Long Beach makes way for bicycles

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A dozen notables mounted bikes outside the entrance to Long Beach City Hall late last year for the unveiling of a metallic bicycle sculpture with a lofty proclamation:

“Long Beach, the most bicycle friendly city in America,” it reads in bold steel lettering under the likeness of an antique bicycle.

It was a little premature, leaders admit.

“But we’re striving for that,” said City Manager Pat West, a longtime cyclist.

While other cities spin their wheels, Long Beach is joining the ranks of places such as Portland, Ore., San Francisco and New York City that have made safe passage for bikes a priority, even at the expense of traffic lanes.


And as Los Angeles reviews comments to a draft of a bike plan that proposes 696 miles of new bikeways, Long Beach is taking action.

“Long beach is a built-out city and yet they’re finding a way to make east-west and north-south corridors that are safer and more inviting,” said Jennifer Klausner, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group. “There’s no reason L.A. can’t do the same thing. It doesn’t have to be the slow-moving cog in the machine.”

At a time when cities are cutting expenses across the board, Long Beach has raised $17 million in state and federal grants to improve its bike system through traffic improvements, education and bike share programs. In the next six months, the city will be resurfacing 20 miles of streets to include new bike lanes, part of a plan that includes painting and paving more than 100 miles of bike infrastructure.

In spring, the city hopes to install traffic circles on less-traveled streets parallel to thoroughfares and designate them “bike boulevards” -- preferred routes for cyclists.

Also in the works are plans to replace entire lanes of traffic with protected bikeways. And in what’s bound to be a controversial move, the city is looking at taking away prime parallel parking spots -- the ones most convenient to shops and restaurants -- and putting “bike corrals” in their place.

“We can fit 15 customers where we used to fit one,” said Charles Gandy, the city’s bike mobility coordinator. “This is about differentiating Long Beach from L.A. and Orange County.”


City planners have gone far and wide for input, bringing in experts to give advice, the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, and Copenhagen’s traffic engineer among them.

And officials have enlisted a corps of volunteers -- from young, fixed-gear-riding hipsters to paunchy, middle-aged road cyclists -- to help out with tasks such as bike counts, which will help determine where more bike lanes will be placed.

Street by street, cyclists and motorists are seeing changes, the most dramatic of which took place last summer when lanes of green paint appeared on one of the city’s busiest stretches, providing an early test of how the city will balance car traffic with cyclists’ rights to safe routes.

The green strip created a “sharrow” -- a 6-foot-wide space in the middle of the right lane of traffic on both sides of 2nd Street in Belmont Shore. It was intended to be a stark reminder that drivers must share the road with cyclists.

But when the green lane appeared last summer, it startled drivers and cyclists alike in the often traffic-choked retail district, drawing national attention for pitting the two against each other. “City puts bicycles directly in the path of motorists,” USA Today wrote in a blog post.

“There was a lot of confusion from cyclists and motorists because there was green paint all over the place,” said Dominic Dougherty, manager of the Bikestation, a business that provides bike rentals, parking and repair in downtown Long Beach. “And confusion breeds anger.”


Gandy said the green strip “better articulates the existing law,” which allows bikes to travel with vehicular traffic.

“We haven’t given cyclists any more privileges than before the green stripe, we’ve just made it more obvious,” he said.

But others say the green lanes have emboldened cyclists too much, with many weaving in and out of traffic, riding four-deep and making the already clogged street impassable.

“We just don’t understand” the purpose, said driver Anne Long, an insurance agent who lives blocks from 2nd Street. “Are we supposed to pull over and go around them? I just stay behind them and go really slow until there’s an opening in the other lane.”

But others say that slowly, behavior is changing; cyclists are being more consistent about where they ride and drivers are being more attentive.

“When it first got put in we thought, ‘Oh, my God, everyone is going to get murdered,’ ” said Jean-Marie Garcia, a hair stylist who rides her baby-blue beach cruiser to work on 2nd Street every day.


“But gradually, over time, drivers have adjusted. They’re slowing down.”

Volunteers counted bikes before and after the green lanes appeared. According to a December report by the city, the number of cyclists on 2nd Street increased by 29% while the number of bikes on the narrow sidewalk waned by 22%.

And there have been only two incidents since they debuted, both involving cyclists running into cars.

Calling the green lanes an early success, the city is undertaking other bike-oriented enhancements. Last month, crews painted more green on two busy intersections where early morning road bikers congregate. The “bicycle boxes” give cyclists a designated place in front of cars to safely wait for the signal to change.

The city is also working with businesses and community groups to provide incentives such as 20% lunch discounts for cyclists -- to get people to ride to work, shops and restaurants.

The port-adjacent community also has some built-in features that may ease its quest for bike friendliness.

For one, it’s flat and built on a grid -- easy to get around on a simple beach cruiser.

While it’s a city by any measure, its digestible size makes bike transportation a more plausible alternative than in the sprawl of Los Angeles.


And the city already has continuous bike paths along three of its borders: the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers and the beach.

“We have such a huge advantage over other cities because we have these things,” said City Manager West, who rides a road bike around town on the weekends.

“We’re doing a lot of things outside of the box -- at least for Southern California,” he said.

One example is the city’s spin on a recent rise in bike thefts: It’s a good thing, West and others joked, because after all, it indicates more people are out riding bikes.

And Long Beach is getting attention for its efforts. This week, the city is hosting delegations from some admirers: transit planners in Los Angeles, Glendale and other nearby cities who would like to draw inspiration from the Long Beach bike plan.

It’s a shift for Long Beach, where, like in many other Southern California communities, the car still reigns supreme, said Andréa White-Kjoss, president and chief executive of Bikestation, the Long Beach-based firm that has seven bike transit centers in California, Seattle and Washington, D.C.


“If we can do it here,” she said, “you can do it anywhere.”