CicLAvia Rules! How Bicyclists Made L.A. a Better Place

 
By Hillel Aron Thursday, Apr 5 2012
They said it would never work here. This wasn’t San Francisco, this wasn’t New York, and this was most certainly not Portland. This was Los Angeles, where the car is king. To close seven miles of streets — and for what? To the city bureaucracy, it sounded like madness.”Where does it start?” asked a Department of Transportation representative.”Um … ,” replied Joe Linton, a bicycle activist.”And where does it end?””It’s … don’t think of it that way … “It was impossible to describe to someone who hadn’t seen it. Not even Linton himself knew what to expect. He would later awake at 4 a.m. on the morning of the first CicLAvia on 10-10-10, panic stricken with the fear that no one would show up, that the streets would be empty and that he would be a laughingstock.

But people did come — tens of thousands of them bicycling or walking (the Los Angeles Times made a probably overly optimistic guess of 100,000). They brought their serious bikes and their crazy bikes, their pets, their children. They were young and old, black, white, Asian and Hispanic. The streets — Sixth, Seventh and Spring — were filled with the soft, ambient sounds of laughter and talking. And nothing else. L.A.’s subtly oppressive white noise — its cars, trucks and buses — was eerily gone. People kept pausing in delight to hear what wasn’t there. All motors and engines were banned from the route.

The air felt lighter, as if the city itself had ascended high above the clouds. It was just a few hours on a Sunday, but it felt like a new chapter in L.A. history.

“Open street” initiatives have been around at least since 1965, with Seattle’s Bicycle Sundays. The event migrated to New York City, San Francisco and Ottawa before showing up in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1974. They called it “Ciclovía,” a portmanteau combining “cycle” and “way.”

Somehow in Bogotá, a crime-ridden city of fierce traffic, Ciclovía took root in a way it hadn’t in North American cities. It has since become an institution, held every Sunday, spanning roughly 75 miles. On this single day, as many as 1 million Colombians use the route for everything from parades, protests and performances to simply running errands.

In 2007, Clarence Eckerson Jr., a 40-year-old, New York–based videographer, flew to Bogotá, made a nine-minute documentary about Ciclovía and posted it on the website Streetsblog.

Bicycle activists around the country watched the video and wondered, Why not here?

Adonia Lugo was a UC Irvine grad student studying anthropology. She and her then-boyfriend, Bobby Gadda, watched Eckerson’s video and decided they had to see it for themselves, in Bogotá. When they did, on a rainy Sunday in 2008, it was nothing short of a revelation.

“The difference between a street that’s full of cars and a street that’s full of people is just … it’s exciting,” Lugo recalls.

They returned from Colombia, buzzing with thoughts of a Ciclovía in Los Angeles. Lugo was 24, Gadda 23. They were too young to grasp the enormous difficulties inherent in what they were about to propose.

They had just moved into the L.A. Eco Village, a housing co-op in Koreatown. There they met Aurisha Smolarski Waters, who suggested they take the idea to an L.A. County Bicycle Coalition meeting. Under the umbrella of the bike coalition, Lugo and Gadda formed a Ciclovía committee and gained two important allies.

Stephen Villavaso, 28, was new to Los Angeles, having just moved from Austin, Texas. He was a civil engineer, working as a contractor for Metro. Jonathan Parfrey was a longtime environmental activist and head of the Green L.A. Coalition, as well as a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power commissioner appointed by the mayor.

They, along with Lugo, Gadda and a few others, began raising money, meeting with neighborhood councils (East Hollywood Neighborhood Council was the first to give its approval, although no route had been mapped yet) and lobbying city officials for what they dubbed “CicLAvia.”

In May 2009, Los Angeles magazine ran a cover photograph of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, along with the word Failure in bold lettering. The package included an acid editorial blasting the mayor, as well as suggestions from observers and advocates. One piece of advice was from someone named Aaron Paley, who offered: “Close Wilshire Boulevard on Sundays and other contiguous boulevards to create a Ciclovía modeled on the highly successful example of Bogotá, Colombia.”

A big-name public events planner and president of Community Arts Resources, Paley had produced the Glow festival in Santa Monica — an all-night, luminescence-themed arts happening attended by roughly a quarter of a million people — as well as the highly anticipated openings of the Getty Center and Skirball Cultural Center. In 2008, he won a Stanton Fellowship from the Durfee Foundation — $75,000 — to develop ideas for creating better public spaces in Los Angeles.

Initially, Paley wanted to do something involving the increasingly promising environs of the Los Angeles River, until a Community Redevelopment Agency planner told him about Ciclovía. He flew to Bogotá, and the dapper cultural maven was hooked.

