Editor’s note: This is the second story in an ongoing Long Beach Post series called Safe Streets, looking at the challenges of getting around by foot in the city’s neighborhoods.
At Minnie Gant Elementary in the Los Altos neighborhood, a walk to school means a breezy stroll through suburban neighborhoods or a walk along Atherton Street with a view of Cal State Long Beach.
Just over five miles to the west, on the other side of town, many Edison Elementary students have to cross either a street heading onto the 710 freeway or one exiting the freeway to get to school.
While both Gant and Edison are part of the Long Beach Unified School District, the neighborhoods in which they are situated provide students with vastly different pedestrian experiences, highlighting a well known problem among transportation advocates in the city—where you live essentially determines how safe you are.
“Some students have to cross a flood control [channel] and the 710 freeway, others just go down the street and around the corner,” said retired LBUSD principal Shawn Ashley. “The issue is how close or far students are from school.”
Over the years, Long Beach has been praised for its walkability and its bike-friendliness, but data shows the streets that are most safe for pedestrians and bicyclists are in the wealthier parts of the city.
“There are certain parts of the city where it’s very comfortable and very safe to walk around and bike around,” said Kevin Shin, co-founder of the cycling advocacy group Walk Bike Long Beach. “Places like Belmont Shore, like Downtown, like Bixby Knolls, they’re very comfortable. It’s very easy to get around and never feel unsafe.”
The disparities seen in Long Beach follow a national trend. Low-income people have twice the amount of fatality rates than that of more affluent neighborhoods, according to a 2015 report by the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.
In the mile-long stretch of Atherton that lines one side of Gant Elementary, eight pedestrian-involved collisions were reported to Long Beach police over the last five years, according to data provided by the LBPD. There were no reported incidents within the surrounding 2-square-mile neighborhood.
In the roughly half-square-mile neighborhood that Edison Elementary serves, 45 pedestrian-involved collisions were reported to Long Beach police over the same time period.
The above map shows all vehicle vs. pedestrian collisions in Long Beach over the last five years. Learn more here. Source: Long Beach Police Department.
Perhaps just as stark a difference as the income levels—in the Los Altos area, median annual income is $96,734, compared to $45,350 in the Willmore area, according to Census data—are the crime statistics for each area.
The Long Beach Police Department’s South Division, which includes the Willmore neighborhood, reported 635 violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) from January to August of this year. The East Division, which includes the Los Altos neighborhood, reported 391 violent crime cases during the same period.
South Division’s violent crime statistics are the second-highest for the city during that time period. The West Division reported 732 violent crimes, and the North Division had 543 reported cases.
At the same time, low-income families rely more on alternative forms of transportation.
“Walking and bicycling are prevalent among low-income people and people of color—but street conditions are even more dangerous than the walking and bicycling conditions experienced by white, middle-class Americans,” according to the national Safe Routes report.
Lack of strong pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure also translates to lack of health access, according to the report, since these two groups have higher rates of obesity and physical inactivity.
Organizations like Walk Bike Long Beach are trying to change the statistics by bringing awareness to infrastructure issues and presenting possible solutions to the people who have the ability to make these kinds of changes.
“Education plays a big part in it and a lot of that is getting people to recognize and just understand that walking and biking is a perfectly viable, valid means of getting around the city,” Shin said.
The nonprofit often works to empower community members, having previously worked with the Cambodia Town community to pressure the city in adding Anaheim Street to its master bike plan. That effort ultimately failed due to its narrow infrastructure and other factors, Shin said.
Walk Bike Long Beach has also started taking groups of bicyclists to parts of the city that lack bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.
“Having that group of people go out and ride really helps to reinforce that it’s possible to do and all we have to do is make that push, fight for it and empower that community to fight for those changes,” Shin said.
There are other efforts in the community as well. With funding by the Southern California Association of Governments, the city has been hosting walk audits in North Long Beach and most recently in Cambodia Town, for community members to assess existing infrastructure and provide input for future development.
For now at least, Ruby, a mother of second- and fourth-grade daughters at Edison who declined to give her last name, said she would never consider having them walk to school alone. Though the family only has to walk three blocks to school, the route includes crossing Seventh Street, where cars gather speed to launch into freeway traffic.
“There’s a lot of traffic and there’s homeless around the area, that’s the only problem,” said the mother on the first day of classes in late August.