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Joyride: Bicycling Our Way to Safe and Splendid Communities

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My friend Mia Birk bicycled to my house to deliver her new book: Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet.

Joyride is about her 20-year journey helping to lead Portland, Oregon's transformation into the country's most bike-friendly city and then spreading the gospel (and the tools) so that all communities can integrate bicycling into everyday living.

Why? So that the places we live, work and play can be healthy, affordable, safe and splendid. Safe and splendid. Those are Mia's words.

Safe and splendid. That's a wonderful vision because at a minimum, our communities deserve to be safe for people traveling in different ways. But why stop there? Let's make them splendid, healthy, affordable places where people of all ages have freedom to move in a landscape that is not polluted and congested but alive with activity, commerce and beauty.

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And fun. As a long time bicyclist, I know that one of the secrets of bicycling is that it makes commuting and running errands not just healthy and affordable, but enjoyable. Bicycling is my exercise, freedom from stress, a chance to wave to the neighbors, to breathe fresh air, and to rejoice in my body's ability to move. You other cyclists know what I mean.

The funny thing about an inspired vision is that it may be regarded as outlandish in foresight, but absolutely sensible and obvious as it becomes real.

When Mia started working for the city of Portland for then-Commissioner Earl Blumenauer (now a US Congressman and bicycle evangelist on Capitol Hill), bicycling was seen as a fringe activity. Now it's a point of civic pride.

In Portland, the mayor rides. Moms pedal their kids to school. Businesses welcome cyclists, and many have worked with the city to replace car parking in front of their stores with bike parking (that's over 100 car spaces removed and 61 bike "corrals" with 1,098 on-street bike spaces put in -- so far).

We also have literally turned bike parking into an art form. A program I started years ago has placed artistic bike racks in the shape of salmon, coffee cups, lotuses and other whimsical forms in public spaces, and the program has been repeated in various ways in other cities from New York to Nashville. Art racks are one more away of sharing the joy and delight of cycling with all who see them, cyclists and non-cyclists alike.

Mia was at the heart of much of Portland's transformation. Her book is a personal journey -- the battles fought, the victories, the frustrations, the personal transformation from overweight and sedentary to healthy and fit. It's also a collective journey as she turned bicycling into a career at the city and then nationally, as CEO of a planning firm devoted to helping other communities integrate walking and bicycling into their fabric.

I want to share with the audience a vision of a brighter future. In this future, we will be fit and healthier, with more money in our pockets. Our kids will arrive at school energetic and ready to learn. Our stress levels will drop, and we will be freer. Does this sound like a vision you want for your kids? What if I told you that this vision is attainable within your lifetime? It all comes down to this: Invest in bicycle transportation, a win-win solution for our growing energy, environmental, livability and health problems."

Her book is a breath of fresh air. And timely.

Because another truth is that our Great Recession as well as our environmental and health crises are reshaping our choices. Our old ways of living -- from relying on fossil fuels to expecting the government to pay for massive infrastructure and the enormous cost of roads and sprawl -- are not feasible.

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Car-centric building is simply too expensive -- for ourselves, our planet and our communities. We can't afford our obesity epidemic or the climate-changing pollutants we send into the air and our lungs. And we can't afford car-centric sprawl and its many miles of asphalt, where roads separate instead of connect us -- where we live in one place, work in another and drive everywhere (including the gym to pedal a machine that goes nowhere).

Portland built its entire 300-mile network of bike ways for the cost of a single mile of urban freeway.

Bicycles are the great connectors. If a community is rich in people who feel comfortable bicycling, you know it's a community rich in connections. Bicycling has the power to reshape ourselves and our communities from flabby to fabulous.

One of my favorite passages quotes the head of the Chamber of Commerce of a Houston suburb built around the oil refinery industry. That hefty man gets up in a public meeting about a new bicycle and pedestrian plan and declares "I've got my SUV idling outside. I just came for the free donuts."

Then he says: "Seriously, y'all. I'm a business person, and this is what I'm hearing: Businesses say they can't attract workers to come live here if we don't provide parks, exercise and safe places for their kids to ride. Bottom line: Businesses need fit and healthy employees, not couch potatoes."

Splendid.

Joyride is available at www.miabirk.com and soon on Amazon.

Diane Dulken works with national and local conservation organizations and businesses building a healthier, sustainable economy. She has served as vice-chair of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland and founded Art Rack Media, a program that brought artistic bicycle racks to Portland public places. www.dianedulken.com

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