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.

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Comment of the Week: The five-ingredient recipe for a great bike city

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Mia Birk at Powell's Books-3

Birk at Powell’s Books in 2011.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

If anyone in the country knows what it takes for a city to improve its bike transportation, it’s a woman whose entire business depends on cities doing so: Mia Birk.

Birk, the former Portland bicycle coordinator and senior local principal of Alta Planning + Design, was indirectly quoted in a comment this week from BikePortland reader Matt, who said he’d heard Birk’s theory about this in a conversation once.

Matt seems to have remembered it. It’s a memorably simple formula.

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City lunch panel this week recalls ‘Portland before Platinum’

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Mia Birk of Alta Planning + Design
is one of four speakers.
(Photo: J.Maus/bikePortland)

The Portland Bureau of Transportation’s monthly bike-themed lunchtime speaking series has a particularly intriguing agenda this Thursday.

Four local women who’ve been riding the city for quite some time will be sharing stories about Portland’s biking history. The panel includes Anndy Wiselogle (founder, in 1976, of the Bicycle Repair Collective, among other things); Mia Birk, Portland’s first bicycle coordinator and an early principal at pioneering bike-infrastructure firm Alta Planning and Design; Jessica Roberts, an onetime Bicycle Transportation Alliance employee and more recent principal at Alta; and Barb Grover, a onetime Bike Gallery marketer who cofounded cargo-bike specialty shop Splendid Cycles.

Here’s the official description from the PBOT Bicycle Lunch and Learn page:

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NYC investment company buys Alta Bicycle Share, hires former transit CEO

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Bike share ride with Oregon team-1

DC’s Capital Bikeshare system was a hit – a bigger one, it turned out, than an independently owned Alta Bicycle Share had the capacity to capitalize on.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

You might have heard by now: A local bike business that bootstrapped its way to the national stage, and then suffered a dizzying series of problems, has sold.

Alta Bicycle Share, a startup that unexpectedly became much larger than the bike planning company that birthed it after launching popular and successful systems in Boston and Washington DC, announced Tuesday that it has been purchased by New York City real estate developer REQX Ventures.

Terms of the deal haven’t been disclosed. In July, the Wall Street Journal pegged the deal at $40 million, but it’s not clear whether any of that money went to Alta’s founders or will be invested directly into the company. It’s also not clear whether Alta’s six cofounders (including local executive and former Portland bicycle coordinator Mia Birk) retain any ownership in the firm.

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Alta releases statement on employee wage inquiry

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Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share has released an official statement about an inquiry into the companies employee labor practices. At the end of last month, sixteen current and past employees of the Alta-run Capital Bikeshare system in Washington D.C., went public with allegations that the company had underpaid them and failed to provide federally mandated health benefits. An online petition in the form of a letter to Alta VP Mia Birk has over 1,500 signatures.

Alta released a brief statement on May 27th and Birk commented on the issue in a BikePortland story on June 11th; but today’s statement offers their most detailed explanation of the issue to date.

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

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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:

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As CitiBike launches, what’s next for Portland’s Alta Bicycle Share?

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Alta Bicycle Share principal Mia Birk explains Portland's future system to possible sponsors

Alta Bicycle Share principal Mia Birk explains
Portland’s future system to possible sponsors
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Portland-based company that leads the nation in bikesharing just enjoyed its biggest launch yet, kicking off a 6,000-bike deal worth tens of millions of dollars over the next few years. And for Alta Bicycle Share, 2013 is only going to get more interesting.

Alta’s system is planning to launch in Chicago in “late summer.” San Francisco and the Bay Area are slated to join Alta’s empire in August with 350 bikes, and Columbus will get a 300-bike fleet in July. Alta already operates systems in Washington, Boston, and now New York City, meaning the company’s municipal bikeshare systems will be in five of the country’s 10 biggest metro areas by year’s end. Waiting in Alta’s wings: Vancouver BC, Seattle, and of course Portland. (Atlanta and Philadelphia, two more top-10 metro areas, seem to be on their way to bikesharing, too, and Alta will be a strong contender.)

This sort of growth is huge for a company that’s less than four years old — and also risky for a company that just lost a top executive to a possible competitor and has had to weather serious technical delays and complicated labor issues in the middle of its rapid expansion.

So I decided to talk to two national bikesharing experts about Portland’s locally-grown industry leader and the future of bikesharing in general. The two were Matt Christensen, managing editor of, a Santa Monica-based website that posts jobs and other news about the bikesharing industry; and Paul DeMaio, founder of DC-based bikeshare consulting firm MetroBike LLC, who’s been publishing The Bike-sharing Blog for six years now.

bikeshare experts Matt Christensen and Paul DeMaio’s Matt Christensen and MetroBike LLC’s Paul DeMaio.

Both of these guys were thoughtful, frank and upbeat in their assessment of where Alta and the concept of bikesharing are headed. The questions and answers below have been combined from separate interviews that covered many of the same subjects.

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Mia Birk of Alta Bicycle Share says Portland’s system “Will allow us to fulfill the 2030 vision”

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Capital Bikeshare-3

Get ready Portland, it’s coming!.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

On Friday afternoon, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) announced that Alta Bicycle Share had won the contract to operate the Portland Bike Share system. Given Alta’s Portland headquarters, their success in nabbing major bike share projects around the country, and Birk’s own close connections with the City of Portland (she used to run the City’s bike program and her other company Alta Planning + Design is a frequent contractor), the decision wasn’t a huge surprise.

But while Birk’s company had a huge head start in the race for this contract, PBOT must have also been aware of the flood of headlines about software problems and delays that have dogged Alta Bicycle Share for the past few months.

To learn more from Alta’s perspective, and to get an update on the issues underlying that publicity, I asked Birk a few questions via email…

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How two leaders respond to thorny bike issues

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“Together, let’s say, ‘I solemnly pledge to behave as considerately as possible no matter how I get around.’”
— Part of a crowd exercise led by Mia Birk in response to a fired up citizen

One of the many things that keeps my fire burning here at BikePortland is a sense that knowledge is power. I know it’s almost trite, but from where I sit, it’s something that proves itself almost every day. Bottom line is that when you know the context of an issue and you know how to respectfully convey your opinion, you can have a huge influence.

On that note, I wanted to bring to your attention two very smart people who have recently shared how they responded to two issues that have a long and storied history of thorniness in the bike world — helmet use and the ‘all-cyclists-are-scofflaws-and-we-need-to-start-enforcing-laws-against-them’ thing.

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