From left to right: BAC president Karen Berchtold, BICAS education coordinator Kylie Walzak, President of ALTA Planning, Mia Birk and BAC member Ian Johnson pose for a photo on Saturday.

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.



  • 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.

10 thoughts on “Portland planner: ‘Tucson is right on the cusp’”
  1. Cusp of what? Being more like Portland?! Scoff.

    That city also has a growing light rail system, an educated populous, and a huge tax base — three things that weren’t mentioned in the “Where are we missing the mark?” section.

    Mad respect to the Ms. Birk and ALTA Planning, but why is it that public planners are almost always tone-deaf when it comes to regional and cultural context? It’s like developers who see a plot of land, anywhere in the world, and envision a future Burger King. Tucson and Portland are very, very different.


  2. I live near the Fourth Avenue Bicycle Boulevard. Although it’s still under construction, I’ve already noticed a difference in driver behavior.

    For one thing, they have to slow down and think how they’re going to negotiate the roundabouts. And, by way of a corollary, since they’re slowing down to think, they’re keeping their speed down. I no longer hear traffic blasting up and down Fourth Avenue, especially during the wee hours of the morning.

  3. Hi Rynsa,

    I think most people agree that Portland and Tucson are very different – so the question is, based on your understanding of Tucson’s regional and cultural context, what would you propose as a strategy?

  4. How does she feel about AZ HB2130, the “Idaho Stop” bill that is languishing in Maricopaland? Would such a bill, if passed and signed, help or hinder cycling in the Old Pueblo? If the bill doesn’t pass, what actions does she feel City of Tucson/Pima County can take on its own to mitigate silly stop signs? How can cyclists be involved in this without being accused of whining to the government?

  5. Colby,

    I would first propose we stop paying Portlandites to come down here and tell us how we can be more like them. In my opinion, it’s a terrible mistake to establish Portland’s unique bicycle infrastructure as some sort of one-size-fits-all, cut-n-paste standard by which we Tucsonans can manage and measure our own progress. The inherent power dynamics in this kind of thinking is deeply problematic, but more than that, it fails to acknowledge a whole slew of deeply significant socio-economic and cultural factors that make our challenges here in Arizona much more severe than those of our neighbors to the northwest.

    The differences between Portland and our own fair city are absolutely immense. So why is this not a bigger part of the discussion? Why do we ignore, for instance, our relative poverty? The BAC systematically avoids discussions on economic class and seldom, in my opinion, makes choices that address the needs of the least of us. The “Urban Loop,” for example, is clearly not designed to help the poor navigate the city or get to work, etc; it’s essentially a play track for Tucson’s middle and upper-class cyclists who want something to do on the weekends. Is it really any wonder, then, that Ms. Birk thinks, “Tucson residents are only familiar with bicycling as an activity of recreation or sport?”


  6. Ok – I think I see better where you’re coming from. It sounds like you’re advocating that we pay more attention to people for whom a bike is their primary/only transportation.

    I’m vaguely familiar with the Urban Loop so can’t speak much to that. What do you think about the new focus on a network of bike blvds for meeting the needs of working class (whatever that is) bike commuters. What else do you think we should be focusing on?


  7. Don’t the poor use bike lanes? Won’t they use bike boulevards? Do they never recreate? Biking on the urban loop seems like pretty cheap entertainment. Were there no poor in Portland with needs for Mia to meet? Which city can we look to that has met the needs of poor riders famously well? I’ll tell you, if all Tucsonans were too poor to own a car, ‘problem’ solved.

  8. That one commenter on the website needs to focus less on how Tucson is “different” from Tucson and concentrate more on how Portland made cycling (relatively) attractive for ALL socio-economic classes. Everybody in Portland is not rich. A friend of mine up there is the night-desk clerk at a hotel, is in mid-to-late sixties and he commutes by bicycle. Unfortunately, he was hit by an inattentive motorist, and messed up his hand. Nevertheless, he still rides.

  9. Holy crap! rynsa and I agree on something! Cycling, downtown, river parks, pro-sports stadiums, streetcars… it’s always a running joke over what boondoggle study the city is throwing money at this month to figure out how we can be more like some other city – that all have their own flaws and problems as well as a completely different set of supporting conditions. If I wanted to live in Portland, or Austin, or Albuquerque, or Boulder, etc., etc, then I’d live there.

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