Editor’s Note: In a recent e-newsletter we discussed how planners want to remake the urban landscape to discourage automobile travel. But as often happens with such schemes, the law of unintended consequences comes to bear. This is what happened in in Long Beach, California, as described in this first-hand account by a California NMA member.
So-called Smart Growth has already become a reality in my former home, Long Beach, California. For the first six or seven years I lived there, traffic flow through the city was amazing. With freeway access at the east and west ends of the city, and the development oriented along the east-west shoreline, the city had set up alternating one-way streets through downtown. You could get off the freeway even during commute hours and, if you happened to land on the right timing, never have to stop, riding the wave of timed lights all the way across downtown.
If you hit a red light, it would be the first one, but you would then ride that same wave all the way through. You would see the beauty of lights turning green ahead of you, progressing not at the speed limit, but at the higher, yet still cautious and prudent speed that most people actually wanted to drive. It was wondrously efficient, both in time and also fuel- and emissions-minimizing vehicle operation. It turned out that this operation depended on having three one-way lanes on each street.
Then the hippies and totalitarians got together “for the good of mankind.” They reduced the two streets configured this way, which connected the prime business areas with the freeway, to two lanes each, to make room for a dedicated bike lane separated from the car lanes by a wide empty space. This eliminated the ability of the roadway to accommodate any sort of obstruction. Somebody has to slow or stop to make a turn? Commercial vehicle unloading inventory in front of a store?
Now there is only one lane. When drivers had three lanes to work with, having to compress down to two was easy and hardly slowed traffic. With only two lanes to start with, compressing down to just one lane was a significant obstruction, and almost everybody “lost the wave” of timed lights. It became rare to get across downtown without having to sit, burning fuel and generating emissions, not to mention wasting time, at two or three lights.
Was this necessary? No! In addition to being an ardent motorist, I am a cyclist. One of the things I enjoyed about living in a densely-organized city was that I could walk or ride a bike to run errands, go to the grocery store, etc. I am a strong, experienced and confident rider, so it was not a problem to mix with traffic. I recognize this makes me unusual. But in Long Beach, if you didn’t want to share the road with cars that were close and fast, you had other options. In between the main roads, there were smaller, less-traveled, two-way streets that were generally only used by cars to access businesses and residences on those streets. Cars on these streets were infrequent and slow. So simply by using a different route when on a bicycle, one could ride comfortably away from fast-moving cars and get to the same places with no problem.
Did the bike lanes enhance overall safety for cars and bicyclists? It did not feel that way to me. The bike lanes were set up on the left side of the roadway, the opposite of every properly trained cyclist’s instinct to ride on the right. This had the potential to create situations in which a stopped car waiting to make a left turn suddenly pulls in front of a cyclist approaching from behind, or else just takes one out from behind without slowing because the driver doesn’t expect that type of road user to be in that space traveling at that speed.
To prevent this, the city built offset left-turn lanes, where at each block, a vehicle lane crosses over the bicycle lane so that a car is already to the left of the bike lane when making a left turn. Unfortunately, this still led to vehicle/bicycle conflicts, creating significant personal risk for cyclists and liability for motorists. If cyclists had simply exercised their right to use the normal traffic lanes, many of these encounters could have been avoided.
Did the bike lanes ever lead to an increase in bicycle commuting to downtown offices or businesses? Not that I ever noticed. I was still one of just a handful out there on my bike going to the grocery store, coffee shop, or doing other shopping. It turns out that you live where you want to or can afford to live, and you work wherever you can find the best job for you. If that means you roll “from Long Beach to Compton” every day, you’re actually lucky—it’s not a bad commute at all. If you work in an office downtown, you probably need to wear nice clothes (maybe skirts for women), nice shoes and have well-coiffed hair when you get there. Helmet hair, shoes that are safe and effective for riding, possible grease on your pant leg, and arriving sweaty are not options.
On a similar point, there were commuter trains available. I could walk about six blocks from my apartment to catch one, and it was probably about a mile from my office to the train station at the other end. I looked into it but didn’t get past the schedule. Not counting the walk time, just station to station, it took more than three times as long as driving.
I could go on about how redevelopment of the downtown area systematically destroyed much of the architectural and cultural character that attracted most Long Beach residents to the town in the first place, but that’s kind of off-topic for NMA. Suffice it to say, it has for the most part been a very expensive and irreversible failure: People chose to live in Long Beach and loved the place specifically because it was not what the city managers are trying to turn it into.