Splendid Cycles

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

Posted by on November 5th, 2015 at 3:44 pm

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.

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

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

38 Comments
  • rachel b November 5, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    Great feature! I want to thank her for all the good work she’s done. Looking forward to seeing what she does next!

    Recommended Thumb up 9

  • Jessica Roberts
    Jessica Roberts November 5, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    What a big day for me. I’ve reported to Mia for the last nine years. She’s been a huge inspiration to me, and she’s taught me everything I know about consulting and management. I’ll miss her terribly but I know that even in “retirement” she won’t slow down. Can’t wait to see what the future holds for her.

    Recommended Thumb up 24

  • Rebecca November 5, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Good luck with your next steps, Mia! Thanks for your work on the Eastbank Esplanade. I really like that thing.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Scott Bricker November 5, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Wow Mia, congrats on such a successful tenure at Alta. I have been so inspired by you, your work, and leadership in field. I look forward learning about your next steps, that is hopefully in addition to well deserved time with your family, guitar, and bike.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Leslie Carlson November 5, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Mia, thanks so much for all you’ve done for Portland and cities across the country–and for pushing so consistently for better walking and biking infrastructure. You will be missed at Alta, but I have a feeling your next chapter will be just as interesting.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Linda Ginenthal November 5, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    When I moved to Portland in 1993, I rode a bike. I had been commuting in Washington D.C. for a couple years and arrived to find that it was a “thing” here in Portland. Soon thereafter, I meet with this team of Bike Program staffers to do a little (volunteer) consulting on the first Bicycle Master Plan outreach plan. That was my first encounter with Mia. She was dynamic, cheerful, confident and had a fantastic can-do spirit. Well, she is still all that!

    I feel very, very lucky to have worked for and with Mia over the last 20 years in one capacity or another. I am so proud of what she brought to Portland and to the rest of the country/globe. My hat/helmet is off to her.

    Here is my unsolicited advice to Mia – Drink some good wine, play games with your newest little one, eat bon bons and make the tennis court your daily routine. Enjoy your little, tiny, mini-retirement for a few minutes before diving in to what’s next.

    Recommended Thumb up 12

  • Dwaine Dibbly November 5, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    I heard that she may be announcing her candidacy for mayor. (Or maybe not.)

    Recommended Thumb up 10

    • Dave November 6, 2015 at 7:39 am

      Portland could (and certainly has) do far worse.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Carl November 5, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    Alright Mia! Congratulations.

    The two weeks during which I worked for Alta (counting lanes in satellite images of streets in LA)…were really boring. BUT! It was great to be surrounded by your awesome employees and now, here at the BTA, I’m grateful to be surrounded by your legacy in all its various forms.

    Thanks for your contributions to Portland and to biking nationwide. Here’s hoping we’ll cross paths in whatever you’ll do next. Happy trails to you!

    Recommended Thumb up 8

  • B. Carfree November 5, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    All this glowing praise seems in need of a reality check. If Ms Birk is going to get credit for any increases in cycling that occur where she works, then she should get some reverse-credit when things go horribly wrong.

    Alta came to Eugene in 2010 to advise on and write a Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, which was subsequently adopted. At the time, Eugene had been experiencing solid, steady growth in cycling and had reached 10.8% bicycle commuter ridership. Following the passage of the master plan, cycling began to plummet immediately in Eugene and now stands at 6.8% and falling.

    Recommended Thumb up 18

    • Jessica Roberts November 5, 2015 at 7:40 pm

      I won’t let Mia take the fall for that – I was the Alta project manager for the Eugene Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan. I welcome your specific criticism about which aspects of the plan you think could have been better. But generally speaking, I think you exaggerate the power a planning document has to affect mode share in the short term.

