Is Long Beach Biketown USA?

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

It was the inaccuracy of the slogan's claim that created the problem. There was no proof that Long Beach's streets were any less dangerous or hostile than any other place in America. The proclamation somehow incited memories—or perceptions, anyway—of a Long Beach style of civic leadership out of touch with basic responsibilities, not to mention constituents . . . and how about honesty?

On top of that, rather than being in council chambers at 5 o'clock to gavel the meeting to order, Mayor Bob Foster was outside the entrance to City Hall, milling around with the rest of the elected officials.

All of them appeared to be blowing it off. Each was paired with a bicycle, a prop for the portrait a photographer was nearly ready to shoot, and as a bank of lights washed the plaza in a movie-premiere glow, they chatted and posed for snapshots. Hanging above them—freshly bolted into City Hall's concrete wall over the weekend—was a sculpture of an iconic pennyfarthing bicycle, rendered by artist Patrick Vogel from parts culled from the police department's stolen-bike graveyard. It was underlined by a shiny metal banner engraved with those same eight words: "Long Beach, The Most Bicycle-Friendly City In America."

No doggie bikes?
John Gilhooley
No doggie bikes?
"Sharrows" in action
John Gilhooley
"Sharrows" in action


Dave Wielenga is a longtime Weekling and publisher of Reach him at

In quick succession, the photos were taken and the council members returned to their chamber to begin plowing diligently through the entire agenda, continuing long into the night. But the scene endured. It prompted online comments about unsavory ways city officials can play the system or constituents for perks. It revived memories of the Queen Mary operator who curried favor with officials by providing them with free use of the ship's facilities, usually for political fund-raisers, but also for private parties. It ignited criticism of the Aquarium of the Pacific's rotating offer of access to City Council members, who can cozy up to constituents by providing free admission to residents of their districts.

But bad impressions went even deeper than that, creating the sense that this slogan had become the latest in the long list of those employed over the years as synonyms for Long Beach. City leaders have always longed for a larger-than-life image. Evidence of their desperate search goes back at least to 1897, when a 63-foot finback whale strayed into shallow surf. A few of the locals killed it, picked its carcass clean and displayed the skeleton downtown at Lincoln Park, nicknaming the trophy "Minnie the Whale"; the editor of a local paper proclaimed, "Long Beach is now in possession of [a] wonder of the world." For most of the time since, Minnie's bones have been in the Los Angeles Natural History Museum storage facility in Vernon.

That's led to a lot of nicknames over the years: Queen of the Beaches, Iowa-By-the-Sea, Queen City, the International City, Many Unique Neighborhoods and One Great City, and now the one the bicycle folks just got.

Gandy concedes that Long Beach is absolutely not the Most Bicycle-Friendly City In America and insists deception was never the intention.

"The supporting theory is that it is an aspiration—the direction the city wants to go," he says. "I come from Austin, which in the early 1990s passed a resolution claiming it was the Live Music Capital of the World. That wasn't exactly the case at the time, but it certainly came true—Austin City Limits and South By Southwest are just the most obvious proof."

The payoff, Gandy says, has already begun for Long Beach's Bicycle Friendliness, attracting business partners, donations, volunteers and energy.

"It's served as an interesting magnet for unexpected opportunities, businesses stepping forward to ask what they can do to support us," he says. "That's the magic of that big, hairy goal."

He makes a case for the bicycle project based on reasons ranging from environmental benefits to the generation of business and tourism to improving Long Beach's profile as a great city. The Most Bicycle-Friendly City In America designation may be magical, but it doesn't seem quite so imaginative when you realize the City Council's unanimous vote to claim it as Long Beach's brand came only six months after its unanimous vote in late 2007 to market Long Beach as the Aquatic Capital of America.

But approving the aquatic title didn't require the City Council to look any further than its pitchmen, the passel of old, rich, yacht-club members so influential they arranged for the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine to prepare their PowerPoint presentation. Most were friends of Chris Pook, founder of the Long Beach Grand Prix, and some were board members of the Long Beach Sea Festival that Pook had been running for the city—in fact, running without a contract, thanks to then-city manager Jerry Miller, who disobeyed explicit orders from the council to do that favor.

The Aquatic Capital of America designation was such a done deal that the council seemed ready to ignore the most obvious problem with the name—the then-raging controversy over the Long Beach Breakwater, which had made the city aquatically famous for turning its waterfront into a bedpan.

Finally, council member Rae Gabelich made a delicate attempt. "I would think this is a wonderful thing for us to strive to become," Gabelich began, before cautioning that the title might come across as a little "self-serving" and suggesting that using it to market the city "would be a little disingenuous" at the moment.

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