Many locals and visitors alike view Los Angeles as a massive, disconnected agglomeration — an unsustainable megalopolis. The iconic images of the sprawling city include the Hollywood sign, the wide beaches along the Pacific Coast, the seemingly infinite lights of nighttime L.A., the sweeping aerials of congested freeways that criss-cross the city’s almost 500 square miles. Rarely do we picture the intimate district with tree-lined streets, the neighborhood with a lively street life. Rarely do we envision another Los Angeles, a place with the kind of compact, navigable urban environs that we usually associate with New York or Chicago or Boston. And yet today countless efforts are under way to change the perceptions and alter the reality of the nation’s second-largest city. 1
Just in the last five years, such notable urban planning projects as the Metro?s Expo Line and Gold Line extensions, the Los Angeles Streetcar, the Los Angeles Bicycle Plan, the Downtown Urban Design Guidelines, and the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan have pushed forward an agenda to make the city more sustainable — with an emphasis on walkability, public transit, complete streets, vibrant neighborhoods and public spaces.
One planning tool helping to redefine Los Angeles is what’s increasingly being called the “ephemeral intervention” — the temporary demonstration of how the city might function and feel with a radically redesigned transportation infrastructure. Impermanent events — festivals, demonstrations, fairs, etc. — have long been part of urban life; but their ability to influence both city planning and physical infrastructure is less understood. So here we’d like to analyze how a particular event, the CicLAvia — a festival dedicated to opening the streets to cyclists and pedestrians — has begun to influence planning practice in Los Angeles as well as the attitudes of Angelenos.
Bicycle Routes and Mental Maps
The first CicLAvia took place on October 10, 2010, and two more followed in April and October 2011; the fourth took place this month, on April 15, 2012. The organizers — a diverse group of urban planners, community organizers, arts and media professionals and citizen activists — hope to increase the frequency of CicLAvia from a semi-annual to a quarterly and even monthly event; they are also working to expand the route from the initial 7.5 miles to 10 and then 30 miles over the same period. It’s an ambitious idea: the CicLAvia, which lasts just five hours on a Sunday afternoon, temporarily transforms an area of one of the most far-flung and car-centric North American cities into a cohesive and manageable urban environment. By temporarily removing cars from designated city sections, the festival encourages citizens “to enjoy the streets, our largest public space“; you might say CicLAvia functions as a kind of ephemeral monument to the future of the city — and a new piece of Los Angeles iconography. The CicLAvia is also propelling the larger conversation about a more sustainable L.A., an increasingly broad-based dialogue about new ways of navigating this extraordinarily extensive metropolis that is engaging not just urban leaders and policy makers but also academia, the media and the general public.
CicLAvia enables Angelenos to alter their mental maps — to perceive the urban environment not in terms of time and aggravation — of the tedious traffic-choked distance between on and off ramps of the freeway — but instead in terms of spatial experience and free mobility. CicLAvia scales the city to the walker and the cyclist, making it feel intimate and more manageable; it also stitches together a diverse network of neighborhoods — some historic and densely built — rarely conceptualized as an urban unit. 2 During CicLAvia, participants were pleasantly surprised to be able to cycle the event route in about 45 minutes — the same time it would normally take them to drive the 7.5 miles. Neighborhoods that seemed remote suddenly felt easy to reach. On most days, for instance, workers in downtown L.A. would never imagine strolling across the 4th Street Bridge to Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights for a break. Likewise, a resident of MacArthur Park wouldn’t be likely bike to East Hollywood for an espresso at Cafecito Orgánico. But they do during CicLAvia.
What is more, CicLAvia is not just for hardy urban explorers; it makes the ride or stroll possible for all people, young and old, fit and slow. One story from the April 2011 CicLAvia illustrates the way the event repositions the city: A father and his two young daughters decided to cycle the CicLAvia route. At the northern end, in East Hollywood, the father lost sight of his youngest daughter. Two hours later, he contacted the police, who expected to find the lost girl close to where she was last seen. To everybody’s surprise, she was located in just 10 minutes — but at the opposite end of the route. She had ridden the 7.5 miles from East Hollywood through MacArthur Park, Downtown, Little Tokyo and across the river into Boyle Heights … by herself. Following the flow, she had no problems navigating the city, and never felt afraid.