      Recommended Thumb up 40

      • Accountability November 6, 2015 at 10:23 pm

        Well…I don’t understand what it means to be a head of a company but not be accountable for the work of that company. Sure Jessica, you get some honor points for trying to take the fall for Alta mistakes. But then Mia just gets the credit for the good stuff? That can’t be logical. Moreover, how the heck does mode shift fall THAT far in Eugene after a new bike/ped plan. Hint: it starts with M and ends with -ia Birk and Alta Planning.

        Recommended Thumb up 5

    • 9watts November 6, 2015 at 8:29 am

      Interesting statistic, Mr. Carfree. A 37% drop in mode share (are these sound numbers?) would seem like a big deal, something that would have been examined closely. Can you elaborate a little on your charge? I share Jessica’s suspicion that this could all be pinned on a planning document, but perhaps someone has tried to sort this out and could enlighten us? Anyone?

      Recommended Thumb up 5

      • B. Carfree November 6, 2015 at 6:43 pm

        Obviously none of us can say if the plan was directly responsible or if there were some other factors that led to the documented dramatic and unprecedented decline in cycling in Eugene. There were a couple of traffic planners hired around that time who are devotees of everything Ms Birk espouses and it is my opinion that the decline is related to their work, all of which follows the plan.

        The specifics of the decline can be seen by looking at the US Census American Community Survey Factfinder. Eugene saw steady growth, along with many other cities, from 2000 to 2009. 2009 is when it peaked at 10.8%. Most of the years since then have seen ridership fall (down from the previous year in all but 2012). In 2014, it had fallen to 6.8%, undoing all the gains of the prior decade and then some.

        My point is that we shouldn’t ascribe every gain made to someone who happened to be on the ground unless we are going to lay the blame for the losses at their feet as well.

        Recommended Thumb up 4

  • Vladimir Zlokazov November 5, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    Working as a transportation planner and a bicycle advocate in Yekaterinburg, Russia, I’ve found Mia’s book and public lectures (some of which are on youtube) very inspiring. It’s one thing to look at the wonderful bike infra the Dutch and the Danes have, trying to figure out how on Earth can we get to that level, and another – to look at the experience of the city just starting in bicycle transportation in the early 90s – exactly where we are now in our city. It was much easier for me to withstand all the negativity and scepticism from the old school engineers, reluctant city staff and the media, knowing that others have already passed through that, and that backlash is normal before success. I’d like to thank Mia for all the wonderful work she’s done and hope that she continues to share her wisdom and experience in the future!

    Recommended Thumb up 15

  • Heather B November 6, 2015 at 4:05 am

    Mia! It was wonderful working with you with our Columbus projects. I wish you all the best!

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • A. J. Zelada
    A. J. Zelada November 6, 2015 at 7:50 am

    We are all at the ready for her strong voice. Perhaps she could assume the active transportation Czar of Oregon role and really help leaders in the legislature, invigorate ODOT to put sustainability first, and catch Oregon up to those cities and states that have eclipsed us. Many heartfelt thoughts to you Mia. Thank you for all the role modeling and simple steadfast work you and your teams have done all across the nation. Z

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson November 6, 2015 at 8:17 am

    Congrats Mia! Great job, but please stick around, speak up and hey, run for mayor! You have my vote!

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • TheRealisticOne November 15, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      Mayor? No! please NO! Failing bike share in NY, what responsibility does a CEO have? Actually, maybe she should run, that’ll guarantee Wheeler as the next mayor.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • buildwithjoe November 6, 2015 at 8:26 am

    Ms. Birk pays the bills by winning gov design contracts and going with the status quo.

    Mr Bragdon is very clear and Loud that our democratic majority in Oregon is incapable of a modern transportation bill and guilty of wasting $200 million stonewalling on a CRC freeway pork project.

    Everyone who rides a bike and speaks out for bikes is a true leader. Go to any wonk night and meet 50 transportation leaders.

    Ms. Birk has been a vague and silent leader for years. She was silent again in this interview. She was given the chance to be honest as Bragdon. It’s her game plan but look at the growing gaps of street bike safety as our city gets more dense.

