By Michael Gougis - Contributing Writer
January 31, 2012 - Somebody witty once said, “Buy land. I hear they aren’t making it anymore.”
This is at the heart of the problem for cities that want to improve their traffic infrastructure. The easy way to move more traffic – pour more asphalt, pave more roadways – requires land. And that simply isn’t available anymore within the city limits. Nearly every square inch is built, improved or otherwise already in use, even if it’s just for desperately needed green space.
So what is needed is a way to move people from point to point on existing roadways. And if you could toss in some other benefits – less pollution, healthier residents, stronger local businesses – that would be even better.
One solution to the infrastructure issue is simple. That solution is to get people out of their cars and have them return to an inexpensive, reliable, green and practical method of transportation that worked well in the past – the bicycle.
With the assistance from a grant from Los Angeles County, Long Beach has been on the cutting edge of exploring how bicycles can form “Bike-Friendly Business Districts.” These districts can form the core of a local business transportation infrastructure that can solve the problem of improving traffic flow as well as provide side benefits to businesses and residents alike.
“We feel that it’s a way to diversify the infrastructure that is underutilized in the U.S.,” says Joseph Bradley, principal of the Long Beach Pedaler Society, a company that operates bicycle taxi services in Long Beach. “There certainly is value in it – not only monetarily for a business like ours but for the community as well by people getting together and riding their bikes.”
But bicycle use won’t simply occur on its own. It requires a deliberate effort by community leaders to change long-standing “car-centric” behavior, as Bradley describes it, and to make it safe, easy and comfortable for people to bicycle to local destinations. This was the purpose of the grant – to find ways to make that happen in a city where there is no more room to build new roadways.
“The heart of the bike-friendly business district program is the bike-local, shop-local connection,” says April Economides, founder of Green Octopus Consulting, the firm hired by the city to implement the county grant.
“If someone gets on a bike instead of in their car, they’re more likely to notice and explore restaurants, cafes and shops in their neighborhoods. It becomes personal – they know the business owners.”
Long Beach applied for – and received – the $72,000 grant from the county’s Department of Health in 2010. The grant came through the department’s Project RENEW (Renew Environments for Nutrition, Exercise and Wellness), which focuses on fighting obesity and promoting physical health. One way to accomplish this, the county felt, was to change the physical nature of the community to create more opportunities for bicycling and walking.
City officials and Green Octopus Consulting sought the funds to help increase the opportunities for bicycle traffic in four Long Beach business districts – Bixby Knolls, Retro Row, East Village Arts District and Cambodia Town.
As the program winds down (it is scheduled to end in March 2012), city officials, business leaders and consultants are evaluating what worked best over the past several months. Among the unique elements of the program that worked well were:
- The cargo bike. Each of the four business districts received a three-wheel cargo-carrying bicycle, designed to deliver a payload of goods or people to destinations close enough to be reached without a car or truck. “(The city) wanted to experiment with cargo bikes and see what could be delivered,” Economides says.
- The informal merchant bike-share program. Merchants in the business district were given two to four traditional two-wheel bicycles for themselves and their employees to use for local transportation. Shops in each district volunteered to take care of these bicycles, to store them at night and to make sure they were available during the day. This program turned out to work surprisingly well, with merchants and their employees using the bicycles for customer deliveries, local errands and grabbing lunch.
- The free bicycle tune-up program. Trying to ride a bike that isn’t working well can be a miserable experience. During the program, community leaders held 19 clinics where nearly 200 bicycles got attention from a bicycle mechanic at a bike shop or an outdoor fair. This program worked so well that the Biker Mania shop on Retro Row actually eschewed reimbursement from the program, saying the free tune-ups brought in so much new business and so many new clients that it paid for itself, Economides says.
Other ideas that worked well were stationing bike valets at the entrances to stores and events, letting business owners know that bike racks were available from the city (and that the city would be liable for those racks!) and staging community events. The “Bike Saturdays” program was also created out of this program, offering deals to bicyclists every Saturday at, to date, more than 145 businesses, making it the largest such citywide program in the nation.
Those projects definitely helped at least one business increase the number of customers, says Michelle Cross, owner of the It’s A Grind coffee shop in Bixby Knolls.
“One of the first things that I did when I acquired this store was to contact the city. They were really good about coming out and putting in two brand-new bike racks,” Cross says. “As a business owner in Long Beach, and as a person who resides in Long Beach, it’s such a cool thing to be able to participate in. It’s a great community-building program. Being a coffee shop, we’re always trying to get very involved in the community, and this is something that Long Beach is clearly passionate about – and we are too. Since we’ve started it, every Saturday we see eight to 10 new faces at the shop.”
Community-building and increased customer flow are laudable goals. So is the drive toward healthier people and less pollution. But a bicycle-friendly business district is able to offer a method of meeting those goals that offers something that a lot of other methods of reaching those goals don’t offer.
Bicycling is fun. You did it as a kid because it was the only mode of transportation you had. But for many of us, time has obscured the memory of just how much fun pedaling your brains out on two wheels was. And it can be just as much fun again.
“It’s important not to get too serious about this stuff. Yes, it’s a very cool, great mode of transportation for everyday transportation for everyday life. And we’re all very passionate about it. But it’s also just a lot of fun,” Economides says.