There is a reason Suja Lowenthal is speaking at the Pro Walk/Pro Bike Conference—and it goes beyond her being a policy maker for Long Beach, where the conference is going to be held this year. It’s because she holds a simple streetscape philosophy: if you gear urban design towards the most vulnerable of mobility types, walking, it can and will be safer for all mobility types.
In 2006, when Lowenthal was first elected to the Long Beach City Council representing the 2nd District, she was approached (“Probably ’cause I was the new girl,” she said laughing) to draft a resolution that would make Long Beach the bike friendliest city in the States.
And she said no.
“[The person who approached me] was just mortified and puzzled as to why I would say no,” she explained. “‘It’s a very easy thing to do: councilmembers pass resolutions all the time.’ But for me, it’s not a thing of substance; we can name ourselves anything we want but it doesn’t mean that we’ve become that. If my only job here is to do PR work, then I’m kind of disappointed.”
For Lowenthal, she turned the tables, informing supporters of the resolution that what they should be asking her is to create policies that can actually live up to the moniker that is the Bike Friendliest City. This largely launched her into the alternative mobility stratosphere and marks Lowenthal as one of the city’s most ardent supporters of bike/walk culture.
That same year, she hosted Bogotá, Colombia Mayor Enrique Peñalosa in Long Beach to discuss his overwhelming takeover of automobiles within his car-centric city by instituting more accessibility for bikers and walers via ciclovías, or permanent bike paths, the creation of larger and more sidewalks, greenways, parks, and pedestrian streets. One of Peñalosa’s major points—that a city should be designed so that a 14-year-old can safely and easily navigate its entirety—stuck with Lowenthal, influencing to this day her approach to urban designing.
“I had a city engineer tell me,” she explained after she had introduced some of Peñalosa’s concepts to various city employees and officials, “that I will never—never—see a bike lane built in this city.”
For her, this was a challenge. And with that, Her involvement with making bike-friendly streetscapes led her in a campaign to get the Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference here to Long Beach.
“I’m lucky that the organizers of the conference have allowed me to carve out a place about policy making in the entirety of the biking discussion, and the evolution of biking culture here within our city,” Lowenthal explained. Reasonably stated, the only way we are going to have biking as part of our mainstream culture is by including policy makers such as Lowenthal in the discussion.
Equally as important, she is what every policy maker should be: locally oriented. “We don’t need to be the first [in everything],” she said, “just as long as we’re among the best and it makes sense for Long Beach.”
For Lowenthal, the bourgeoning bike culture came two-fold for her. While it was always in the back of her mind—”How can you ignore mobility?” she asked—it also had to become more tangible, both strategically and within the participation of its citizens. There is, after all, little use to a bike path if no one is using it and little use of a bike path if its poorly incorporated into the landscape.
In other words, she couldn’t have done what she did unless she had bikers biking and people walking.
“I have one shot,” she explained. “one shot to include everyone, not just motorists, in the grand scheme that is Long Beach. I feel my job is to provide a backbone, a political backbone. We’re not elected because of our expertise in any particular area or charming. People vote for others because they want them to stand up for something, to have a backbone.”
This politician-as-rebel ideal is paired with a philosophical approach, which she deems key to the idea of exploring your environment on foot or on pedal and intimately attached to our childhoods. “Playing outdoors, riding your bike to and from school, learning the streets, feeling the earth beneath your feet or feeling it beneath your wheels… There is something about navigating your streetscape or landscape on foot or bike that cannot be replaced by doing so in a car. It’s that human connection to the earth beneath you,” she explains, feeling that such connection is an essential cog in our development from childhood into adulthood.
Her work is an attempt to engage and enact these perspective. And despite the crowd of naysayers who despise the bike lanes, who despise sidewalks getting expanded sometimes at the cost of losing a parking space, for Lowenthal, she feels she has to stand up against that.
The Pro Walk/Pro Bike Conference will occur September 10 through the 13 at the Long Beach Convention Center, located at 300 East Ocean Boulevard. For more information, visit www.pps.org/pwpb2012.