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

January 26, 2012
Long Beach, CA, makes a big investment in bicycle infrastructure.

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.