One of the original tragedies of Los Angeles is that it was denied a chance for major urban parklands when city fathers decided to reject (and effectively suppress) a stunning 1930 plan by the famed Olmsted brothers, creators of New York’s Central Park. It would have created a vast network of parks accounting for more than 160,000 acres of green space in Los Angeles County.

That irreversible decision is still mourned by historians, activists and many other Angelenos. Paley instantly realized that Ciclovía could give Los Angeles something it most lacked: public space.

“The lifeblood of cities is the idea that people can come together,” Paley says. “It’s that chance encounter. [Public space] makes us all part of the city, in a way that going to the mall or driving on a freeway doesn’t.”

When Lugo heard about Paley’s suggestion in Los Angeles — that this city copy Bogotá’s “contiguous boulevards” — she found Paley and enlisted him.

As if casting for some kind of prisoner-of-war escape film, the group’s initial members each had the exact higher-order specialties you would need to produce an impossible-sounding seven-mile, open-air, closed-streets, public event in Los Angeles.

“It was a combination of our different assets that made this happen so quickly and so well,” Paley says. “We all had different things to bring to the table.”

Paley had hosted public events that drew hundreds of thousands of people. Villavaso, a traffic-engineering expert, knew all about shutting down streets and mitigating traffic. Parfrey, the DWP commissioner/environmentalist, had important contacts with nonprofit groups and City Hall. Colleen Corcoran and Joseph Pritchard knew how to design hipster-friendly branding and brochures. Joe Linton, bicycling advocate and resident of Eco Village, was a tireless, experienced organizer.

But it’s unlikely the event ever would have gotten off the ground if not for Mayor Villaraigosa.

Parfrey, one of those grand connectors whose Rolodex ranges from hippies to City Council members to lobbyists, set up a meeting with two members of the mayor’s staff — the cowboy hat–wearing octogenarian and deputy mayor David Freeman, and his No. 2, Romel Pascual, who has since replaced Freeman.

Pascual, an urban planner and bicycling enthusiast, was particularly taken with the concept.

“I thought it was a fascinating and challenging idea,” he says. “We’re talking about transforming L.A. into something it hadn’t been before.”

“Romel really put his reputation on the line,” Parfrey says. “He really championed it. There were other people inside City Hall who weren’t enthusiastic.”

Later, the mayor traveled to the bicycling utopia of Copenhagen, where, even in the dead of winter, cyclists seemed to hold title to the streets. “I saw day-to-day bike culture in action,” Villaraigosa recalls. “I saw how communities come together when they get out of their cars.”

He ordered his staff to make CicLAvia a priority.

“He lit a fire under them,” Parfrey says.

One of the things the mayor and other politicians liked so much about CicLAvia was that, at a cost to the city of a little more than $100,000 (mostly to pay for cops and traffic-control personnel), it seemed like a bargain.

“The mayor and the [Department of Transportation] feel a certain amount of pressure from bicyclists, because they haven’t historically done that much,” Linton says. “A lot of bike stuff costs money and time. CicLAvia is fast and cheap.”

Still, many of the area’s top bureaucrats — officials at the Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Fire Department, the city’s DOT and the regional transit authority Metro — were dumbfounded by the proposal.

“The position of the DOT is pretty much that closing streets is counter to what they’re supposed to be used for,” Lugo says.

“I had never heard of anything like this,” admits Marco Arroyo, engineer for special events at the Department of Transportation. “With a marathon, you know beforehand how many people to expect. With this, you’re just counting on people to show up.

“It didn’t seem like something that would work out. But we went with it.”

Linton recalls giving a presentation to LAPD officials, happily describing what a success the event had been in San Francisco, in Bogotá, in New York. A dubious cop interjected, “This isn’t New York. This is Los Angeles.”

One concept that department bosses at City Hall had trouble wrapping their heads around was the so-called “soft closure” plan — points along the route where cars would be allowed to intermittently cross the flow of bicycles and humans.

This was a radical departure from impermeable, traffic-snarling events like the Los Angeles Marathon or AIDS Walk routes. It made people nervous.

“The goal is to not shut down the city,” says Villavaso, the lanky city traffic engineer. “If you don’t allow cars to cross, the likely outcome is a lot of traffic, which wouldn’t help us in the long run.”

Linton and his staff of volunteers canvassed the entire seven-mile route, knocking on doors to let residents and business owners know what was coming. Many small business owners were none too pleased. They were used to film productions paying them to make up for closing the streets.

“I’ll close if you pay me,” said a typical shop owner.

“No, we’re bringing customers to you,” Linton replied.

“You gotta pay me if you’re gonna close the street.”