From Ciclovía to CicLAvia
The idea of opening city streets to bicycles and pedestrians on a periodic basis was developed in Bogotá in 1974. Jaime Ortiz Mariño, a graduate of urban planning at Case Western University, had returned from Ohio to his native Colombia inspired by the antiwar demonstrations and counterculture of the United States. Hoping to bring some of that rebellious spirit to his hometown, Jaime and several other activists launched ciclovía (the term roughly translates as “bicycle path”). Ciclovía entered the lexicon of urban planners and urban activists throughout Latin America and then worldwide.
The Bogotá ciclovía was greatly expanded during the 1990s, under the leadership of then parks commissioner Gil Peñalosa (whose brother Enrique was then the city’s mayor). Today it encompasses 80 miles of contiguous roadway open to the public each Sunday and every holiday; every week about 1.5 million Bogotanos crowd this temporary public space. Other cities have taken note; today Mexico City, Guadalajara and Puebla, in Mexico; and Santiago, Chile; Quito, Ecuador; and Rosario, Argentina all run ciclovías. Beyond South America, some cities regularly ban car traffic on park-like boulevards — for instance, the roadways of Central Park in New York, the drive along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the right bank of Paris. And lately Baltimore, Atlanta, New York, Portland, Oakland, San Francisco, Winnipeg and Melbourne have adopted car-free days along select streets.
When organizers in Los Angeles proposed to the city this form of urban ephemera, they envisioned more than merely a temporary solution — more than an occasional day of cycling and walking. 3 Instead, the all-volunteer group framed CicLAvia as a program that could contribute to ameliorating multiple urban dilemmas — to improving public health, increasing and enhancing public space, promoting community and economic development, and encouraging pedestrian and bicycle advocacy. By presenting the project as a comprehensive intervention, CicLAvia managed to reframe the funding parameters and to expand the policy implications of the program. 4
CicLAvia was presented to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office in October 2009, and was — to the group’s surprise and delight — immediately adopted as a program goal by the city. Working with the mayor’s staff (led by Deputy Mayor for the Environment Romel Pascual), the CicLAvia team spent the next year working through the implementation details. The city agreed to handle police, fire, transit, and other city departments as needed, contributing approximately $200,000 for each event, while CicLAvia agreed to raise money — about $110,000 — for marketing, branding, production, insurance, route expansion and community relations. This unusual division of funding and responsibilities continues as the working template. 5
CicLAvia’s launch on October 10, 2010, was widely hailed as a success that affirmed the city’s readiness to embrace this kind of ephemeral intervention. The coverage emphasized not just the immediate enjoyment of the event but also the possibilities it exemplified about new directions for urban design and social life. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times, which estimated the crowd at 100,000, was effusive. “Angelenos are used to street closures for events like the L.A. Marathon,” it said, “but they’ve never seen anything like CicLAvia.” L.A. Times reporter Joel Rubin described the event as “surreal.” “Unstructured by design, CicLAvia had no planned events. Organizers set up first-aid and information stations, along with portable toilets, at a few points along the route, but for the most part, they left it up to those who showed up to use the streets as they saw fit.” Rubin continued, “It all made for a strangely quiet, serene scene. The city’s police and fire departments reported no major incidents. Several people said the experience of gliding or strolling along streets empty of motor vehicles amounted to more than just a chance to get some exercise…. People also talked with a sense of surprise that the city felt smaller and more manageable. …”
With a modest marketing budget (only $44,000 per event) CicLAvia organizers have pulled off an impressive feat: they’ve launched a strong new brand in a market of 10 million. Not surprisingly, coverage in the traditional press is just a part of the growing recognition; along with television, radio and newspaper attention, CicLAvia has numerous Facebook friends and Twitter followers; a recent YouTube search showed almost 450 videos posted by participants.
This grassroots and viral following has characterized CicLAvia from the start, and it’s helped to attract crowds that represent the extraordinary diversity of Los Angeles. And more, as the events increase in size and frequency, the CicLAvia offers Angelenos a glimpse into an alternative future, a demonstration of daily life without the traffic and congestion that today seems such an inevitable part of the city experience. CicLAvia is thus helping to fuel a campaign for change in Los Angeles. Organizers are working with funding from the L.A. County Department of Public Health to provide technical assistance to six additional cities to expand the concept; Santa Monica, Long Beach, Culver City, Pasadena, the San Fernando Valley and other cities and regions are trying to sponsor their own CicLAvias. With three ephemeral interventions — and the fourth this past weekend — CicLAvia is deepening its hold on the imagination of citizens, provoking a new perspective from the corridors of municipal power to the neighborhood streets of the far-flung metropolis.