    “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Recommended Thumb up 12

  • meh November 6, 2015 at 9:03 am

    Let’s not forget the Chicago debacle, conflicts of interest with Alta abounded.

    “Chicago Commissioner of Transportation Gabe Klein collected a $10,000 consulting fee from Alta shortly before his appointment by Mayor Emanuel last spring.
    Chicago’s bike-share request for proposals (RFP) was written by Jeremy Pomp, a CDOT intern who claimed to previously have been an Alta consultant. Immediately after the two-month internship, Pomp was hired by Alta as head of its bike-sharing program in Chattanooga. ”

    http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/bike-sharing-contract-may-be-inside-job/Content?oid=6274245

    Recommended Thumb up 10

  • Matt F November 6, 2015 at 9:52 am

    Admittedly this comment is just from reading an article here and there, so in other words not very informed, but she seems to me more like a modern politician/insider than a leader or effective business person.

    Recommended Thumb up 8

    • Jessica Roberts
      Jessica Roberts November 6, 2015 at 10:59 am

      So…you mean you have no idea what you’re talking about? Anyone who has worked with Mia will tell you she’s an incredibly effective leader and businessperson. Every one of us has strengths and weaknesses, and can take valid criticism, but please. Base it on real information and not random stuff you read on teh intarwebs.

      Recommended Thumb up 5

      • buildwithjoe November 8, 2015 at 12:05 pm

        Here’s the valid criticism because Jessica requested it. She said she can take it. For once I would love an honest reply or reflection. Please.

        We like the Alta vision and women in business, that’s not the point of many criticisms and valid questions here. It’s not just me.

        My Question: How does it feel when you are friends and working with dozens of the top insiders and leaders in a city/state that’s gone backwards on bikes and social justice? How does it feel? Is there a new Alta we can expect? Think of the new GM.

        Mia is best friends with Rex Burkholder who as Metro Commissioner fast tracked the $10 billion CRC based on lies and stonewalling. Sam Adams and most democrats and BTA leaders (Scott/Rob) talked hate for the CRC then voted yes or turned a blind eye. $200 million spent on marketing/design. ( exception was Reps LF and CT who spoke out )

        The BTA abandoned Bob Stacey and helped Tom-CRC-Hughes Fast Track the CRC with Rex. Hughes beat Stacey by a few hundred votes for Metro President.

        Jessica, You’re also close with consultant insiders leading efforts to defeat the $15 min wage initiative with a competing $13.50 initiative. It’s often a ploy so that neither wins. Should I post the dots connecting to you and business leader Mark Weiner? This goes beyond bikes.

        As Michelle P said these types of business leaders are out in front. But many people feel the leaders/insiders are turning us backwards or taking baby steps as a tide of cars and politicians consume us.

        Why baby steps? Why associate with backwards progress? You and the many Alta individuals are extremely smart, articulate and hold potential for bikes. We hope you don’t hold back.

        Recommended Thumb up 8

  • Alison Graves November 6, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Congratulations, Mia! You have been a role model for me and other women. Your support, encouragement, leadership and optimism will light our path for years to come.

    Enjoy a well-earned rest. I look forward to hearing about what’s next.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • karin November 6, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Woouw, how great this is ! There is a place for you in Buenos Aires to do the same !

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Robert Ping November 6, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Congratulations on a great career, Mia! I hope you continue to contribute your skills and passion to the field in some way, especially in influencing the growth of women in leadership positions. Can’t wait to read more of your books. Hope you can take a nice breather too…

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Former Alta Employee November 6, 2015 at 11:56 am

    As someone who worked with Mia, while I will concede she is an effective speaker on bicycling, she often let her personal ego get in the way of management. A lot of excellent people left Alta during her reign, and they’ve almost all gone on to bigger and better things because of it. From this perspective, Joyride seemed to be more self-promotional than pro-bike. If Mia’s running for Mayor, great. I wish her good luck in her future, but Alta can only be better off without her.

