Is Long Beach Biketown USA?

The seaside city reinvents itself (again) by hitching its civic reputation to cycling culture

Is Long Beach Biketown USA?

For more than a century, Long Beach has been tying swaths of its identity and chunks of its fortune to a succession of strange and incoherent events, icons and attractions—a box of chocolates that has included a beached whale, an international beauty pageant, a British luxury liner, an auto race and a gigantic fish tank.

Over the years, the collection—eclectic, artistic, eccentric or idiotic; you make the call—has provided can't-stop-looking insight into the chronic fantasy/inferiority complex that somehow seems to beset every generation of Long Beach leaders. The condition is typically driven by the conviction the city must pursue some kind of international profile or tourist draw to put itself on the map between Los Angeles and Orange County.

Recently, however, there are signs these symptoms are relaxing. There is evidence that Long Beach residents are increasingly aware and appreciative of the potential of their own city, an attitude manifested by the homegrown events that are blooming in neighborhoods across Long Beach, from First Friday's monthly party along Atlantic Avenue in Bixby Knolls to the retro-vibed collection of shops, bars and general hipness that flourishes on Fourth Street to the massive insanity of downtown's Zombie Walk.

John Gilhooley
Gandy in the only known photo of him not on a bike
John Gilhooley
Gandy in the only known photo of him not on a bike

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Dave Wielenga is a longtime Weekling and publisher of GreaterLongBeach.com. Reach him at davew@greaterlongbeach.com.

Into that mix now comes perhaps the most ambitiously transformative project yet. A consortium of city staff, professional consultants and particularly skilled residents is cultivating a wide-ranging but meticulously executed plan: to use bicycles as day-to-day transportation in and around Long Beach. The organizers are using federal grants to fund the infrastructure and the education. And the early returns—okay, they've been at this for three years, but when you're talking massive social change, that's early—look impressive.

Downtown is garlanded with dedicated bike lanes—created by taking a lane away from cars and tricking them out with their own traffic signals—that shepherd eastbound traffic on Broadway and westbound traffic on Third Street. In Belmont Shore, the crowded and colorful Second Street shopping district is accommodated by so-called "sharrows": lanes shared by bikes and cars and identifiable by a stunning streak of green paint. Throughout the city are experiments in such traffic-calming techniques as bike boulevards and traffic circles.

And yet, there are some growing pains. . . . Aren't there?

Charlie Gandy, the preppy pied piper of Long Beach's bicycling mission, a guy who almost always has something nice to say, gets quiet. He has been at this a long time, and he defines his objective—social change—long range, and he knows that takes a long time. Gandy is careful. He's patient. But he also knows the value of a well-placed opinion. And besides, sometimes he gets pissed off.

Fact is, Long Beach's downshift into its burgeoning bike culture has been a little choppy—hasn't it, Charlie?

"It has been an extraordinary story," Gandy says with somber satisfaction.

And pauses.

"It's just that I am surprised at some of the institutions that have been so slow to embrace this stuff," he finally continues. "But there are people whose knee-jerk reaction is to be opposed to anything new."

He pauses again.

"I'm from Texas," Gandy begins again, "so I know a lot about backwater—and we're a long way from that. But people who resist change just because it's change? I find it frustrating in a city that's supposed to be an innovative city."

No doubt, a cross-section of Long Beach can constitute a tough crowd—highly suspicious, deeply cynical, reflexively negative—and many of them haven't kept secret their disapproval of the biking makeover, which has been expressed with rolling eyes, insults and anger. These people can be jerks, but their reactions probably aren't knee-jerk. Their emotions seem more complex than contrarian.

Long Beach has a history of big-concept projects that didn't pan out, and many still weigh on the city's ego and economy. Over time, these experiences tend to translate the language of opportunity into words of warning. It's a place where a proposal can feel like a con, a plan feels like a scheme, and an investment feels like a sucker's bet. And when these projects are rolled up in some fresh civic identity—icon, slogan, festival, whatever—it's doubling down on the misery. Resistance? This sounds like the recipe.

But at a moment when the people of Long Beach might be calmed and convinced by a clear and simple vision, they're getting a flashback to the old formula—the one that ties together those swaths of identity and chunks of fortune—combining the Long Beach brand with the bicycle project's goal with a slogan that seems to describe a double hallucination.

"Long Beach: The Most Bike-Friendly City In America."

Which, of course, isn't true.

Says Gandy: "Yet."

* * *

It was about three years ago that Long Beach was first officially proclaimed the Most Bike-Friendly City In America. It happened at an April 2009 meeting of the Long Beach City Council, a notoriously fractious group that somehow transformed its governing duties into a christening ceremony of such audacious harmony that its vote on Long Beach's Most Bicycle-Friendliness was unanimous. Hardly anybody noticed.

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