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Ten years after its founding and eight months into a pandemic, L.A’s bike-centric nonprofit reimagines public health in an urban landscape.
In 2010, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit CicLAvia hosted its very first event, shutting down roads spanning East Hollywood, DTLA and Boyle Heights to welcome 100,000 people for a Southern California iteration of Bogota, Colombia’s Ciclovía: a temporary expanse of open urban streets, where pedestrians can jog, cycle or skate without fear of 4,000-pound vehicles competing for space.
CicLAvia’s popularity has brought it back every year since, drawing a total of 1.85 million participants to 35 events. Organizers coordinate with the City of Los Angeles and various county departments to designate a 6-mile stretch of surface streets “car-free,” allowing Angelenos to take to the city for up to eight hours of recreation, food and entertainment every other month.
As with most in-person events, social-distancing concerns have paused all CicLAvia programming since March. Regardless, awards from the High Line Network and the Urban Land Institute marked the nonprofit’s 10th anniversary.
CicLAvia’s focus on the use of urban space and public health are more relevant than ever — and might offer some much-needed perspective on new ways to exist in a pandemic-centric world.
According to CicLAvia, harmful air pollution dropped nearly 50% along their route on event days, and nearly half of first-time participants said they would have stayed home had they not decided to attend. Local businesses along CicLAvia routes also reported sales increased by as much as 57%.
CicLAvia staff liken their job to that of a floating, transient park — a multipurpose open space where Angelenos can gather in community. (After all, every CicLAvia route is six to eight times larger than the median size of L.A.’s public parks.)
“A day of attendance at Central Park for one day is similar to one of our major events’ attendance: over 100,000,” says Tafarai Bayne, CicLAvia’s chief strategist. “In urban spaces, park space can be very inequitably distributed — not every neighborhood has a park, not every neighborhood has been built with that infrastructure in mind for its residents. Our event allows us to bring that resource to people.”
L.A.’s urban sprawl makes park accessibility that much more critical. Griffith Park is larger than Central Park, but its location is not central for most Angelenos, says executive director Romel Pascual. Clearing traffic eliminates the need for recreation to be tied to a physical park space — and as a bonus, it gives adults a rare sense of nostalgia for a childhood spent playing in the streets.
“Our 10-year anniversary reinforces how important it is that we continue to emphasize and make people not forget that there’s still joy at the end of the tunnel,” Pascual says. “That joy and well-being is still a human right.”
Bayne, a South L.A. native who was a community organizer before joining CicLAvia, says witnessing a connectedness among Angelenos that transcended socioeconomic lines gave him a newfound sense of pride in the city.
“I was born and raised in Los Angeles, grew up in South Los Angeles and had been all over the city, so I was very familiar with the streets we were riding on that day,” Bayne says. “But my experience riding on that day was just a whole different way to see the city.”
The routes created by CicLAvia events twist through multiple L.A. neighborhoods that would otherwise be cordoned off by a 20-minute drive through traffic. There’s a special energy about tracing these linear paths that connect L.A.’s cultures, Bayne says, whether they wind through the historic Watts neighborhood in South Central, MacArthur Park, Chinatown, Echo Park or East Los Angeles.
Central to CicLAvia’s mission has been recognizing the responsibility they owe to local communities as they alter public streets for an event. Street closures carry a host of potential side effects, Bayne says, from a sharp influx in foot traffic to local businesses to altered access to essential services — all of which CicLAvia staff work to mitigate by knocking on every door along a planned route, twice. Doing so is a way for CicLAvia to ensure that people feel ownership over their neighborhood, and it’s proven more effective than the typical social media-driven style of outreach.
For Pascual, CicLAvia’s mission is not about being anti-car, but rather about promoting a new mindset regarding transportation: The process of getting from Point A to Point B can be active, engaging and embrace multi-mobility. A key part of that perspective is to not think of biking as a laborious, Spandex-and-sweat event, Bayne says.
“I know people who didn’t even ride a bike before attending their first CicLAvia,” Bayne says. “Be proud of those short 10, 15-minute walks, those little 10-minute bike rides in your neighborhood, in the back streets. This is a choose-your-own-adventure kind of life. You can take these things in bites, you don’t have to think about eating the whole meal the first time.”
Despite a decade’s worth of events since that first CicLAvia in October 2010, one of Pascual’s favorite memories took place at one of their first, where he encountered a man on the route wielding a video camera and crying.
“I thought something was wrong, and I went right next to him and said, ‘Are you OK? Did something happen?’” Pascual says. “And he said, ‘No — I’m just very happy.’”