Like many kids, I learned how to ride a bicycle without training wheels at age six, with my parents and grandparents taking turns running up and down the sidewalk holding on to the back of my seat until that magical moment when they let go and I kept on riding. I remember singing “I love Pippy Longstocking, up and away, and a sha-na-na!” over and over…and over… and feeling really cool. It’s one of my clearest memories from childhood, and I think it’s because of the strong feeling of freedom and independence it gave me.
Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m happy to say that not much has changed. My daughter Audrey, currently age six, and I don’t own a car and happily ride our bikes around Long Beach, read Pippy stories, and are pretty independent young ladies. Long Beach is still flat, still warm and sunny, and still has more bikeable streets than many Southern California and U.S. cities.
One thing that has changed, at least in my life, is the advent of the co-pilot bike extension, also called a ‘tag-along,’ or what Audrey and I refer to as our ‘bike limo.’ This quick-release extension turns my bike into a tandem, with a seat, pedals and handlebars for Audrey behind me. It’s our ‘car,’ if you will, getting us to and from school, the grocery store, pizza nights out, and across town to events. Audrey absolutely loves it and often busts out into song while we’re riding.
After my Pippy bike memory, the next ones are as follows: riding my bike to elementary school, junior high, and part of high school with friends; riding along East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz during college to beat the blues and stay in shape; riding a little in Claremont 2006-08; and then not riding again seriously until early 2010 in San Francisco, where I lived on a big hill and owned a very heavy and rusty mountain bike.
When I had lived in San Francisco previously, as well as Berkeley, Portland, and D.C., I really loved walking and taking public transit. It wasn’t until my friend, Amanda Ravenhill, reminded me it would be much faster to bike across the city than take the very slow bus. So I hopped on my bike and never looked back. I’m a busy woman, and bicycling made it possible for me to get more done. I was also quickly reminded how much fun it was to ride and that glorious feeling of independence and strength that comes with it.
I’m a sustainability consultant and founded my company Green Octopus Consulting in 2003. In July 2010, I decided to move back to Long Beach to help ‘green’ my hometown and, to most people’s surprise, not buy a car, only borrowing one occasionally, mostly for nighttime trips to Los Angeles. People thought I was irrational to attempt this, but I thought it would be a good experiment – and if I was successful, a good example to other parents and business owners.
Well, it’s been over a year now, and I'd say the experiment has been a success. Traveling by bike has pretty much revolutionized Audrey’s and my life. It has also given me a new career passion, as I’ve added one more service to my repetoireof helping cities develop and implement sustainability plans: I help get more people on bikes.
Soon after I moved back home, the city hired me to create and manage the nation’s first Bike Friendly Business District (BFBD) program in partnership with four business districts. With an MBA in Sustainable Management and history of working with business associations, the BFBD program is a great fit for my passions and strengths. I work with a large number of stakeholders in helping persuade community members to bike and buy local by offering free bike repairs, bike valets, a ‘Bike Saturdays’ discount program, bike photo portraits, fun bike-themed events, and a casual bike share system for merchants and their employees to go to meetings, run errands, and make deliveries.
When we bike instead of drive, the environmental and health benefits are obvious, but it’s also important to remember it helps keep local businesses in business and our neighborhoods vibrant. Having lived without a car for most of my life and knowing the joy of shopping local and developing relationships with local shop owners, I am grateful to be in a position to help others realize the same joy, especially business owners and parents, two groups that often think they’re too busy for bikes. It’s rewarding to see them realize how bikes are good for their bottom line and often more convenient than a car.
I often describe Long Beach as having gone through a political ‘climate change,’ because there is now an openness to discuss environmental sustainability and how to achieve it in our city whereas in the past, most people dismissed it. With that said, I rarely talk about environmentalism when talking bikes. Instead, I remind people that riding a bike is old school, Main Street, and American as apple pie. It’s also fiscally conservative and efficient.
If Audrey and I can influence families, business owners, and other community members to live car-light, we’ll feel like moving home to Long Beach hasn’t just benefited our own personal lives but perhaps also the lives and local economy of this town we love. But don’t get me wrong – we’ve got an entire nation to convert. This is just the beginning.
April Economides is the president of Green Octopus Consulting, which helps business districts realize triple bottom line success through old school ideas like bike-buy local programs and public space creation. She manages the City of Long Beach’s Bike Saturdays and Bike-Friendly Business District programs.