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Mia Birk, Alta Bicycle Share face scrutiny over labor practices, Citibike hiccups

Posted by on June 11th, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Behind the scenes at Capital Bikeshare-30-2

A Capital Bikeshare employee “rebalances” bikes
at a docking site near Union Station. Some past and
current employees claim they’ve been underpaid
by Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

It’s been a rough few weeks for Alta Bicycle Share VP Mia Birk. The roll-out of the massive and high-profile Citibike system has by many measures been a huge success. But it has also been marred by public allegations of illegal labor practices in Washington D.C. and software glitches and poor customer service in New York City. This bad PR isn’t new for Alta as they’ve come under fire in the past for delayed launches and last year a rival company accused them of unfair conduct while competing for a bikeshare contract in Chicago.

In Washington D.C., a former employee of Alta’s Capital Bikeshare says he was underpaid and not given the health benefits he’s due under federal contract law. Alta operates the Capital Bikeshare under contract with D.C.’s Department of Transportation. Here’s an excerpt from a Washington Post story on May 6th:

Former employee Samuel Swen­son has told the U.S. Labor Department that he was paid $13 hourly for work that should have been subject to the federal “bicycle repairer” rate of $14.43 hourly or “truck driver, light” at $15.66 hourly. Before he left Capital Bikeshare, Swenson said, he received a raise to $15 hourly but was not paid fringe benefits required under federal law.

Capital Bikeshare, a subsidiary of Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, Ore., operates the system under a 2010 contract with the District’s Transportation Department worth up to $16.4 million over five years. The contract specifies that Capital Bikeshare must follow federal “prevailing wage” determinations, which are published regularly by the Labor Department.

Then on May 28th, Swenson and 17 other current and former Capital Bikeshare employees went public with claims they were owed back-pay and benefits. The group wrote a letter on an online petition site that called out Mia Birk specifically:

Mia Birk -2

Birk in September 2011 after signing
the New York City contract.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Dear Mia,

We are the mechanics, drivers, technicians, dispatchers, and office workers who helped build Capital Bikeshare and set the standard for bikesharing programs nationwide. We’re writing to ask you to do the right thing: comply with the Service Contract Act and pay us all the wages and health & welfare benefits that you committed to pay in Alta’s contract with the Washington DC Department of Transportation (DDOT)…

Mia, it’s time for Alta Bicycle Share to play fair and set an example as a leader in good green jobs…

The U.S. Department of Labor is now looking into the issue and they’ve requested information from Alta about the allegations. Asked for comment on the issue, Birk shared the following via email today:

We are working hard to resolve the prevailing wage question for our Capital Bike Share workers. As such we are providing the requested information to the Department of Labor and also completing an internal review. This is a very important issue to us, and we want to handle it right. As we are a very young company at the forefront of a new industry, we are learning as we go.

We fully value our work force and are proud of our success – in partnership with the District of Columbia – in launching and operating a world-class bike share system with more than 4 million miles logged to date.

When I am able to share the results and actions, I will do so.

You can learn more about the workers’ issues on their Tumblr site and via the Greater Greater Washington blog.

Adding to Alta’s plate is a New York Times story published today about hiccups in the Citibike system. Despite the huge popularity of the system, in Two Weeks In, Riders and Errors for Bike-Share Effort, the Times reports on how New York is handling “the rash of problems plaguing its system, which has had technical errors of a magnitude never experienced by bike-share programs in other major American cities.” The article details problems with docking stations that won’t accept bikes and then long waits (45 minutes or more) for users who call customer service to complain.

It’s important to recall that the launch of Citibike was delayed because the new software Alta’s partner company created specifically for the New York system wasn’t ready for prime-time. Hurricane Sandy damaged some of the bikes, which also contributed to the delay. Alta has since sued their insurance company over the losses.

All of this is happening while Citibike continues to make national headlines — including a now famous rant by a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and a feature on The Daily Show with John Stewart.

Yesterday, Sustainable Business Oregon reported that Birk is taking all the heat in stride and that she continues to work on launching new systems in Portland and Seattle.

