Long Beach: Good for Bikes, Good for Business

Bicycle advocates from Copenhagen to Bogota to Northeast Los Angeles have all made the case that what’s good for bicycles is good for business.  Nowhere in America is that statement being put to the test more than in Long Beach.

During my two bike tours of Long Beach, I talked with business owners along the popular bicycle infrastructure that’s making the city the bicycling capital of Southern California.  I encountered near universal approval of the city’s bike-friendly efforts, which has led city officials and leaders to expand their bike plans to other parts of the city.  Streetsblog will have more on those planning efforts tomorrow.

Bike Friendly Business Districts

The jewel of Long Beach’s efforts to use bicycling to promote business is it’s Bike Friendly Business District (BFBD) Program.  Funded by a $72,000 investment by the L.A. County Public Health Department’s RENEW program, Long Beach designated four BFBD corridors; Bixby Knolls, the East Village Arts District, Cambodia Town and the 4th Street/Retro Row area.  When the program launched earlier this year, it drew national attention because it was the first time a city anywhere in America had launched a BFBD program.

At the time, the Long Beach Business Journal covered the launch with pictures of Mayor Bob Foster and other politicians smiling on a bike ride through the districts and happy business owners extolling the virtues of mixing bike infrastructure with business plans.  Long Beach’s Mobility Coordinator, Charlie Gandy, reports that the Business Journal story was the most downloaded story in the paper’s history.

But what does the program actually do, and has it made a difference?

April Economides, a Long Beach native who returned to the city from San Francisco and is the principle at Green Octopus Consulting, serves as the coordinator of the BFBD Program.  She explained to Streetsblog how Long Beach is spending its funds and what it means for the businesses and public health.

“When I talk to businesses, and business improvement districts, I don’t talk about it in environmental or health terms,”  She explains. “I talk about how biking local ties in with shopping and dining.  People that are taking their bikes to go out, are more likely to be going out in their community or the next community and not getting in their car to drive out of town.”

Each BFBD gets a cargo bike to be shared by businesses in the District.  The bike can be used for local deliveries, but is most often used to run errands.  Rand Foster, the owner of Fingerprints in the East Village BFBD is credited by both staff and other owners for explaining the usefullness of cargo bikes to other businesses.

A bike valet in front of the Art Theater in Long Beach's Art District.

The city also helps provide bicycle valets, which is exactly what it sounds like, at BFBD events and bike repair and maintenance workshops.  The city and BFBD’s are also partnering on “Bike Saturday” events where participating businesses provide discounts to patrons arriving by bicycle.  Some businesses are participating in the program that aren’t in a business district at this time.  A list of businesses participating in this Saturday’s Bike Saturday can be found on the Bike Long Beach webpage.

Kerstin Kansteiner owns three coffee shops, including Berlin Portfolio in the East Village and Portfolio on Retro Row and believes that if you provide a safe convenient place for cyclists to park, then people will choose to bike local and shop local rather than drive out of town.

“The past few years we’ve seen it working,” Karsteiner adds. “We’re not taking space away from cars, but giving it to bikes.  People aren’t just choosing to shop local, they’re also visiting other businesses in the area as part of their trip.”

To that end, the 4th Street Business Association has been working to encourage more bicycling.  In addition to the benefits given by the city, they’ve purchased more bicycles for businesses to use and have increased bike parking along the street.  A new parking lot to serve the businesses will have 24 car parking spaces, but 27 for bicycles.  The last Saturday of every month, the District sponsors street performers and artists who give the Arts District a special outdoor feeling.

“We made back our initial investment almost immediately.  Adding all of this parking has opened up a new market for all of us,” she adds.

While Long Beach is beginning to get a reputation for bike tourism, and events such as Bike Saturdays are open to tourists and other beach goers, the program is designed to get more residents to use bikes to make local trips which helps overall public health and the local economy.

“Our main focus is changing the habits of local residents and getting them out of their cars,” Economides explains  ”We really want people to get on their bikes and find more things in their city.”

