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What Long Beach can teach us about cycling, and politics

March 01, 2014|By Robert Greene
  • Cycling advocates Charlie Gandy and Melissa Balmer show off a plaque designating Long Beach as the most bicycle-friendly city in America.
Cycling advocates Charlie Gandy and Melissa Balmer show off a plaque designating… (Los Angeles Times )

“This is a BFD,” exclaims Charlie Gandy on a Long Beach street corner, but it’s not what you think.

“BFD” is Gandy’s playful shorthand for a bike-friendly business district, and Gandy is giving me his tour, one he has given dozens of times, of the bike-friendly Long Beach that he helped create — starting at Bikestation Long Beach, a 24-hour bike storage, rental and repair station at the heart of downtown’s transit corridor; and including Jones Bicycles, apparently the oldest bike shop west of the Mississippi; and parklets featuring restaurant diners sipping their iced teas in the middle of the street, where cars used to park but cyclists now hitch their bikes; and a “biking boulevard” next to which a remarkable number of cycling activists live, where car traffic is slowed by European-style roundabouts and kids commute from home to school by bike.

Some of this is new. And of course plenty of it isn’t. Kids riding their bikes to school? Well, big deal. Isn’t that the suburban norm? It was where I grew up, in the Valley, in the 1970s. Although, come to think of it, I have never seen a single child pedaling to Aldama Elementary School in Highland Park, where I live now. Sure, there’s the one dad who rides there every day with his kid in the little car over his front wheel, but otherwise, I see parents either walking their kids or (mostly) lining up their cars on Avenue 50 to drop them off.

VIDEO: Do you drive in L.A.? Watch this to see what scares cyclists.

And parklets where parking used to be? Heck, we’ve got one of those a few blocks away on York.

But Long Beach is different. Sure, it’s mostly flat, which makes it easier to carry on a cycling lifestyle and cycling commuting patterns. But it’s also far more — well, more thought through. The pieces work together. Some people spent a lot of time on this, and it shows. And Long Beach is prospering because of it.

Long Beach calls itself the most bicycle-friendly city in America, and although that overstates things, the city once known as the final resting place of the Queen Mary has made its mark, surpassing Santa Monica in bike-friendly infrastructure, aiming to meet standards set by Davis and Berkeley, leaving Los Angeles in its slipstream.

VIDEO: Do you bike in L.A.? Watch this to see what concerns all those drivers.

I’m here in part because of a question a woman asked me on a Saturday morning last September. I was a last-minute substitute on a panel at the 2013 Congress of Neighborhoods at Los Angeles City Hall, and in the course of the discussion I mentioned another meeting — a contentious session in Eagle Rock earlier that summer that Councilman Jose Huizar had called to get input on a plan to restripe Colorado Boulevard. One lane of automobile traffic was to be removed in each direction, replaced by bike lanes. Opinions were aired, but it was a done deal; Huizar announced at the end of the meeting that the plan was to go forward.

Why, the woman at City Hall asked that Saturday in September, do these bike riders get everything they want when neighborhood councils have to fight just to be listened to?

I and my colleagues on the Los Angeles Times editorial board began a project — RoadshareLA — to bring some attention to the ongoing conversation about how streets in Los Angeles are divided up, and that naturally lends itself to the sometimes entertaining and sometimes irritating mutual recriminations hurled back and forth between drivers and cyclists. And we gave them their space. But it also invites other questions. Not, perhaps, why cyclists get everything they want, because of course they don’t. But why have they had so much apparent success in advancing their agenda when others haven’t? What lessons could neighborhood councils and others learn from them?

FULL COVERAGE: Sharing the road in L.A.

In picking my first guide, the choice was obvious: Stephen Box is a cycling advocate and instructor, but importantly also the director of outreach and communications — among other roles — at EmpowerLA, also known as the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the city agency that serves and coordinates neighborhood councils.

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