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BURR
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BURR
Jambo
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Jambo

I know everyone loves Mia Birk as some great cycling advocate, but in my personal experience with her she is mostly an advocate for Mia Birk and Alta. It started the first time I met her. She came to the bike shop I was working at, and when I tried to introduce myself like a normal person she walked right past me and started complaining that her book wasn’t properly presented on the shelves. The only words she said to anyone in the shop were about how we should be selling her book. That’s the Mia Birk I see when I read stories about Alta. Just look through all of the stories about her on this site- she presents everything as cycling advocacy, but if you look closer they are all about Alta getting contracts and getting more business. I understand she is a businesswoman trying to succeed like everyone else, but I feel like she is disingenuous with her motives and most people support her no matter what because they want to support cycling.

Joe Rowe
Guest
Joe Rowe

Related topic: Mia Birk is also PRO CRC Freeway. That’s 1.6 Billion for interchanges we don’t need.

She’s got the inside track to office holders, and that’s how she gets the contracts.

Read her book. She’s smug and talks in detail about her good freind Mr. Rex Burkholder who fast tracked the CRC freeway. Mia knows how to work the top end of politics and play the bid process in a way that destroys a chance for smaller businesses.

Do we want a elite people writing books as if they alone know and trickle down the future of transportation? Do we want a few rich, elite, and connected people making the profits from bike share programs?

No, no, no Mia. Yes to fair open bids. Yes to local, smaller, worker owned businesses who might be able to setup bike share/rentals much better. We don’t know as that process seems ripe with corruption.

Tom Moore
Guest
Tom Moore

Aggregating all these news pieces into one story is very useful- thanks for taking the time to do this. It will be very interesting to see if Alta can handle and appropriately respond to all this attention and pressure.

was carless
Guest
was carless

What on earth is a “federal “bicycle repairer””??

Sounds like government getting in our business! And $14.31 minimum wage for it? Federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour!

Adam
Guest
Adam

I have a good friend who works at the City, and have heard through him that when Alta were subcontracted a few years back by PBOT to run elements of their Safe Routes to Schools projects, it was a DISASTER. Alta didn’t seem to have much of a clue what they were doing, and PBOT had to go over their finance figures multiple times. Don’t know the specifics, but I heard a lot of rumors.

From what I understand, Alta does some things very well – ie planning for bike routes. But anything else, it is really just beyond their current capacity, and they are over-extending themselves without really training their staff to cope.

Josephine Schumpeter
Guest

Is the technology at risk of being outdated?

http://inventropolis.com/bikeshares-technological-shift/

Mike
Guest
Mike

How does this company still keep getting business when it is apparent that it isn’t capable of performing the tasks that it promises. Are her shortcomings being overlooked by some because the prospect of bike share clouds judgement? Where is the competition?

John R.
Guest
John R.

Mia beloved in this city? Really? She has done many good things, but her book is part fiction. It would seem that her company is as well.

Garlynn
Guest
Garlynn

Alta isn’t even necessarily all that good at bicycle planning. They did a horrible job on the 2001 bicycle plan in the Bay Area; others essentially had to step in to finish the job for them because they could not, and they were not asked back to complete the 2004 update to that plan.

Also, don’t I recall them screwing up something very simple and integral related to that bicycle/pedestrian over-crossing of I-5 leading to the South Waterfront….?

Not to throw mud at Alta, but in my experience they don’t finish the job to the high degree of quality that one would expect from a leader in a field. This bike-sharing debacle confirms my fears that they might have the same issues when it comes to operations that they do with planning.

Portland should definitely make sure it has a contractual “out”, should things look like they are going south with Alta regarding their contract for bike-sharing here.

pdxpaul
Guest
pdxpaul

I’m always baffled at how executives can’t seem to understand how easy it is to make decisions regarding compliance issues. If someone deserves a certain wage, stop hemming and hawing and make the change. It’s as easy as saying, “I see your point and believe you are correct. And since my business model isn’t sustainable with what I leech off the top, I’ll go ahead and lower my obscene salary to something reasonable so we can afford to pay the people who do real work.” Win-win.

Jessica Roberts
Guest
Jessica Roberts

I hesitate to wade into the fray, since this comments crowd is pretty critical, but here goes. I have worked for Mia for nearly 7 years. I’m pretty picky about my bosses (having worked for Catherine Ciarlo in the past), and I know Mia to be hardworking, dedicated, and visionary; every project she undertakes is in service of the larger cause. She makes mistakes, as everyone does, and anyone who’s worked with her knows that she is ambitious and moves at the speed of light, which has its up and downsides. But it seems like some of these commenters are painting her as greedy, incompetent, or having bad intentions, which just doesn’t jive with my many years of working for and with her. I can only offer one person’s opinion, but I wouldn’t still work at Alta if I didn’t feel that Mia were someone I respected.