For Karsteiner, the benefits of the BFBD’s and other improvements are more than about good business.  ”I see people going for bike rides that I would never have thought would do so.”  She explains, “People are riding more than ever.  It’s good for them and good for us [businesses.]“

Even though the program is only a couple of months old, city staff are already talking about expanding the program to other parts of the city.  A recent “vision document” approved by the City Council included four new proposed districts spread out throughout the city.

Good for Infrastructure, Good for Business

Other businesses, especially those near the urban core, are benefitting from the new bike infrastructure.  Sitting behind the cash register at Kabob Curry, just a couple of dozen feet from the separated bike lane on 3rd Street, “Molly” sang the praises of Long Beach’s bike policies, even though she’s not a rider.  ”We’ve seen more local people come through here.  3rd Street really wasn’t much of a community street.”

While there’s plenty of anecdotal information to support the increased infrastructure is helping local businesses, there hasn’t been a study done to determine the depth of that support.

“I see more bikes chained up outside the shop, and I see a lot of people riding in the bike lanes,” offers Warren at Sipology Coffee Shop.  ”I can’t say for sure that its had a huge impact on business, because most of our patrons live locally.  If they’re biking now they might have walked earlier.”

After a pause he offered another take on how bike lanes improve business, “There’s a lot less riding on the sidewalk, that’s making it a lot easier for people to walk.”

Bike Business

As you might expect, business at Long Beach’s bicycle shops and related businesses is booming.  Standing in front of Sipology, a popular cafe with expanded seating on a recently-expanded sidewalk on Broadway, a beaming Charlie Gandy boasted that “at least eight bike-related businesses have either started or expanded in the last year.”

One of those businesses is LBFG City Grounds Bicycle Shop, located next to the separated bike lane on Broadway.  Two years ago LBFG was a specialty bike shop that focused on high-end fixed gear bicycles,  popular with younger cyclists, road racers and “trick cyclists.”  As their shop expanded to meet a booming demand from commuting cyclists and residents looking for a fun way to access the beach.  BFG’s manager explains how with Long Beach’s bike boom the shop evolved into a niche bike shop doubling their floor space in less than a year.

While I interviewed the shop’s manager, Gandy wandered over to Sipology to chat with a team of stunt cyclists from San Francisco who were planning a ride up to Venice for a competition the next day.  So what were they doing in Long Beach?  They had heard about what Long Beach was doing for bicyclists, and they wanted to check it out for themselves.

Another type of bike business is Cali Bike Tours.  Founded less than a year ago, Elizabeth Williams took advantage of the new business to give bike tours and riding lessons to Long Beach residents and visitors.   What had started as a hobby has become her full time job, and she credits her hometown city for making her business prosper.

“Long Beach is on a mission to become the most bike friendly city in the nation,” Williams offered.  ”Everything is moving towards the city becoming a true bike friendly city and I wanted to be a part of that.  I wanted to help the tourists and the locals see what we have to offer.”  William’s entire video interview can be seen on the top of the page.

A few blocks away from Common Grounds, the family-owned Long Beach Bike Shop isn’t having the banner year other shops are, but even so Carlos Burbano, the shop’s owner, has noticed more cyclists on the street.

“I see a lot more traffic, a lot more bicycles on the street,” said Burbano.  ”But it hasn’t translated to business.”

Even in the midst of a bad year, which Burbano blamed on the recession more than anything else, Long Beach Bike Shop is still turning a profit.  And maybe that’s the best sign that Long Beach’s bike boom is helping bike business.  Even the struggling shops are in the black.

The progress and popularity of the bicycle planning in the City By the Sea is nigh-indisputable amongst business owners and expansion is planned for both the BFBD program and bike infrastructure in general.  Whether other cities catch Long Beach’s zeal remains to be seen, and might depend on the value of progress moving from anecdotes to some hard studies.

Damien Newton wrote this story while participating in The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.