Guest Post: Notes from a new Long Beach resident, Michael Sullivan

This post was written by BikeSD member and supporter Michael Sullivan who moved away from San Diego earlier this year, along with his wife and two kids, to Long Beach, CA.  His move was a serious blow to our local bike advocacy community. He served as a voice of reason on the Clairemont Community Planning Board and advocated to get many bicycle infrastructure projects in the city’s list of Capital Improvement Project list. Top of the list were recommendations to fix the deadly on-ramps that exist in Clairemont.  Long Beach has done so much to improve and prioritize their streetscape to make it safer and comfortable to ride a bicycle, which has benefited their local economy in many ways. 

I have a confession to make. I used to be a vehicular cyclist. I still find myself taking the lane in places, but those places are few and far between. I have even found myself opting out of using streets with bike lanes, preferring to ride on low stress routes. In some places, I’ve even found myself on the sidewalk instead of in the bike lane! A few years ago, I would have never thought I would be acting out these vehicular cyclist nightmares, much less confessing to them.

My riding style started its transformation when my wife began to ride a bicycle. I was horrified by the conditions she was travelling through. It was like a light switch went off in my head. One morning I was flying down a four lane arterial pretending like I was in the Tour de France peloton. The next day I  panicked trying to guide my wife safely through that same stretch. I immediately saw the value in what BikeSD was promoting: physically separated bike infrastructure.

Since that moment, it has taken me two years to complete my transformation. Moving to Long Beach definitely accelerated that change. When we moved here, we found a place that was in a bikeable/walkable neighborhood that also had good access to a low-stress route for my commutes to work. I was able to ride on a network of uninterupted Class I mixed use paths for almost all of my commute.

The only problem was that to stay on the Class I network, I had to go out of my way and so my commute ended up being 15 miles. I needed to find a shorter route, but one that had the low stress atmosphere that I had come to love.

This is one of the most remarkable things that I have found in Long Beach. Low stress routes are all over the place. They are just rarely marked, and sometimes you need to ignore where the traffic engineers and bike maps are telling people to ride their bicycles. The things you need to look for to find low-stress routes are:
1. Speed limit (and/or actual speeds the fastest automobiles travel)
2. Type of separation from automobiles.

Long Beach has a street network in the form of a grid. Unlike San Diego, this grid goes largely uninterrupted by canyons and hills. So any route in Long Beach has a number of streets that you can use to get between two points. You just need to find one where cars are travelling less then 25 mph or a road where some type of physical separation exists for bicycles.

A quick search on Google Maps and I was able to find a route that had a lot of what I was looking for. It had low stress neighborhood streets. It had streets with buffered bike lanes. It had streets that had been traffic calmed. It even had a roundabout. I was in heaven the first few trips. My legs were happy to shave a third of the distance off my commute. My stress level was pretty good, but I soon found a number of spots that were prone to having close calls. I started looking around and found that there was physical separation all over the place. It just wasn’t being utilized.

Long Beach Bicycle Infrastructure
Long Beach Bicycle Infrastructure

At first I saw a street that had a spacious bike lane. After a few close calls with the 40 mph plus traffic, I looked at the same street and saw that it essentially had a physically separated cycletrack if I just ignored the bike lane and rode on the other side of the median.

Another section of my commute has a half built sidewalk cycletrack that abruptly ends with no warning and no transition onto the street. The cycletrack forces you to ride on the sidewalk for half a block so I started looking at other sidewalks. There is a two mile section of my commute that runs through an industrial area that has great pedestrian infrastructure, but no pedestrians. The street also has a bike lane, but the 40 mph traffic that has just merged from two lanes to one lane frequently can’t stay out of the bike lane as it navigates the snake like turns.

So I decided to extend that “rudely interrupted” cycletrack to both sides of the street. Now instead of placing my faith in drivers to not be distracted, or placing my faith in a flat six inch line of paint to keep me protected, I have a curb and a beautiful line of trees protecting me.

When I need to make a turn or cross an intersection, I cross at the spot that has the shortest crossing distance, the best sight lines, and has controlled turning movements for different types of traffic (cars vs bike/ped).

Riding on the sidewalk is controversial. I do not advocate for racing down a sidewalk and endangering pedestrians. But I do advocate for riding in the safest place for you to be. On a quiet neighborhood street, most people would feel comfortable taking the lane. As the posted speed limit and your stress level climbs, I suggest getting out of the lane and finding a safer place. Sometimes that is a bike lane, sometimes that is on a different street, and when the city hasn’t provided a safe place, sometimes the low stress space is on the sidewalk. Get enough people biking and the congestion on the sidewalks in problem areas may help force the city to provide better infrastructure.

Sidewalk riding has its pluses and minuses, but good bike infrastructure will get people off of sidewalks.
Sidewalk riding has its pluses and minuses, but good bike infrastructure will get people off of sidewalks.
Sidewalk riding
Sidewalk riding in the absence of low stress options may be the only way to go.

These observations are important when thinking about San Diego’s bike network. Most of San Diego is made up of canyons and mesas that disrupt our street network (not to mention the many highways that act as barriers too). Many areas only have one route through a canyon, up onto a mesa, or over a highway, so finding low stress side streets is not an option. As our city and traffic engineers ramp up their efforts to provide bike infrastructure, we must demand that they make low stress infrastructure. Adding a gutter bike lane, some green paint before and after merge areas, and placing sharrows on 35 mph arterial streets will not cut it. It might make the route safer for vehicular cyclists, but it will do nothing to attract the majority of people that will only ride a bike if there are low stress accommodations. Physical separation is possible in many areas; space just needs to be allocated differently. Until the city provides physical separation: find it, take it, and force their hand.