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Creating ‘The Most Bicycle Friendly City in America’ ... In Southern California

Creating ‘The Most Bicycle Friendly City in America’ ... In Southern California
Nate Berg

There have been numerous studies that show how adding a new lane to a freeway or road has the opposite effect than what was intended. Rather than easing congestion (which it does only briefly), the new lane merely creates more room for more cars, and quickily induces even more congestion. This same principle applies to bicycle traffic, though in a slightly different way. Few cities – and even fewer American cities – struggle with bike traffic congestion. Rather, what more and more cities find themselves struggling with is a lack of bike traffic. They want more bicyclists on their streets. To get them, cities are finding that when they build more bicycle lanes – and, more broadly, “bicycle-friendly” environments – more bicyclists emerge.

This theory is moving full speed ahead in unlikely Long Beach, Calif., where a focused effort is underway to modify city streets to encourage bicycling to become a viable day-to-day transportation option in and around the city. The transformation has been rapid in this city of 460,000, 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. In just a few years, the city has allocated more than $20 million for bike-related projects, adding new bike routes to city streets, building protected bike lanes, painting shared lanes, and installing the signage, signaling and parking that restate non-verbally the city’s new motto, now prominently displayed on a wall outside City Hall: “Long Beach, the most bicycle friendly city in America.”

More aspiration than declaration, the sign indicates the city’s intention to change its ways and its perceptions. Formerly a resort town, Long Beach changed dramatically into a booming city when large oil fields were discovered in the 1920s and ‘30s. The Port of Long Beach, originally opened in 1911 and adjoined to the Port of Los Angeles, saw a similar boom around this time, and quickly became (and remains) one of the busiest ports in the world. This industrial feel pervades the city, especially at the shore, where within a single glance one can see both the massive port complex and the man-made islands built around oil drills that are still active out in the waters of the Pacific.

On a recent Friday, I went out to Long Beach for a bike ride around town. It’s t-shirt weather this bright January day, and riding through the pleasant streets and neighborhoods of Long Beach, it’s clear that biking in this temperate seaside town is hardly a tough sell. And yet, like in so many cities on this side of the country, the bicycle, over the past few decades, had seemingly disappeared from the transportation vocabulary. Of course, it’s come back in cities like Portland and Seattle, and now it’s coming back in Long Beach.

My tour guide says it’s a natural fit. “Perfect weather, perfect topography and perfect proximity to a major metropolitan,” says Charlie Gandy, a nationally recognized bicycle consultant who was hired by the Long Beach city council for a two-year stint as a mobility coordinator to help Long Beach embrace its inherent bikeability. At the time of his hiring, the city had set put together about $12 million for bicycle planning and infrastructure, combining funds from the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Caltrans, and grants from the state and federal governments. With this money in hand, the leadership in Long Beach wanted to do something big.

“They could see where the narrative of Long Beach didn’t need to be dominated by the port or Snoop Dogg or something else. There was a whole other, much more attractive narrative here,” Gandy says.

The flat roads, relatively dense corridors, and typically pleasant Southern California weather combine with the city’s small-but-big-enough population and location at the edge of a car-dominated urban grid to make conditions just about as right as they can be for bicycling. Gandy leads me through Long Beach on a bike of his own, pointing out the developments the city’s been able to make in less than three years: new bike-only lanes in downtown, shared lanes or “sharrows” throughout the city, bike boulevards with traffic-calming circles at intersections, thousands of bike parking racks.

They’re now up to about $20 million raised, and only about $5 million of that has been spent, says Gandy. Though his two-year stint has since ended, Gandy’s still working for the city as a consultant, among other bike-related consulting gigs, helping to plot out how all this money can be spent to make the city a better place to bike. Future plans include about 15 miles of bike boulevards and a 500-bike sharing system that Gandy hopes to see roll out by fall. “We’re putting sharrows on every route that’s marked in the city, we are educating every kid in elementary and middle school on bike education last year and this year,” he says.

Originally from Austin, Gandy draws a comparison between his hometown and his current home in Long Beach. Much like the sign at Long Beach city hall, leaders in Austin in the '80s decided to proactively enshrine the city as the capital of live music. Since then, the Austin has filled in those shows, particularly through the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival that brings hundreds of bands and thousands of fans to the city every year. Long Beach, he says, is on its way to manifesting its own self-proclaimed destiny.

Pedaling down its streets, it’s clear that a transformation is underway in Long Beach. Stopped on a corner downtown, admiring the outdoor café seating area created by a curb extension, Gandy points across the street. There’s a woman, probably mid-20s, waiting at a red light on her bike. This, essentially, is the goal of all the work they’re doing in the city.

“She’s our prototype. She is our indicator species. She’s feeling comfortable enough to ride in normal clothes around town, to take the lane, and,” Gandy says as the woman begins to ride through, “run the light, apparently.”

She’s certainly not the first to run the light, and she made it safely through the intersection. And safety is the key, says Gandy.

“That says that she feels some level of comfort in this space, and that’s what we’re looking to achieve here.”

