As the summer ends, it seems an appropriate time to look at that ongoing effort to make Long Beach the most bicycle-friendly city in the country.
Origin of that particular goal can be debated, as can the ultimate value of reaching it. There have been many sincere advocates for pedal power as an alternative transportation, a solution to pollution, a healthier population and more.
Added impetus undoubtedly has come from the availability of federal grants pegged specifically to adding more bicycling opportunities. The feds have a penchant for offering boatloads of money if you’ll just further a program, and local officials are loathe to leave anything resembling money at the table.
But we’d argue that sometimes spending money just because it is there isn’t always a prudent approach. All those extra police officers hired with COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) looked great when the feds were paying for them, for example, but keeping them on the payroll after the federal money ran out became a bit of a problem.
At least there were some clear benefits from that program, and studies to prove it. Can the same be said of the more radical bicycle initiatives?
For example, the green “sharrows” have been in place on Second Street in Belmont Shore since mid-2009. The idea was that the broad green stripe would convince bicyclists it was okay to ride in the street, and convince drivers to share the lane with said bicyclists.
The “pilot project” has been in place for more than two years now, and as far as we know, no study has been released showing that the experiment has been a success or failure. In fact, it is still uncertain what would constitute a success.
Are more people riding bicycles on Second Street? Hard to tell; it has always been a pretty popular destination. Anecdotal evidence shows that the sharrows haven’t done much, if anything, in regards to getting bicyclists off the Belmont Shore sidewalks. A different set of anecdotal evidence, this one from bicycle riders, makes it clear the safety factor isn’t much better — certainly not as much help as bicycle lanes.
Downtown, the imposing bicycle lanes on Broadway and Third Street can still be said to truly be in their pilot phase. The grand opening was only six months ago, so it is a little more understandable that there is little hard data about their impact.
But how many bicycle riders have you seen using them? And how often have you seen a driver pull in behind that new line of parked cars and wait for traffic in that lane to get going again?
Then there are the, let’s call them whimsical, bike racks that have popped up all over town. We’re as strong a proponent of public art as anyone, but we thought bike racks were supposed to be utilitarian things. It’s tough to see many of these pieces of art getting much use.
And to get back to the COPS grant analogy, what are we going to do once the money runs out?
In fact, that already has started to happen. The office of bicycle transportation, or whatever it has been called, has shrunk in the last year, when grants to pay the salary for a bicycle master plan coordinator ran out. The Public Works Department is doing what it can to keep the plan moving forward, but in case you haven’t heard, there’s a bit of a budget crunch in the city.
Who is going to repaint all those bike racks when the chains, bikes and vandals do what they do? The sharrows already have been repainted once, presumably with federal money. Are we going to do it again with city money? And those fancy downtown bike lanes surely are going to require some maintenance.
Pilot programs are supposed to be for a set period and should be followed with some form of honest evaluation to decide whether they have accomplished the purpose. We haven’t seen any indication that the sharrows or
the whimsically-shaped, brightly painted racks have created lots of warm fuzzies for Long Beach.
The bike paths on the beach and along the embankments on the city’s rivers clearly get plenty of recreational use. They have proved their worth.
Give us an unbiased study of the impacts of these new initiatives, and we’ll be happy to abide by the result — friendly or not.