Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Long Beach Pedals Its Way Towards a More Bike-Friendly Community

Long Beach Pedals Its Way Towards a More Bike-Friendly Community

Ask a student on the CSULB campus if they think Long Beach is bike-friendly and they’ll probably say ‘yes,’ but ask reporters at a major newspaper the same question and they’ll give you a very different response. Recently, CNN published an article detailing how places such as Portland, Ore. and San Francisco, Calif. are amongst the “Most Bike-Friendly Cities in the U.S.”

Not making that list? Long Beach.

Making the uphill ride to change this perspective, Long Beach city has already taken steps through its PLACE Initiative to make a name for itself as the most bicycle-friendly urban city in the country. The initiative is being spearheaded by the Department of PublicWorks - Traffic and Transportation Bureau.

To achieve its goal of making Long Beach more bike-friendly, the city has taken action to make biking a more viable means of day-to-day transportation for residents. In the past few years, Long Beach city put more than $20 million towards bike-related projects, which included adding more bike routes, increasing bike lines and painting green share lines that bikers can use alongside vehicles.  The city has even put up a new sign outside City Hall that reads: “Long Beach, the most bicycle friendly city in America.”

But what do all these initiatives to make Long Beach bike friendly really mean? Through research and interviews, it became clear that Long Beach becoming a more bike-friendly city has a heavy impact on its reputation, businesses and residents.

When I spoke with Charles Gandy, mobility coordinator for the city of Long Beach, he emphasized how being more bike-friendly is changing the city’s reputation.

“Five years ago emerging city leaders saw an opportunity to put emphasis on riding bikes and [started looking] for grant money to support that,” Gandy said. “They were able to bring in $20 million to the city. It’s been positive and it’s changed the narrative of Long Beach [into] a hip, young place to be and live.”

Allan Crawford, bike coordinator for the city of Long Beach, had a similar point of view on improving the city’s reputation.

Crawford explained: “Long Beach is turning into a place where people graduate and want to stay in the city. The active living agenda of Long Beach differentiates it from other cities.”

In other words, Long Beach is trying to pedal out from the shadows of Los Angeles and Orange County and establish itself as a more affordable place to live, with an active-living agenda that aligns itself with college students and recent college graduates.

The city becoming more bike-friendly doesn’t just help the college students who are interested in staying here after graduation; the efforts are also helping many existing and potential business owners. Within the past 18 months, more than 20 businesses have either opened their doors or expanded to serve cyclists.

“Clearly people are seeing cycling as being a business opportunity,” Crawford said. “We [started] our bike-friendly Saturdays program that 175 businesses participate in. It allows hundreds of bikers to shop on the weekend at places that are bike-friendly and increasing business in [these places.]”

Crawford added, “It’s a great economic development tool for the city.”

Programs like bike-friendly Saturdays, as well as the addition of more bike racks in front of many businesses throughout the city has been a positive change for both business owners and residents. Many districts throughout Long Beach are running out of room to add parking, so the increase of bike racks and bike-friendly businesses has given residents a smarter, more efficient to get around the city that fits into the active-living agenda Long Beach is now in.

“We’re in the business of supporting business that are here and encouraging people to ride their bikes,” Gandy said. “Two-thirds of residents leave the city to work in Los Angles and Orange County, we’re not trying to get them to re-think their commute, we’re just trying to get them to re-think their half-mile trips.”

A more bike-friendly city means residents can save money on painful gas bills by riding to their favorite coffee shop or restaurant near their homes. It’s a win-win for residents because they don’t have to fill-up their tank as often or struggle to find parking. Additionally, they’re beginning to feel more comfortable about using the new bike lanes without fear of cars running them off the road.

“I ride on the LA river bike path and use a lot of the bike lanes around Long Beach,” North Long Beach resident and cyclist Arjo Alagar said. “Cars seem to be respectful [of the lanes.]”

Alagar added: “If there aren’t any bike lanes, a bunch of [bikers] will just take up a car lane and [ride] together as a group.”

Alagar’s level of comfort with the bike lanes and paths around Long Beach is right on track with what the city’s been trying to accomplish the past year. He fits into the demographic Gandy and Crawford are trying to seduce to stay and live in Long Beach with its green-movement.

In the coming year, the city will introduce a new bike-share program that will be the first of its kind of Southern California. Kiosks will be set up all around Long Beach neighborhoods, including on the Cal State Long Beach campus, to allow students, commuters and residents alike to check-out bikes by the hour or day for a fee. The city will also be hosting the national PRO WALK/ PRO BIKE event in September.

So with all these efforts, why isn’t Long Beach on CNN’s list?

“I don’t know why we don’t show up,” Gandy confessed. “But Long Beach is aggressively trying to move up the ranks [of bike-friendly cities.] We’re taking the initiative to separate [our city] from the hordes of cities that are beige, that have no personality.”

With cyclists, triathletes and residents riding their bikes more and more around the city, Long Beach is definitely pedaling it’s way towards a more bike-friendly personality.

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