Achieving that level of comfort requires convincing cyclists as well as educating drivers. One method Gandy helped pursue in Long Beach is an approach first seen in Salt Lake City. There wasn’t space for a dedicated bike lane on the busy commercial corridor in Long Beach’s Belmont Shore neighborhood, so the city laid down a five-foot strip of green paint right in a traffic lane for about half a mile each way, brightly and visibly notifying drivers that the lane can and will be legally shared by bicyclists.

“Once the confusion died down, once people understood what the intent was, it was clear that the authority figures were saying ‘bicycles belong here,’” Gandy says. “The attitude that bikes don’t belong has been greatly changed in Long Beach.”

And the green lanes have encouraged more cycling down this street as well. Before the paint was laid down, the street saw about 400 cyclists and 40,000 motorists a day. After the paint dried two and a half years ago, the street sees about 1,000 cyclists per day and the same level of car traffic. And while some had been concerned that intersplicing bikes with cars on this stretch would result in accidents and injuries, Gandy says the post-paint crash figures are the same as before, at just about 5 car-bike crashes per year. This was the first experiment the city did, using federal money. Separating out labor costs, these green sharrow lanes cost the city just $5,000 each. Their success has suggested replication.

A slightly more elaborate infrastructural change has been the 1.2-mile separated cycle tracks the city has built on two streets downtown. Previously they had each been wide roads, with three travel lanes and a lane for parking on each side. Gandy and his team at the city looked through the numbers to find that travel times wouldn’t be affected by taking one of those travel lanes out. So the streets were reduced to two travel lanes and supplemented with a lane dedicated to cyclists that’s buffered from traffic by the old parking lane, now moved closer to the center of the road. Taking out car lanes and giving them to bikes, though, can be a touchy subject.

“We had our conversations about killing businesses and killing downtown and all that crap, but the inverse has happened,” says Gandy as we cruise undisturbed down one of the bikes-only lanes.

Within neighborhoods, the city has also been building bicycle boulevards, which are basically streets that have been slightly modified to slow traffic, enabling safer bike riding. The traffic calming is achieved through traffic circles in intersections. Gandy took me down one such bike boulevard, which had been retrofitted with seven traffic circles. As we were riding down the road, Gandy stopped to talk with a woman coming out of her house. She said that the traffic circles had been successful at slowing traffic in the neighborhood, and that she’s seen more cyclists along the street since they’ve been installed. Two houses within eyesight had even recently sold above asking price.

Sprinkled throughout town are another visible sign of the city’s bikeability: abundant bike racks. They kind of blend into the background after a while, but their sheer volume gets Gandy excited, and a bit hyperbolic.

“Long Beach made world history by making the largest bike rack purchase in the history of mankind two years ago,” he says, pointing out some of the artistic bike-shaped racks and word-spelling parking areas the city spent a collective $1 million to buy. He’s also excited about the bike corrals, of which the city bought 40. These large multi-bike parking areas take up about the size of a parking space, and Gandy says they’re a boon for businesses, calling them “rock star parking” for customers.

And that’s another one of the key constituents these efforts are aimed at. The city doesn’t want to build pathways for Olympic training, but rather for people who might like to ride their bike to the corner to pick up eggs, or downtown for a glass of wine. These types of riders are on the rise, according to local business owner Brendan Sund.

“A lot of people now are more willing to ride bikes in the city, especially with the infrastructure and protected bike lanes and everything,” says Sund. He’s the manager of City Grounds, a bike shop in downtown Long Beach. He says his shop used to specialize in high-end bikes, but has since expanded its inventory to meet the demands of a widening customer base. “We get a lot of customers coming to our shop that haven’t owned a bike in years, and now feel comfortable commuting to work and wanting to ride.”

Gandy says that businesses like City Grounds have been blossoming. Sixteen bicycle-related businesses have either moved to the city or have significantly expanded in recent years. Sund says that over the last year, City Grounds has more than doubled its shop space to 1,100 square feet, and has opened another store in Orange County.

While Gandy hopes that Long Beach will be held up as a model city for bicycle infrastructure, he also recognizes that the city has been able to glean a lot from innovative cities like Portland and Seattle, and even San Francisco and New York, which have more recently begun to build out their bicycle infrastructure.

Long Beach is hoping to live up to that motto outside City Hall, to make it “the most bike friendly city in America.” But, baby steps first, Gandy says the city is hoping to set a regional example.

“This is central to Long Beach differentiating from Los Angeles and Orange County,” he says.

If it is to set not only a regional but also a national example, Long Beach will have to build on its successes. Admittedly, most of the areas Gandy showed off on our tour are in the more affluent parts of the city. But, he says, that’s part of the strategy.

“The key point is all this innovation is happening in the most conservative parts of Long Beach,” Gandy says. Making sure it works here first is going to make it easier to spread these projects to other parts of town.

“We’re putting in about 25 bike lanes every year. It’s routine,” says Gandy. “Everyone’s saying ‘get to us.’”

Photos: Nate Berg

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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