    Recommended Thumb up 19

    • TheRealisticOne November 15, 2015 at 2:36 pm

      The benefit we can get is to learn from the mistakes of Mia and Alta. I hear praise from some employees but I’ve also heard of the ego issues as well. I can’t blame the failures and issues of some of the bike share programs all on Mia or Alta, but I suggest looking closely before offering praise. Having said that, I do appreciate what she’s done for cycling in general.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Michelle P November 6, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    Mia has been out front of so many great ideas, and not just talking about them, but making stuff happen. I’m very grateful for all the positive changes she helped bring about in Portland and in the US. I’ll bet there’s more to come, too!

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Bill Stites November 6, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    I have a story like Linda’s above … I came here in 1998 from NYC, and my first two ‘advocacy visits’ were to see the City’s Bike Program manager – Mia – and the CCC’s Brian Lacy. Both were incredibly supportive and encouraging. Mia and I discovered that we had a common mentor in NYC’s George Bliss.

    Congratulations Mia, on your new directions. Thanks for all of your contributions here in Portland, and elsewhere. You have left a legacy you can be proud of … and of course, you’re not done yet. 😉

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Meeky Blizzard November 6, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Congratulations, Mia – and thanks for all of your many contributions to cycling, both in Portland and beyond. Hope you enjoy some quieter moments before tackling the next Big Bicycling Thing, whatever that may be ~

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Alta no more November 6, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Ex-Alta employees work across the country. There are probably more ex-workers than current workers. And the ones I’ve talked to all say that place is a big fat mess. I work at a big city in California, and Alta won’t be getting any contracts from us anytime soon. Nor from any of the other places that were burned from awful work in the past.

    Recommended Thumb up 16

  • Jeff Bernards November 6, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    I called her several times for a donation to help the studded tire initiative move forward. She could never answer the phone or return the call. Needless to say she never gave anything towards, what was an important transportation issue. She walking with big bank (that she earned) but would a $100 have been that much Mia? I gave Ted Wheeler a $100 and I live in Slovenia.

    Recommended Thumb up 9

  • ex-altoid. November 9, 2015 at 7:05 am

    i’m a former alta employee as well and this news makes me happy. one, because alta is full of great people and i believe the firm will be much better without Mia there. ***sentence deleted by moderators***. She is a poor leader and manager. if alta has any success, it is in-spite of its principals, not because of them. mia and the other principals drain project budgets with exorbitant billing rates and provide very little in return with respect to actual project quality.

    alta does not treat its employees well and i discourage every one i meet from working there, when asked. perhaps that will change with the mia departure. for the sake of my friends, i hope it does.

    Recommended Thumb up 9

  • ken nichols November 9, 2015 at 9:09 am

    Congrats Mia. I appreciate all you’ve done for Portland and the bicycle transportation. More to come I’m sure.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Former Alta Employee November 10, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    As a proud former employee of Alta (proud that I left), I’d like to say that Mia seemed like a nice person, though it was tough to actually know while at the bottom of the barrel. By barrel I mean the barrel of wine that I wanted to be submerged in during my employment at Alta. Congratulations to Mia on her future endeavors, and congratulations to the rest of the Alta leadership on profiting from her departure. I’m sure the money the company is saving by having one less leader will be evenly distributed among the members of the top level. Just make sure to send out more copies of Joyride and The Third Mode to each office as a consolation for Mia’s departure, that really cheers everyone up!

    Recommended Thumb up 9

  • TheRealisticOne November 15, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Wow, in a relatively short series of comments, I think it’s safe to say that the house of “Alta” had some serious issues. I’ve not seen so many ex-employees offer such insight to the inner workings of a company. How can we really give that much praise to someone who failed so many of their own staff?

    Recommended Thumb up 3