Joyride tells the story of how Portland, Oregon got started on the path to becoming the Copenhagen, the Amsterdam, the bicycling mecca of the United States. It focuses on the years from 1993 to 1999 when author Mia Birk worked as the city’s Bicycle Program Coordinator. Portland in the early 1990s was car-centered like most American cities. It had stripped out its streetcars, built suburbs and freeways, and left little room for bicyclists on its roads and bridges. It also had its share of skeptical and hostile community members who responded to the idea of adding bike lanes by writing nasty letters, shouting and hissing at public meetings, and forming opposition groups with names such as “Save Our Boulevard.” Yet Portland overcame these obstacles and now boasts a 300-mile bikeway network, hundreds of yearly bike-related events, and 14% of its city traffic on two wheels.
To bring about a transformation like this, it helps to have a city council member who is a bicycle advocate as well as a savvy politician. It also helps if you have traffic engineers who have first-hand experience of city cycling from biking to work. It’s an added bonus if any of these people have spent time in bicycle-friendly cities in Europe. It also helped that Birk, in her twenties at the time, was energetic and super determined. She held dozens of public meetings to let people air their concerns about local transportation while planting the idea of biking as a fun, healthy alternative. She rode with street cleaning crews at night encouraging them to sweep the bike lanes multiple times until all the broken glass had been removed. She continued pushing for bike lanes and bike racks despite being harassed by hate mail.
A self-described “car-addicted chubster” from Texas, Birk started bicycling during graduate school in Washington D.C. using a ten speeder she borrowed from her brother. She lost eight pounds in the first two weeks. She got in shape for the first time in her life and got hooked on the feeling and freedom of riding. She eventually sold her car, moved to Portland and made urban bicycling her career.
Birk is an upbeat narrator as she recounts the struggles and coalition-building along the way to victories such as hosting a BikeFest on one of the city’s bridges and changing the rules to allow bicycles on the light rail. The book loses focus two-thirds of the way through when the Bicycle Program is downsized and Birk, by then a new mother, starts consulting part-time for a California-based planning firm that specializes in bicycle and pedestrian transportation projects. She recounts several of these projects in other locations but it was hard to stay interested. I was longing to hear more about Portland. What happened, I wondered, during the early 2000s leading up to 2007 which seems to have been a break-through year for Portland. Its bike friendliness was featured on the TV show “Big Ideas for a Small Planet” and was written about in the New York Times and numerous magazines. Jonathan Maus’s pro-bicycling blog at bikeportland.org was getting tens of thousands of hits by that time. Unfortunately two deaths that same year also spurred changes. After two art students were killed by right-turning vehicles, the city installed bike boxes (painted bike-only areas) at certain intersections to safe guard against similar crashes. Despite these senseless deaths, Portland had emerged as the leader in bike-friendly US cities.
Joyride is one of the most hopeful books I’ve read about urban transportation. It reminds us that Portland once was a car-dominated city and that significant changes qre possible. This book provides a blue print for moving a city forward in terms of bike-friendliness (including four pages of resources at the end) and resounds with the message that yes, our streets can change.
– Book Review by Kelly Nelson