Bicycle planning icon Mia Birk is leaving Alta Planning after 16 year career

Bicycle planning icon Mia Birk is leaving Alta Planning after 16 year career

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Mia Birk in her office this morning.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Mia Birk’s ‘joyride’ as a leader in the bicycle planning field is taking a major turn. Alta Planning + Design, the firm Birk joined in 1999 after a stint as the City of Portland’s bicycle coordinator, announced today that she is leaving at the end of this year.

“It’s time,” Birk shared with me in a conference at the firm’s Portland headquarters on Southeast Grand this morning. “It’s just a gut feeling.”

Since the mid 1990s Birk has played a major role in the renaissance of cycling in America. As the bicycle coordinator for the City of Portland between 1993 and 1999 her persistence and unwavering belief in bike lanes literally laid the groundwork for Portland’s reputation as our country’s best city for cycling.

When she joined Alta in 1999 the firm had just one office and two employees. As president and most recently CEO, Birk’s career at Alta has seen the company boom to nearly 200 employees and 30 offices throughout North America.

As Alta grew so did the field of bicycle planning itself.

Birk recalls that when she came on board Alta had about a dozen projects worth about $100,000. Today they have about 400 active projects and they complete about 1,000 projects each year.

“At the beginning people ask me, ‘What is that you do again?’ Portland had its bike plan, but that was about it. Nationwide, there wasn’t even a field for bicycle transportation consulting services. I had to create the language around what I did.”

In many ways, the growth of Birk’s company — and the consulting niche it operates in — has mirrored the growth of cycling in America.

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Alta Principals (left to right): VP/Director of Marketing Natalie Lozano, Chief Operating Officer Carloyn Sullivan, Programs Manager Jessica Roberts, Portland Group Leader Katie Mangle, and CEO Mia Birk. 51 percent of Alta’s workforce are women.

One of Birk’s proudest achievements is how she has helped bring more women into transportation planning. When I arrived to talk with her this morning Birk filled the room with four of Alta’s principals: Chief Operating Officer Carloyn Sullivan, Portland Group Leader Katie Mangle, Programs Manager Jessica Roberts, and VP/Director of Marketing Natalie Lozano. 51 percent of Alta’s workforce are women.

“We’re the only firm doing this work where our many of our key leaders and principals are women,” Birk pointed out. “The gender gap in cycling is unfortunately represented in our field as well and I believe the only way we’re going to change this paradigm is if the women are reflected in who does the [planning] work in communities.”

When asked to recall her most fond memories of the past 16 years, Birk — always the gifted speaker — had a list at-the-ready:

  • Publication of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy “Lessons Learned” study: The US Department of Transportation paid Alta to research rail-trail projects after they were getting pressure to ban bike paths on or adjacent to railrail lines. Birk says this study, published in 2002, “Changed the face of this country and opened the door to thousands of miles of rails with trails that would not have otherwise happened.” The study “put Alta on the map,” she added.
  • Publication of the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide. Fed up with the lack of federal guidelines for bikeway designs that were commonly used with success in Europe, Birk gathered colleagues from around North America to write their own.
  • Creation of the Institute for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation at Portland State University. The IBPI, founded in 2007 is research and education center that has trained hundreds of professionals.
  • Leading the way on bike share. Birk was head of Alta Bicycle Share when it experienced a meteoric rise that was capped by the company’s successful bid for New York City’s system in 2011. Alta sold its bike share business spinoff last year after a roller-coaster of controversies that included delays, lawsuits, and labor disputes. “It was very challenging,” said Birk this morning, “But I’m really proud of what we achieved: 60 million trips by bike and zero fatalities.”

After many ups-and-downs and with a team in place that is more than ready to continue her legacy (Alta is at a “sweet spot” she said, after going through a major refocusing effort after getting out of the bike share business), Birk is ready to step aside and clear her mind. She’d like to write a few more books, continue to help bring more women in the transportation planning field, and possibly consider teaching again.

Asked if she might take a page out of former Metro President David Bragdon’s book and use her new independence to speak candidly about the Portland region’s cycling progress (or lack thereof), Birk just smiled and said, “I do have some thoughts I’d like to share.”

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org


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