“Big Enough to Matter, Small Enough to Move”

Oct 6, 2013 by

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the Bike Station in downtown Long Beach

Since I have left Sweden, I have missed being able to just hop on my bike and go anywhere I want to go.*  I miss the open air and the exercise, and the different perspective one has while riding rather than driving.  But yesterday I found that I could have this type of lifestyle in Long Beach too.

I got up early and drove my car to downtown Long Beach for a bike tour of the city’s efforts to make bicycling safer and a more viable option for residents.  We started at the Bike Station where I was able to rent a bike for $20 for the day (I didn’t even pay for this because it was a school activity and CSULB footed the bill).  We met up with one of the people responsible for the new improvements, Charlie Gandy, who took a group of around 15 of us on our bikes on city streets, beach paths, and residential streets, showing through example how the bike paths were beneficial to the city.

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Long Beach, the most bicycle friendly city in America

We first stopped at City Hall in Long Beach.  Here one can see the dedication the city has toward being bike friendly with a piece of art that is boldly captioned by “Long Beach, the most bicycle friendly city in America.”  Our tour guide explained how it was important for the “authority figure” to promote biking in the city by painting strips and “sharrows,” arrows that show that the right lane is to be shared by both bicyclists and motorists.  Even though the street was already supposed to be used that way, simply promoting the policy with these signs has helped make it safer for bicyclists to use the road, because motorists are more aware of the policy.

Gandy mentioned that it is important for women especially to feel safe biking through the city.  He said that usually men are more willing to take the risks associated with biking through high-speed traffic in narrow bike lanes, but women in general do not feel the same.  Putting in special bike lanes that are divided from the street by “islands” of cement and greenery put more space in between cars and bikes, making it feel safer to ride in the city.

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the new bicycle stoplights help direct traffic better

In Uppsala, Sweden, it was common to see bicycle lanes such as this all over the city:  bike lanes separated from the road and ruled at intersections by special bike stoplights.  In Uppsala though, the bike lane was a part of the pedestrian sidewalk and the lights were more like crosswalk signals than motorist streetlights.  Uppsala intended for bikes to be more categorized with pedestrians, while Long Beach is categorizing bicyclists with motorists, hence their campaign:  “share the road.”  I think Uppsala’s categorization is safer for bicyclists (though maybe not for pedestrians), but Long Beach’s method is more practical for the city simply because it is easier and cheaper to paint a strip on the already-built road than to extend the sidewalk long enough for bike lanes.

One section of the tour was down the bike lane on the beach.  Two bike lanes, plus a lane for pedestrians, goes down the strip.  Here we learned of plans to build a larger lane specifically for runners and pedestrians that is separate from the bike lane.  This makes sense because the pedestrian lane was very small on the cement pathway, prompting walkers to use the bicycle lanes.

We also learned about how seemingly small changes in the layout of streets can change the flow of traffic and make it safer for non-motorists.  Putting in something like a traffic circle not only makes an intersection look nicer, it also forces motorists to slow down to avoid the obstacle.

Bicyclists are not the only people to benefit from bicycle friendly policy.  Efforts to slow down traffic and make traffic more aware of non-motorists also make the city safer for pedestrians.  Slower car traffic and more foot traffic is good news for businesses who want people to slow down enough to see what they have to sell.  That is why many businesses have joined a program in Long Beach to give discounts to bicyclists.  The presence of bicyclists also means less parking space is needed, because it is possible to fit more than 15 bikes in just one parking spot, as my group proved on one of our stops.

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Lola’s: good food and good atmosphere

One business that has invested in promoting people to be outside of cars is Lola’s, a Mexican restaurant on 4th street.  They worked with the city to build a patio over a couple parking spaces in front of their restaurant, to provide room for outdoor seating.  This promotes community building by giving people a place to hang out and eat good food outside.  It also provides more visibility for the restaurant.  When people are outside, and not trapped in their cars, they can interact with the people around them and feel more comfortable in their surroundings.  Europe is full of cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating (because they go crazy about the sun in the spring and summer), and it is generally regarded as a desirable thing to have because people like to be outside.  It is nice to see that Long Beach has been trying to recreate the same kind of picturesque, relaxed feel that outdoor seating provides for Europe.

I learned a lot from my bicycle tour, and got a workout at the same time!  I had never seen the city in the way that I got to see it today.  Suddenly the city was friendlier, more beautiful.  It brought back memories of my time in Sweden, was biking was my main mode of transportation.  I had been missing that lifestyle, so it felt good to be on a bike again.

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One of the new bike lanes in Long Beach

Overall, I’m proud of the efforts of Long Beach to build a community in its city.  It couldn’t have been done though without people who were willing to act.  These are the people who do:  the people who push for the things they want to see in their city.  It is not enough to simply think about how things could be better, one must act.  This is the true source of community within a city.

After my bike tour, I got back in my car and navigated my way toward the freeway.  The city was instantly changed for me:  I was hiding in my own little steel box.  I was going too fast and was too focused on driving safely to see how beautiful downtown Long Beach is.  Then I noticed my gas light was on.  With resignation, I started looking for a gas station and mentally prepared myself for the drain on my wallet.  If only there was another cheaper, healthier, more fun, more environmentally friendly way to get around…. Someday I hope to be able to live a car-free lifestyle again, but for now, I will take solace in the fact that it is becoming easier for me every day thanks to the efforts of people like Charlie Gandy and cities like Long Beach.


*see my blog post for the story of how I got my bike and my perspective of biking in Uppala, Sweden.

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