Less traffic, noise and pollution is a good thing…isn’t it?

Published January 14, 2008 by The District Weekly
By Russ Roca

Less traffic, noise and pollution is a good thing…isn’t it?

Long Beach, CA – When I heard about a meeting at Bixby Park put on by the city to explore the possibility of creating a bike boulevard on First Street, I was ecstatic. First Street, between Junipero and Loma, is a beautiful, spacious street and a prime candidate to be converted to a bicycle boulevard given its low traffic and wide lanes.

Now, for the uninitiated, let me first tell you what a biycle boulevard is not. A bicycle boulevard is not like the recreational trail that we have on the beach. It is not a special separated lane that will traverse through the city like a 405 for bicycles. It isn’t even a bike lane.

What it is is traffic calming. Ahhh. It just sounds so nice to say, doesn’t it? Bicycle boulevards, which could just as easily be called walking/jogging/strollering/biking boulevards, are streets where certain features such as curb extensions, street trees and traffic circles have been added to slow and divert vehicle traffic, thus making it safe for everyone. Bicyclists benefit from it because traffic moves at a slower clip, but so do pedestrians, joggers and mothers with strollers. Residents get the added benefit of lower air and noise pollution.

Bike boulevards attract utilitarian cyclists because, unlike the beach path (which has few access points and is below the bluffs), you can actually use it to get somewhere you need to go and it is integrated into the infrastructure grid.

I am a photographer and a bike commuter. Last year, I rode about 7,000 miles on my bicycle running errands, getting groceries and going to and from photo shoots. As a bike commuter—and this may surprise some—my perfect world would be one without bike lanes or bike paths. Cars and bicycles would just co-exist harmoniously without need of any special “facilities.”  However, we’re far from perfect and we need some facilities to encourage good behavior. Of all the special accommodations for bikes, bike boulevards are some of the most innocuous.

So, I went to the meeting thinking it was a no-brainer as well as a win-win situation for just about everyone: What better way to start off the new year than supporting something that could benefit myself as a cyclist as well as the community at large?

This was not to be the case.

This became apparent almost immediately when I passed the sign-in clipboard to the woman standing next to me. She was a displeased First Street resident—at least, judging by the sneer she gave me after she saw my bike helmet.

The night was more or less a tennis match with First Street residents saying they didn’t want their historic district soiled by all those people coming to their street. The basic insinuation being that those people, the cyclists, would bring a reign of two-wheeled terror, complete with decreased property values.

Some of the objections to the bike boulevard seemed so absolutely ridiculous they verged on conspiratorial. One resident said that she was opposed to the bike boulevard because bikes were just too noisy. Noisy. Another said that traffic in the city wasn’t bad enough for the city to encourage cycling. Ten years from now, then they should do something about it.

Somewhere, a baby glacier was crying.

Another resident expressed his concern for the safety of joggers and women with stollers (think of the children!) who might be hit and injured by runaway cyclists. Another woman was up in arms because she knew—she just knew—that the state was going to print a map of all the bike lanes in California (as a cyclist, I could only hope for such a map!) and people from around the country would single out those 12 blocks of First Street to drive their trucks, loaded with bikes, take up the parking spaces and spend all day riding up and down the street like gypsies.

It got so ridiculous, that at one point I walked to the front of the room and introduced myself by saying, “Hi. My name is Russ Roca and I’m a bike commuter. I have a college degree. I don’t have fangs and I’m not going to steal your children in the middle of the night.” To which I was told, “That’s not what we meant at all.”

So, what did they mean?

To be fair, there were some First Street residents who were cyclists that were supportive or at least open to the idea of a bicycle boulevard. Their concerns were focused more on the city’s potential execution of such a plan. The common sentiment was that they wanted to preserve the historic element (read: property value) of the neighborhood and were wary of any poorly planned, poorly executed changes that would destroy the neighborhood’s character.

Ironically, First Street residents have fought for traffic calming measures in the past that would have accomplished the same thing a bicycle boulevard would—it just wasn’t called a bike boulevard. So why not change the name and focus? Well, it’s like this. Bike boulevards are streets that encourage cycling through traffic calming devices. Federal money exists to create these bike facilities that will calm the streets, but no money is available for traffic calming without the bike facilities. Got it?

So the question is: Are cyclists so undesirable that residents will oppose the very thing they’ve wanted all along, the thing that could improve their neighborhood and make it a more desirable place to live?

Before the meeting, I thought the answer was clear and simple. Now, I don’t have a clue. On the plus side, I still don’t have fangs . . . yet.