Mia Birk, a bicycle planner who is largely credited for making Portland one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country spent the weekend here as the guest of Living Streets Alliance.
During her visit she rode the streets of Tucson and hosted a lecture about her experiences as the head bicycle planner in Portland and current president of alta planning, a bicycle and pedestrian planning company.
Here are her thoughts about Tucson after spending the weekend here.
Now that you have returned to Portland, what are your big takeaways from your visit to Tucson?
I’m struck by the fact that you’ve got bike lanes on most major roads and have achieved gold status on the regional level but have stagnated in terms of ridership for the past decade. To me this suggests that a different strategy is needed. I also was struck by how easy it is to ride a bike around in terms of topography and weather (most of the year), the enthusiasm of the Living Streets Alliance, and the tremendous opportunity arising from the Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant to move forward rapidly.
What is Tucson doing right?
Bike lanes on major roads, the Urban Loop path, and the bike boulevards on 4th St and others that are in the works. The upcoming Ciclovia.
Where are we missing the mark?/What can/should Tucson do to get more cyclists on the streets?
- Focus on bike boulevards (aka neighborhood greenways) (check out this StreetsFilm video for an inspiring overview on why neighborhood greenways are a great way to get more people out riding, especially those with kids.)
- Safe Routes to School bike training should be integrated into every elementary school as mandatory curriculum, and you should add a focus on parent-led encouragement activities to get more kids to walk/ride to school regularly.
- Fix the HAWK signals that have no push buttons for cyclists.
- Invest in individualized marketing programs like Portland’s Smart Trips program. This is because it’s not just the bikeways that get more people out riding, it’s the attitude. We’ve got to invite people to embrace cycling as a mainstream form of transportation, celebrate every success, include marketing and outreach as part of our work. Public works departments often shy away from education and outreach, thinking that it’s “social engineering.” But, as I talked about in the Joyride section “Plant Seeds and A Garden Will Grow,” once you build it, people will come. But if we build it, and then encourage people to use it, in ways that are meaningful to their lives, they will come in flocks, droves, maybe even stampedes. The most successful cities embrace this role as critical to success, and they do it constantly and thoroughly as part and parcel of the way they do business. Individualized marketing programs are about the one-on-one hand-holding needed to open people’s eyes, allow them to feel safe and comfortable on a bike, learn the best routes, overcome the myriad of objections, and simply enjoy it. Let’s not forget that most Tucson residents are only familiar with bicycling as an activity of recreation or sport. It is a big leap, even for those who identify as cyclists by virtue of their use of the bicycle for club rides or races, to shift their thinking, clothing, routes, and speed to that of the bicycle as transportation. Individualized marketing programs are highly effective.
- Focus on women — create conditions (off-street paths, neighborhood greenways, and protected/separated bikeways on major roads) where women will feel comfortable. Offer repair classes and rides for women. And offer safety training beyond the LCI course, which, although it’s a great course, is long and can be intimidating because it focuses on riding on major roads. Its relentless focus on defensive riding is scary; this perpetuates the fear that many women have. Because most people drive to get around, their impression is that bicycling will be on those same roads, and even with bike lanes, those roads in their minds are scary. That’s why we have to create lower stress conditions for cycling. Cycling is attractive when it’s a delightful experience. Stop feeding people’s fear. Instead, focus on fun.
- More Ciclovias! These events are simply amazing, eye-opening, game-changing, and delightful.
Are there any parallels you see between what you went through in Portland and what Tucson is going through now?
Portland developed a pretty good bikeway network, mostly on major roads, and then began investing in encouragement activities. Bike use took off. Then we went back and really engaged the community to see how we could reach the next wave of potential cyclists. And that’s when we really understood the extent to which major roads, even with bike lanes, are intimidating for many riders. And so we’ve been investing in neighborhood greenways — although with continued encouragement activities and safe routes to school — and bike use has shot upwards and continues to do so.
Anything else you would like to add?
I think Tucson has done a lot in the right direction — keep it up! And I think that Tucson is right on the cusp of a major upward trajectory in terms of bike use. I hope to be back soon to see what’s next.
If you are interested in purchasing Mia’s book with 100 percent of the $20 price going to Living Streets Alliance, contact Emily to find out how to get your copy.