Mia Birk
Guest

Thanks to all of the supportive comments.

I am very proud of what we have been able to accomplish at both Alta Planning + Design and Alta Bicycle Share, despite the many challenges we have faced, from bureaucratic delays to our supplier’s software issues to Hurricane Sandy and more. We are not perfect; we are a small company, learning as we go, and we carry on because we are 100% dedicated to our mission: creating active communities where bicycling and walking are safe, healthy, fun, and normal daily activities.

Those of you who know me personally know that my dedication to the mission is at my core and drives my every day.

We are at the forefront of a new industry and have created more than 500 jobs. 100% of the proceeds from my book Joyride have gone back into the mission in the form of donations. In NYC, we have already seen CitiBike users travel to the moon and back in number of miles travelled. In DC, Capital Bike Share users have travelled more than 4 million miles.

Thanks to our whole dedicated, smart, hard-working team, we are transforming communities one pedal stroke at a time. For that, I am grateful.

Mia Birk

Dabby
Guest
Dabby

As a person who realizes Portland is not ready for and should not implement Bike Share, this is interesting news.
(Bike Share; A clever way to disguise/rebrand a rental service?)

I certainly hope it causes those who should to take another solid look at
the realities of having it in Portland.

Just the thought of encouraging tourists onto our unsafe streets on heavy, ungainly, lower quality bicycles plastered with advertising is enough to give me a migraine.

samuel swenson
Guest

Here’s exactly what I was referring to in the latest post on our website.

From Mia’s response above “We are working hard to resolve the prevailing wage question for our Capital Bike Share workers…” Note there is no mention of the “health & welfare benefit” that is at the center of our complaint. And is very clearly written into the contract. That’s $3.59/hour on top of the prevailing wage.

“Snake hole #2 is a simple matter of exploiting public assumptions in order to slide out of most of the responsibility. When folks hear about back pay, they only think about wages. What kind of outlandish contract would guarantee “health and welfare benefits” to hourly workers?”
…read on at bikeworkers.tumblr.com

rwl1776
Guest
rwl1776

Wow, did they learn their project management skills from United Streetcar?

anon1q2w3e4r5t
Guest
anon1q2w3e4r5t

The labor dispute has been going on for a while behind the scenes, read this comment made 2+ years ago by a person who claims to have worked for Capital Bike Share…..

http://disqus.com/cnn-83cf98e89d79236b6be75b9288/

Jm Lee
Guest
Jm Lee

Mia, pride is the fundamental sin.

Read Dante.

Mamacita
Guest
Mamacita

If the bike mechanics claims are true, then Alta will have a real credibility problem. When Wal-Mart fails to pay workers their contractual wages and benefits, we call it “wage theft.” Alta should not get a “free pass” on labor law violations (I note the DOL hasn’t decided the case yet).

Babygorilla
Guest
Babygorilla

Wow, I actually have some hope that citizens are concerned about the financial workings of our local government and its employment of “consultants” and awarding contracts to insiders.

If you had a problem with Haliburton and its relationship with the Bush administration, you should really question the money doled out to the private sector by our local governments.

Brad
Guest
Brad

It appears that Alta has a difficult time working outside of Portland’s protective little cocoon. Gotta’ be tough doing business in places where fawning pols, bureaucrats, bloggers, and personal friends are not around to pave the road and/or run interference for you?

Babygorilla
Guest
Babygorilla

Mia Birk
Thanks to all of the supportive comments.

