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Bike Station Is a Commuter's Headache Cure

Transit: Long Beach pioneers service for dropping off cycles for the work day. Other cities may follow the effort to reduce traffic.

January 29, 2002|KURT STREETER and NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

If this were Tokyo, if it were Copenhagen or Amsterdam, what Pat Madden is doing just now would hardly be unusual. But this is car-crazy Southern California, which makes Madden's actions seem practically revolutionary.

A Superior Court judge, Madden is a sight to behold as he makes his way to work in downtown Long Beach on a chilly morning. Perched on his head is a white plastic helmet; strapped on his shoulders a black backpack. He's outfitted head to toe in a pale blue jumpsuit for warmth.

Madden is pumping the pedals of a mountain bike.

He parks outside a little corrugated steel building and hops off his bike. "Just dropping off," he says to an attendant, giving up his cycle, which he will retrieve at day's end. In less than a minute the judge, who has biked four miles from home, is walking off to work.

Like many in his city, Madden is an enthusiastic user of the Long Beach Bike Station, a sort of bicycle valet service deluxe that's gaining popularity.

The station has a simple goal: Make it easy to choose a bike over a car, not only by providing free parking close to connections with buses and trains, but also by offering other enticements, from refreshments to restrooms to repairs.

The site is nestled in the corner of a parking lot in the heart of Long Beach. Scores use the station daily, making it a national model for bicycle transit and creating a crossroads for a diverse set of local cyclists.

They are lawyers and librarians, businessmen and busboys, pilots and professors. Some are ardent environmentalists. Others like the practicality. Some park their bikes and walk to work. Others take the nearby Blue Line light-rail train heading to downtown Los Angeles.

"Everyone using this place is looking to cut some of the hassles of commuting out of their lives," said Pete Babij, a geologist and regular patron.

Added Mark Shandrow, who has helped manage the bike station since its 1996 inception: "We think we're on to something special. The idea you can ride up on your bike, drop it off for the day, that someone is going to watch it until you pick it up later ... we think it will entice a lot of people."

That idea seems to have caught on, judging by business at the station--a yellow, green and red structure. When the station opened five years ago, it was thought to be the first such urban biking oasis in the country, and it had just a trickle of customers. Now, attendants park nearly 1,500 bikes each month.

Bike storage is free. Cyclists ride in, swipe a membership card over a keypad, and hand off their two wheelers to an attendant who stores the bikes in racks placed securely behind the small station.

For a charge, there are plenty of other services.

Need a jolt of coffee and a muffin before work? There's a little cafe. Want to use the facilities? There's a large, clean bathroom. Need a tire pumped, a spoke straightened? Attendants make the repairs. The station also offers bike rentals, even lending electric bikes on an experimental basis the last two years.

"Our philosophy was to provide as many amenities as possible," said John Case, the Long Beach businessman who introduced the concept to the city. "We wanted to make it as easy as we can for people to use."

Expanding on the alternative transportation theme, the station used a federal grant to procure a small fleet of electric cars. The Ford Think, tiny and thumb-shaped, travels about 50 miles per charge. The Bike Station plans to start offering the Think for rentals in March, with the idea that it will give cyclists a way to travel longer distances without burning fossil fuel.

"Any way we can promote alternatives," said Shandrow, while driving the car around Long Beach as passersby gawked.

Recent studies show that the number of bikers using the station, though growing steadily, accounts for just a sliver of all trips taken in the area.

But Shandrow thinks if the station can keep growing in popularity, it can help make a dent and ease traffic.

"Right now, about 1% of trips in Long Beach are made on a bike. If we can help that go up just a little--that's still a small percentage--but it's a lot of cars off the road."

Case, the businessman, was hardly a biking fanatic when he brought the concept to Long Beach. He was just an observant traveler impressed by the vast networks of public bike stations in Holland, Denmark and other countries.

"There are probably 8,000 of these in other parts of the world," he said. "People in many other countries use them all the time. They tend to be much more utilitarian, but that's what you have to do when you are serving so many people."

In 1991, Case promoted the concept of a downtown bike station with city officials. He helped secure funding through a Metropolitan Transportation Authority program, receiving $300,000 in 1992. Four years later, the station opened. Today, Long Beach pays for the station; it costs about $50,000 each year from the general fund.

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