“This is a nonprofit!”

The worst scenario for DOT officials was that no one would show up — and that angry Angelenos, true masters at finding creative, illegal and egregious shortcuts for their cars, would start cutting through the street closures.

“We didn’t want people thinking the roads were closed for no reason, and then break on through,” Arroyo says. “If you don’t have a crowd of people visibly coming down the street, you [the motorist] assume that nothing’s going on.”

Linton’s personal nightmare the morning of the event was empty streets, and egg on the face of countless bike activists.

The barrel-chested, infectiously chipper bicyclist found himself biking around the route at 6 a.m., watching cars being towed away, which only made him feel worse. “I just thought, uh oh,” Linton says.

“It was really a leap of faith,” Parfrey says. “We didn’t know if anyone would turn up.”

But by 10:30 a.m., the closed and empty streets of Los Angeles were full.

“It was a sea of people,” says DOT engineer Arroyo, who had a nearly omniscient view from DOT’s central command room downtown, thanks to dozens of remote cameras. “It was something that I had not anticipated.”

The crowds in the streets soon noticed something else. It was astonishing to be in the middle of a Los Angeles street in broad daylight and not hear the roar of traffic.

“The city felt intimate in a way I wasn’t expecting,” Paley says. “Everybody felt that. That was revelatory.”

Parfrey recalls seeing a man from Corona, deep in the Inland Empire, his arms covered with tattoos, with his 4-year-old daughter. She was riding a tiny bicycle.

“It’s just so great to bring my daughter here and show her the city,” the man told Parfrey. “I love L.A.”

“So few times do you actually have access to the street,” Parfrey says. “And that is your street, and that is your time — you own that street. And that day, you did.”

CicLAvia was not the first event of its kind in the United States, but for Los Angeles, the longtime car capital of the nation, it had a sort of “man bites dog” quality to it. If it could happen here, it could happen anywhere. It garnered national attention.

“CicLAvia,” Villaraigosa says, “is a game-changer for Los Angeles.”

Since then, the group has held two more CicLAvias, one last April and one in October. The fourth is scheduled for April 15.

In a nod to popular demand, the route for this month has been expanded to 10 miles. It now stretches from the bicycle-friendly district of shops and cafés at Melrose Avenue and Heliotrope Drive near Los Angeles City College, to Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights on the east side of the Los Angeles River. Separate arms jut north to Olvera Street and south to the African American Firefighter Museum on historic Central Avenue. The organizers hope to keep expanding its breadth and frequency.

Unlike most of the things they agitate for, activists like Linton believe that CicLAvia actually can transform the city.

“One of the conundrums of bike advocacy is that we tend to advocate for stuff that we want, and not necessarily what would get a more timid person or a family out on bikes,” Linton says. “CicLAvia can get people out of their cars.”

A year ago, Steven Nancarrow was a research and development chemist living in Koreatown. Because he worked at a green energy company, he was, in general, sympathetic to environmental causes. Nevertheless, cyclists annoyed him — especially when he got stuck behind one on his morning commute. In April 2011 his house in Koreatown was hemmed in by the CicLAvia route closures, forcing him to take a circuitous route to the 101 freeway.

But Nancarrow grew curious. So last October, he dusted off his old beach cruiser, which had been languishing in his parents’ garage in Granada Hills, and with three friends biked the entirety of the autumn CicLAvia.

Like others, Nancarrow’s view of the city was changed. L.A. was so much smaller than he’d realized.

“I always thought of going to downtown as a big, arduous event,” he says. “But everything was a lot closer than I thought it would be.” On his bicycle, “It was 15 minutes away. And you didn’t need to worry about parking.”

The shock for him was that in some instances, biking was actually easier than driving. Nancarrow now goes to work about three times a week by bicycling partway, then easily slipping his bike into a car on the Gold Line for the rest of the rail trip.

Nancarrow’s bicycle-rail combo removes a huge barrier that keeps many Angelenos from using mass transit, which often stops maddeningly far from where they’re going. On his bike, he zips from his Gold Line station stop right to his front door.

Seeing Nancarrow’s conversion inspired three of his co-workers to start commuting by bike. Chain reactions like this are being told anecdotally across the city.

CicLAvia is still young — 15 hours young, to be exact, since each event lasted five hours, and there have been three. But some people who thought it would never work can’t help but wonder if CicLAvia isn’t more than just an event — that is, might it just be a revolution?

Reach the writer at hillelaron@mac.com.

You may join the route anywhere. Take your bike by subway or rail to get closer.

And for more info, go to ciclavia.org.

Original article.

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley

Photos by Gary Leonard and Aaron Paley