Uh, there was about one fully supportive comment amongst highly critical ones when you posted this and it was from a current Alta employee (coincidentally 10 minutes before your comment). I know it is probably not a good idea to directly respond to criticism contained in comments in a blog, but since you elected to respond, I’ll say it comes across as disingenuous and holier than thou when you say “thanks for all the supportive comments” and then go into PR mode.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

Well, lest anyone get the sense that NYC Bikeshare is just a clusterf**k, I am here in NYC on business and thought, hmm, instead of walking 20 blocks each AM and PM from the hotel to my meetings, I’ll just ride. No sooner thought than done. Download the app, find the nearest station with bikes, swipe my card, take a bike, ride said smooth and comfortable bike, dock it at a station near my meeting, done, and repeat. It’s pretty great actually and NYC is an easy city to ride in, at least in Manhattan. The biggest problem was that the bike doesn’t take SPD cleats – naah, that’s silly.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

Mia Birk put the bike lane paint on Portland’s streets 20 years ago when there were only a few of us braving those streets, and she is still pushing the envelope and showing more guts than most of us. My hat is off to her for taking chances, starting and growing a business with a vision that I certainly share, and getting the job done. Throwing anonymous darts on BikePortland is about the easiest thing in the world; getting shit done is a whole other story. Show some respect for those who do; its usually not pretty.

Joe Adamski
Guest
Joe Adamski

Bikeshare was a vague concept 5 years ago, for the most part. Everybody is learning as they go.
While I don’t embrace bikeshare for the reason it loses the egalitarian aspect of cycling.. you can’t ride one of these bikes without a credit card..I would be happy to be proven wrong. If it meets it goals, more folks will snag a bike rather than hail a taxi. More folks will have a more connected experience with their city. And a little exercise couldn’t hurt.
Point being this is a works in progress, as well as a high stakes poker game. If you aren’t in the game, you are kibbitzing.

Babygorilla
Guest
Babygorilla

Government services shouldn’t be a game.

Jambo
Guest
Jambo

There it is- “How dare you criticize Mia Birk??” Pushing the envelope and showing more guts? Wow, she was hired to complete a job (for millions of dollars) and she completed that job (sort of, and almost a year late).

Again, you make it sound like she is doing all of this as a volunteer. She is getting PAID to do this, and it’s a lot more than $15/hr. She now has two companies that get paid millions of our tax dollars. If you want to give her credit for running a shrewd business, go ahead. Just stop buying into and promoting her BS that she’s some kind of devoted civil servant only interested in “transforming communities one pedal stroke at a time.” She’ll help transform your community… for a price.

And maybe it would help if everything that came out of her mouth didn’t sound like it had been run through the PR department 10 times.

FlyHalf
Guest
FlyHalf

BabyGorilla is spot on. When Mia posted “thanks for all the supportive comments,” there was just one from one of her devoted colleagues that would support her no matter what because she wants to keep her kush job. Mia is the probably the most self centered person I have ever worked with and if she just put in half of the effort she is capable of to work with her colleagues then Alta would have much better respect. The reason why the firm does have the respect that is has is because there are actually not many firms in this country that specialize in bike planning and design. To add, Mia is not even a planner or a designer. She is a really good speaker and self promoter that has somehow gotten this godlike following from people that she actually knows how to plan for bike infrastructure when she really doesn’t. She has just gotten lucky to be in the right spot at the right time when Lenny Anderson above said she “put the bike paint on Portland’s streets.” Anyone could have done this that commutes by bike and has the practical knowledge. It wasn’t like it was an innovative idea she had or anything. She is just enormously overrated and Alta would probably be fine and even a much better company without her.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

Captitalism sucks, but its what we got! Of course she gets paid.

angrycitybiker
Guest
angrycitybiker

I think the concept of CitiBike NY is great, but the execution so far is a disaster. I don’t want to bike to the moon and back; I just want a system that works. When it works, it’s great; but of the six trips I took so far, five had some kind of issue with picking up or docking the bike. People report all kinds of problems: keys are mailed late, stations randomly stop working, web app shows stale data, riders are overcharged etc. The one thing I did see improve was the customer service response time: it went down from 10+ minutes a few days ago to 1-2 minutes now. That being said, something is wrong when you have to call customer service 5 times in a week.

I don’t accept the “we are a small company, we are learning, these are just growing pains” excuse. They’ve had two years and are getting paid tens of millions of dollars to get this right. The system is so unreliable that it risks discrediting bike sharing in New York for a long time. What I find most infuriating is the complete lack of communication and accountability, both from Alta and from the city. I want to hear them say: “We messed up, but here is how we will fix it.” Over the past couple of days there has been increased media scrutiny, but I am not holding my breath.

happymountain
Guest
happymountain

Wonder if Citi Bank has the same technical flaws as Glitchi Bike.

We like B-cycle in Denver. Wonder if New York regrets not choosing them.

