Long Beach touts a steady growth in cycling

Long Beach boosts cycling with an increase in dedicated lanes and off-street paths

On a sunny Sunday, Craig Rhodes sat in a folding chair at Studebaker Road and Willow Street in Long Beach, dutifully recording the passage of a family of four on bicycles.

By making tally marks on a clipboard, Rhodes was doing homework for his traffic engineering class at nearby Cal State Long Beach. For seven years, students such as Rhodes have been earning extra credit by setting up on street corners and counting every bicycle and pedestrian.

The practice was initiated by Cal State professors who also happen to work in the traffic department of Long Beach, which in 2009 brashly proclaimed itself "the most bicycle-friendly" city in America.

It was a declaration that officials took seriously enough to engrave on a plaque in City Hall, and the surveys help them live up to it.

Today, outlines of a bicycle are present on signs and street markings all over the coastal community of 52 square miles. More than 80 miles of streets — about 10% of the total — are marked as bike lanes or routes, some quite novel for car-heavy Southern California.

For example, there are lanes downtown that divide bicycle and vehicle traffic with planters, buffers painted white, and green paint on the road surface. Intersections even have traffic lights for cyclists, with bicycle-shaped decals covering the lamps.

An additional 40 miles of off-street bike paths parallel the Los Angeles and the San Gabriel rivers on the eastern and western edges of the city and the Pacific shoreline, bringing the total to more than 120 miles of bike infrastructure.

City engineers created the annual survey to measure bicycle traffic at selected locations for use in attracting federal, state and local funding for bike-focused projects.

In Los Angeles, a nonprofit county bicycle coalition conducts similar tallies every two years. But both its methodology and the intersections it monitors change, making trends difficult to track.

With seven years of local observations at key intersections, Long Beach has documented a steady growth in bicycle use.

A Times analysis of the 2014 survey shows a citywide ridership increase of nearly 30% over 2008. The growth was greatest during commuter hours: Morning traffic was up 130% and afternoon traffic increased 91%.

Paul van Dyk, a traffic engineering associate and coordinator of the counts for Long Beach's Department of Public Works, said the annual survey had demonstrated that it takes about two years before bike riders catch on to a new route and then their numbers start to increase.

The city's campaign for better cycling dates to 2006, when current Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal won a seat on the City Council.

Lowenthal holds a doctorate in urban planning and policy from USC and is a bicyclist. She said she saw the support of cycling as part of her desire to make Long Beach a city of active people. But at the time, the city's cycling advocates were an "underground movement."

"We wanted to make it mainstream," she said.

Lowenthal met resistance within city government and from non-cycling constituents.

"'You are never going to have bicycle infrastructure,'" she recalls one traffic engineer warning her. "'These streets are built for cars.'"

"We'll see about that," she thought. "Usage is not set in stone."

Over time the culture changed. Now city officials are high on cycling.

"We're really working to become a premier bike-friendly city," said Nate Baird, the city's mobility and healthy living coordinator.

Long Beach officials have cobbled together about $20 million for bike lane and pathway improvements from Los Angeles County's Proposition A of 1980, Proposition C of 1990 and Measure R of 2008. Additional money came from traffic mitigation fees paid by property developers and the Tidelands Fund from taxes on the city's offshore oil rigs.

At least 40 miles of new or improved bicycle facilities will be installed during 2015 and 2016, officials say. Notable gaps still exist between downtown and North Long Beach, as well as connections between downtown and Cal State Long Beach.

"We can make the connections better," Baird said.

A planned 10-mile bike boulevard on Daisy Avenue would close one missing link between downtown and North Long Beach. It will be financed by a $2.5-million grant.

The most dramatic increases found in The Times' analysis were at Willow Street on the city's east side, where cyclists enter the 28-mile San Gabriel River bike path. Bicycle traffic nearly doubled on weekday mornings and afternoons, reaching nearly 100 riders per hour on the survey day, almost as many as on a weekend.

Second Street and Bayshore Avenue, on a commercial corridor through the Belmont Shore retail and restaurant district a bit farther south, also had big increases to more than 50 riders per hour.

Traffic was more sparse, but still increasing, at the suburban intersection of Studebaker Road and Willow Street. About 30 riders per hour used the bike lanes on both cross-streets during the morning-evening surveys, up 175% from 2008.

Lowenthal's office fielded complaints from several drivers who thought converting a traffic lane on Broadway to bikes would only slow their commutes. Her office responded with a study indicating that implementing the lanes would add another minute and a half to vehicle commutes.

"People felt very concerned: They thought their daily routine would not be repaired," Lowenthal said.

But bicycle use did increase. Before the installation of protected lanes, the mean afternoon ridership in 2008 through 2011 was at 51 riders. After installation, it rose to 80 riders between 2012 and 2014.

Among them were retirees Mary Lou Cook, 68, and her husband, Don Charles Cook, 71. They were two of the 70 bicyclists Rhodes counted on Willow Street on the Sunday of the survey.

Cook said she sees that city leaders are invested in supporting bicyclists by providing safer paths.

"I'm really glad that I'm able to ride my bike in Long Beach," Cook said. "I'm really happy that when I come to a stop on my bike ... there's more than three or four people there."

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