Alene Tchekmedyian

Behind the wheels: Marissa Christiansen steers the South Bay Bike Coalition to success

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Marissa Christiansen. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

When Marissa Christiansen was completing her master’s degree in urban planning at USC in 2008, she and five classmates drafted a campus bike plan.

“There’re thousands of bikes roaming campus at any given moment, and there are no bike lanes, very few bike racks, and pedestrians getting mowed down by cyclists all the time,” she said. “Just chaos.”

The team of students worked with USC real estate developers to recommend a bike infrastructure for the campus.

“Who knew that a few years later, it would actually serve me well in some capacity,” she said.

When the South Bay and Los Angeles County bicycle coalitions received a $240,000 grant from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Renewing Environments for Nutrition, Exercise and Wellness initiative to create a master bicycle plan, Christiansen was hired to manage the project.

As the South Bay initiative director of the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition, Christiansen was instrumental in drafting, editing and helping pass the South Bay Bicycle Master Plan.

The two-year project resulted in seven cities – Manhattan Beach, El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, Gardena, Lawndale, Redondo Beach and Torrance – adopting the plan, marking the beginning of a 20-year project that will bring 214 miles of bikeways to the South Bay. The multi-jurisdictional proposal is the first of its kind, Christiansen said.

It’s symbolic of the overwhelming public health movement throughout the South Bay in recent years. In 2003, Beach Cities Health District implemented LiveWell Kids, a program focusing on preventative care and education in schools. This year, Vitality City rolled out its public health initiative throughout the Beach Cities, promoting livability, wellness and productivity through simple lifestyle changes throughout the community.

Manhattan Beach resident Todd Dipaola founded the South Bay Bicycle Coalition two years ago, after he and a group of bike enthusiasts realized the South Bay lacked a bike infrastructure. “Unless you want to go from beach to beach on The Strand, there’s no safe way for families to get on the road,” he said.

While it’s natural to be suspicious of change, there’s always been a culture of improvement and innovation throughout the South Bay, Dipaola said. “At the beginning everyone said, ‘You’re crazy, there’s no way you can get this to pass,’” Dipaola said. “At the end, they were saying, ‘How come you didn’t aim bigger? How come you didn’t get 20 cities involved?’”

Dipaola said Christiansen had the patience and passion to execute the project. “I knew when we initially met, she had the X-factor, the charisma to make this project a success as our daily leader,” he said.

While Christiansen works out of Redondo Beach City Hall, she’s employed by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, which is headquartered in downtown Los Angeles. “I needed to be here because this is where my work is,” she said, adding, “(City) staff has been really accepting, supportive and enthusiastic.”

Through working in the South Bay, Christiansen noticed that some cities have a rampant bike culture in place. “I don’t know that I would have been as successful as I’ve been without the current bike-friendly climate that’s already been created for me,” she said.

Other cities questioned the need for bike infrastructure in their communities. “Of course the argument we always make is: if you build it, they will come,” Christiansen said.

The master plan makes the cities eligible for grant funding from the Caltrans Bicycle Transportation Account, which appropriates $7.2 million annually for local projects that improve safety and convenience for cyclists, according to its website.

So far, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and El Segundo have taken strides toward implementing the recommendations in the proposal, Christiansen said. Redondo has dedicated 10 percent of its Measure R funds to bikeways.

For the rest of her term, which expires in March, Christiansen hopes to help the cities apply for grants to fund the project. “For the cities that are ready to move forward to make it happen, I’m trying to make myself as available to them as I can,” she said.

Before she leaves, Christiansen hopes to see new bike paths in the South Bay. “I’d love to see paint on the ground, even if it’s just the tiniest amount – something tangible that I could see actually being implemented before I walk away,” she said. “I hope the momentum keeps going because it really was such a uniquely collaborative effort, and for that reason alone, I think it speaks volumes.”

Dipaola anticipates the fresh paint as well. “These first few miles are going to be absolutely critical,” he said, adding, “When people see how great it works, the next 214 miles will be here before we know it.”