in every community: the bicyclists are the loud ones and they show up at every meeting and they demand change and it always seems like pedestrians are the ones getting the short shrift. On the one hand it seems unfortunate, but on the other hand it's the reality that we as bicyclists and pedestrians are best friends and should always be on the same team in advocating for transportation change. We should also be absolutely best friends with transit systems. And I think particularly from a pedestrian advocacy standpoint, that you've got to think through more about creating environments where people can walk to that neighborhood grocery store and carry one or two things, where kids can walk to school, and where the urban design standards, which are really more about the facades of buildings, and the feel and the comfort of the streets, are really ingrained in the code, so buildings are really oriented towards the sidewalk and parking lots have pedestrian circulation within the parking lots rather than just a big ugly sea of asphalt, and that crosswalks and school zones have a really high emphasis on safety. Bicycling is more about long, linear corridors, it's more thought of as transportation. Pedestrian activity is about a whole bunch of small things that add up to a big whole; the sum of the parts is far greater than the individual parts when you're thinking of things from a pedestrian design standpoint. But again, the greatest cities in the world are the ones that are highly walkable and those that have pedestrian zones, and those where people see walking as integral with transit. All of those things are happening here, it's just not as vibrantly-and obnoxiously, sometimes-proclaimed from the seats of people's bicycles. Let bicyclists lead the charge but try to incorporate pedestrian design and progress within every transportation project. One of the outcomes I would like to see is the institutionalization within all the government agencies that walking and bicycling are simply the way they do business for every single project, no matter what it is. Not just minimize the impacts on walking and cycling, but improve conditions for walking and cycling radically, no matter what project it is.

Any wild visions you want to share with us?

I want to see you do a Ciclovia. I want to see you do some car free street events next year; I want to see you do at least one-maybe three. I want to challenge you to that because I think it would blow your minds. I want to see both these cities, St. Paul and Minneapolis, start to embrace the on-street facilities. I think that there is a need to go ahead and take the plunge and do a big demonstration project that involves trading off a travel lane, or dropping travel lanes down to ten feet wide or less, and putting in some very high visibility, protected bikeways , right in the heart of downtown or in a significant corridor in the city and accept that there is a tradeoff. There is no way the Cities will achieve what they want to achieve if they're unwilling to accept that there is some tradeoff with motor vehicular congestion and capacity. Accept it. Embrace it. Throw a party. Times are changing; we can handle it.

I know that people scream at the city engineers and the city leaders, I know that it's hard to accept that the sky will not fall, but the sky will not fall. In fact, it will be fine. There is no way to know that unless you try it. With most of the changes, nothing is set in stone, nothing is permanent. We're talking mostly paint and lines and plastic. So give it a try. It will most likely succeed and people will most likely want more. It will start to change things here and it's a great advertisement to the Cities' commitment to bicycling and walking to make that tradeoff and to celebrate it. If you hide it you say, "Well, we're just going to try to squeeze bike lanes in here and there." There's no tradeoff there. That's going to take you a little ways. Bike boulevards do that, because there's not a huge tradeoff with bike boulevards, there's a little trade off, so that's good. But don't be afraid to try something that's bigger and take the plunge because everywhere in the world they have tried it, it has worked.  So you might as well be in the company of the great cities of the world.