Al from PA
Guest
Al from PA

While in London my wife and I used (or attempted to use) the Barclays (“Boris”) bikes several times. These are physically identical to the Citi bikes, though the software in the system is probably of the older variety.

In several tries, we were foiled in different ways in our attempts to use the bike. I won’t go into the details–they were similar to the problems people are having in NYC–but suffice it to say that I concluded that bike share is great for the occasional recreational ride, if one can get it to work, but that depending on it in any given situation can lead to disaster. I would never dream of using these bikes for a regular commute. Bike share is no substitute for owning and using your own bike if you ride regularly, and if you have to be somewhere at a given time.

RJ
Guest
RJ

I’m guessing that actual London commuters would disagree with you. Last time I was there I stayed near Waterloo Station. The 100+ docks in front of the station are full at 6am, and by 8am all the bikes are gone. Commuters are using them as a last mile solution rather than hopping a crowded tube or trying to figure out how to store and secure their own bike at the station AND at their ultimate destination. (Although a lot of people do this, too, judging from the number of secured bikes there are in the racks just east of the Cycle Hire stations.)

Bob from SF
Guest
Bob from SF

Reading thru I see three important new terms:

1. Mini-Halliburton (Alta when doing public sector work)
2. Glitchi Bike (Citi Bike)
3. Walmart Bike (the way Alta pays its workers)

Sunny
Guest
Sunny

Trimet ticket machines are notorious for being broken too.

roger noehren
Guest
roger noehren
gogiants
Guest
gogiants

Is San Francisco using this same system?

BikeSeattle
Guest
BikeSeattle
Joe Adamski
Guest
Joe Adamski

The phrase ‘circular firing squad’ comes to mind.
I wonder how many critics recall the history of Mia and the City of Portland and cycling? Prior to being named the first ‘Bike Czar’ of Portland, we were just like every other city. Mia started us down the first steps, a mix of publicity hound, zealot, schmoozer and wonk. This was a mere 20 years ago and it started a shift in transportation thinking. Thousands have had their fingerprints in the process , Mia was among the first. And after 7 or 8 years, she moved on to Alta.
Cycling needs friends at all levels and incomes.Friends at the bar and the jobsite and the boardroom.
My only contact with Mia was on the Bicycle Master Plan 2030 steering committee. Mia was a strong advocate for the inclusion of trails as a ‘tier one’ component of the Plan..not relegated to the 20 year ‘vision’ third tier status they were headed to. I know Mia was calling,emailing,bugging and badgering to insure at least one signature trail made the tier one cut.
In my estimation, Mia has exhibited a lot of drive and tenacity. She has succeeded in things that most of us never get past the dream stage on. And yeah, she has bolloxed up a thing or two, but no worse than I have, just on a larger scale. Because I’m sitting home and ranting on BP, and she is actually out there doing it.
Cycling has its share of adversaries. Lets not beat up on one of our own.

Rob Chapman
Guest
Rob Chapman

I don’t care whether its Sarah Palin, Choo Choo Charlie or Mia Burke, I can’t trust anybody who leverages their government position into obscenely high paying private sector jobs on the taxpayer tit.
You threw some paint on the ground a couple of decades ago? Great. What have you accomplished on time and under budget lately?
I’ve heard Mrs. Burke’s behavior described as a 15 year victory lap, sounds about right. When Alta’s stuff lives up to its fluff then perhaps I’ll change my mind.

Reason
Guest
Reason

Agree with Rob. Even more, this looks like a fleecing of the taxpayer. Washington DC, Chicago and San Francisco are spending outrageous taxpayer monies. Way beyond anything spent in Europe. Where is that extra money going? Mini-Halliburton is right.

HagenHammons
Guest
HagenHammons

If AltaBikeShare gets its glitches fixed, there is no question that NY will benefit tremendously from bike share. Just need patience. I see a congestion charge similar to London’s happening soon getting into Manhattan, and along with the added bike infrastructure, it will increase the need for an inexpensive, efficient form of transport.

Not sold on a Portland Bike Share program though. Not a big enough market, and residents already have bikes. Would it be catered to tourism? or quick downtown/inner SE/Lloyd area trips?

Dallas Adams
Guest

Being in SF I am watching and reading a lot about ALTA…
I fear them more than an Earthquake.