Mia Birk’s book, “Joyride: Pedaling toward a Healthier Planet,” tells the behind-the-scenes story of one city’s transformation into a bicycling mecca while discussing what other communities can do to become more bike- and pedestrian-friendly and environmentally aware.
PINEHURST – Mia Birk’s bicycling “joyride” began as she was leaving her Texas home for graduate school. “Just as I was getting ready to leave, my brother suggested I take his bike,” she recalls.
The overweight and out-of-shape product of automobile-addicted Dallas dismissed the idea as not part of her paradigm. But her brother persisted, and Birk gave in, schlepping a 10-speed to Washington, D.C., where at first the wimpiest of hills presented a Mount Everest-like challenge.
Within a few weeks, she was losing weight and zipping through the neighborhoods of greater D.C. on her hand-me-down Schwinn. “Once I got more and more fit, I got more confident,” Birk says. “I fell in love with it as personal transportation and for the way it made me feel.”
Now a partner in an international company that creates active communities where bicycling and walking are safe, healthy, fun and normal daily activities, Birk will be in Moore County for two days in early September. On Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 5, she will be the guest rider for the 22nd Annual Tour de Moore Classic, an event that attracts bicyclists from several states.
The following morning, Tuesday, Sept. 6, she will meet with local planners, policymakers, and parks and recreation leaders as part of the Making Moore Connections task force to discuss ways to make Moore County a bike- and pedestrian-friendly community.
On Tuesday evening, during a 6 p.m. community lecture in Pinecrest High School’s Robert E. Lee Auditorium, Birk will discuss the behind-the-scenes story of Portland’s transformation into a bicycling mecca while sharing the lessons and tools needed to change communities and empower people, one pedal at a time.
Birk will be introduced by Ward Oakley, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon with Pinehurst Surgical; and Kathy Liles, planning director for the Town of Aberdeen. Representatives from the Country Bookshop in Southern Pines will also be on hand with copies of Birk’s book, “Joyride: Pedaling toward a Healthier Planet,” for purchase and signing.
Sponsors for Birk’s Moore County visit are FirstHealth of the Carolinas; Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities; The Foundation of FirstHealth; and Tour de Moore.
Melissa Watford, a health educator with FirstHealth Community Health Services and Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities project leader, has worked with officials of Southern Pines and Aberdeen as they attempt to turn their picturesque streets and neighborhoods into places for safe and congenial biking and walking. She heard about Birk during a Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference last fall and decided she would be a natural contributor to the current alternative transportation dialogue.
“Her book was inspirational, and I felt the challenges she faced and lessons she learned in transforming Portland, Oregon, into the top bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly city in the nation could help us transform our community to be more bicycle and pedestrian friendly,” Watford says.
“My work with Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities has opened my eyes to the huge role the built environment plays in community health. We live in a beautiful community, but the lack of infrastructure to safely walk and bicycle has been a frustration of mine for a long time. Increasing opportunities for students to walk to school, employees to bike to work and citizens to be able to get to key destinations without having to rely on their cars improves health, the environment and the economy.”
Local biking enthusiast and “behind-the-scenes” Tour de Moore volunteer Dan Kohn has also worked with the Southern Pines advisory committee on the development of its bicycling and transportation plan. He heard about Birk through Watford and looks forward to welcoming her to Moore County and the Tour de Moore.
“I would love to hear her experiences,” Kohn says, “and what she has seen come together. As exciting as this is, it’s more exciting to think what it might be like five years from now. I’d like to hear where they started in Portland and how they got to where they are now.”
Kohn sees “connectivity” – to the business community, downtown activities, and parks and recreation – as the most important issue affecting the Southern Pines plan and looks forward to hearing Birk’s advice.
“We’re looking at this for what it’s going to do for our town,” he says.
Birk’s first job after earning her M.A. in international relations and economics from Johns Hopkins University was as bicycling coordinator for Portland, where she faced the often daunting task of dealing with a doubting, car-dependent community.
“It was not a great place to ride at the time,” she says. “There was a hostile business community that was skeptical that people would ride bikes. I had to focus on bringing along the entire city government and a staff that had been trained in operating systems around driving.”
She began by talking “to anyone who would listen” and coordinating “fun events” that encouraged bicycle riding. Portland adopted its first bike plan in 1996 and, with some neighborhoods now boasting a 30-percent population of regular bike-riders, is now known as the nation’s most bike-friendly city.
Birk left Portland city government in 1999 and now consults with communities throughout the country as CEO of Alta Planning + Design. The nation’s leading firm specializing in bicycle, pedestrian and training planning, design and implementation, the company now has 16 offices including locations in Durham and Davidson.
In addition to her consulting work, Birk teaches bicycle and pedestrian planning through her role as adjunct professor at Portland State University and founder of its Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation. Since the publication of “Joyride” last year, speaking engagements have taken her from Portland to Minneapolis and St. Paul, from British Columbia to Washington, D.C. and points between and beyond.
Wherever she is, Birk is a passionate voice for the biking/walking lifestyle.
“The beauty of biking is that it spans many, many purposes,” she says. “That’s part of the deal. It puts a smile on your face. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get a smile on your face every single day? That would be huge for the environment and the community.”
The public is invited to attend Mia Birk’s community lecture at Pinecrest High School on Tuesday, Sept. 6. There is no charge. To register, call 715-5376 or visit www.firsthealth.org/joyride.