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Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “CicLAvia”

CicLAvia Pasadena

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It has been a while since I’ve attended CicLAvia, but with this one practically in my backyard, I could not resist.  It was the first ever CicLAvia outside the city limits of LA (and not the last) and the first one I attended with my whole family.  As we rode to the event, we encountered others headed to the event.  As we got closer, we saw more people, different ages and cycling abilities (i.e., not “cyclists”), and families with children who were headed to CicLAvia.  We waved, smiled, and exchanged pleasantries.  I always get excited as I see more and more people on different kinds of bikes headed to the open streets, like we are headed to a gathering of the tribes, distant kin on the same pilgrimage.  As always, it seemed everyone had a smile and the crowd represented a huge, diverse cross-section of Southern California.  As always, there were lots of families, lots of people of different ages, colors, backgrounds.

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I loved observing my wife and kids experience the delights of car-free streets and the sense of community that pervades CicLAvia.  My 15-year-old daughter, who rides to school with me each Monday, was awed at the sight and feel of Colorado Blvd filled with cyclists.  “This is so cool,” she said as we cruised the Boulevard.  “I wish it was always like this!”  Uh-huh, I smiled.  My wife, something of a chatty Cathy, particularly seemed to relish the conviviality of the event, striking up conversations with what seemed like every other person on the route.  After lunch at a local restaurant, as we rode up Raymond Ave next to a young couple who were singing a Maroon 5 pop song, my wife spontaneously joined them singing the chorus (much to the embarrassment of my daughter).  I smiled at the serendipitous, joyful human connections people make when they are released from dependence on their rolling isolation chambers.  Just another CicLAvia moment.

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This particular route was only 3.5 miles, the shortest CicLAvia to date, but since we rode there and back home, it didn’t seem too short to us.  There were local “feeder rides,” sponsored by a variety of groups, but I’d like to see a greater effort to get even more people to and from the event on their bikes, so that more of the surrounding streets become informally “CicLAvia-ized” on the day of the event.

I’m a huge fan of such Open Streets events not only because they’re wonderfully fun and allow everyone to connect with their community in ways they cannot in a car, but because they also enable people to experience the freedom of car-free streets.  When I asked my son what he liked best about CicLAvia, he told me it was the freedom of being able to ride around town “and not have to worry about cars.”

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This experience, I believe, is potentially subversive of the domination of our public spaces by the automobile, and offers an immensely popular signal to political leaders that people hunger for car-free streets.  As the open streets movement expands and becomes a regular part of the Southern California landscape it may alter people’s perceptions of what streets can be and expand their understanding of mobility beyond the automobile.

On our ride home, when I asked my son what he thought, his one word answer: “Awesome-tacular.”

Yup.  ‘Nuff said.

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CicLAvia and Bike Lanes

Much has been happening in the bike-sphere, but I’ve been buried under a hectic schedule at my university, and it is only a brief spring break that allows me to break my silence.  We’re still fighting bad ideas like Sen. Carol Liu’s ill-considered mandatory helmet law and the multi-billion-dollar 710 freeway tunnels, but there are some hopeful signs here and there.  Here in the San Gabriel Valley, the Gold Line extension is nearing completion, and there is potential for this light rail to be a game-changer for commuters in the foothills of the SGV, especially if local cities make an effort to connect bike lanes to the stations.

One of the other bright spots is the growing willingness of cities to consider protected bike lanes (sometimes called “cycle tracks”) that have some form of physical separation, such as planters, curbs, medians, bollards, or other decorative barriers between cars and bikes.  For decades, the traffic engineering profession in the US has resisted protected bike lanes, but they have been extremely popular where they’ve been installed, and now they are starting to appear in cities all over the United States.  Long Beach was the first Southern California city to install one, and Temple City recently installed another on Rosemead Blvd.  There is a proposal by LADOT for the first one in Los Angeles, and I hope that there will be at least one in Pasadena’s pending mobility plan.  Once these protected bike lanes begin to proliferate, I believe they will significantly change perception of cycling for transportation in US cities.

Another bright spot is the growth of the “Open Streets” movement throughout Southern California and the US.  LA’s own “CicLAvia” is a prime example of an open streets concept that has spread and gained popularity wherever it has been tried.  Last weekend, CicLAvia held an open streets festival in the San Fernando Valley, and it was extremely popular (a bad cold kept me from attending).  The Valley was in many ways the epicenter of Southern California’s traditional car culture, so the success of a car-free event in the Valley is an indication of how far we’ve moved from the stereotype of American Graffiti.  The Valley’s CicLAvia also featured a “pop-up cycle track” on Chandler Ave. that gave people a taste of what it feels like to ride in a protected bike lane.  These events are important insofar as they provide people with a vision of street space radically flipped from cars to people and bikes.  The popularity of these events underscores the reality that people are hungry for public space that is safe to walk and bicycle in.  And where there is popularity, politicians will follow, perhaps even changing their own perceptions.

People who participate in these events often realize they haven’t really seen their city until they’ve seen it on a bike.  Businesses realize there is money to be made from clientele on bikes.  Open streets events also introduce people to the idea that distance is not really as much a barrier to bicycling as people assume.  When you realize that (with car free space) you can easily bike from one end of LA to the other, or one end of the Valley to the other, it erodes the automobile imperative just a little bit more.  These events bring people of different backgrounds together in an atmosphere of healthy, active, fun.  Every time CicLAvia occurs, I hear someone say I wish it was like this every day.  Gliding down the street, free from the fear of cars, free from the noise and the pollution, people begin to imagine car-free space every day.

I’m excitedly awaiting the next iteration of CicLAvia, which will come to Pasadena at the end of May.  As it becomes regularized, expected, and anticipated, I think it will continue to grow in popularity and, with it, the subversive idea that streets are not just for cars.  To paraphrase Che, we need “one, two, many CicLAvias,” to overthrow the tyranny of the automobile.

Being an Advocate

A friend recently asked me how I got into bike advocacy.  Well, actually, she asked me how I got into “advocacy,” and I assume she meant bike advocacy, though I think I’ve been an advocate for social justice most of my life.  It’s just part of who I am, I guess.  I see something that needs changing and I research the issue and often join with others who are working on that issue.  We call such people “advocates” or “activists” or sometimes “troublemakers,” but, really, when you get right down to it, isn’t that just citizenship?  We’ve created these labels for active citizenship in part because we live in an era when our role as citizens is supposed to be passively consumed on TV or social media, not in real life.   Those who get out and organize for change are thus labeled as an aberration—a “special interest”—when in fact that’s what every citizen should probably be doing.

Back to the main question.  I got into bike advocacy because the moment I started riding my bike for transportation I started to realize most of our streets had been misdesigned.  It was only as I studied the issue further that I realized how badly misdesigned they were and how it was connected to other misuses of social space and resources.  About the time I began substituting my bike for some of my short car trips (around 2008 or so) a colleague at work showed me an article on bicycle infrastructure in Europe—focused on either Copenhagen or Amsterdam, I can’t recall which—and it fired my imagination for what could be, what might be, and what is possible.  Since then, I’ve immersed myself in the history of how our society constructed a car-based infrastructure that limits how we live, interact with each other, and get from place to place.  It has underscored the importance of radically changing our infrastructure to adapt to more socially and environmentally sustainable transportation modes.

Shortly thereafter I started finding and joining bicycle advocacy (there’s that word again) organizations like the LA County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) and CICLE that connected me with others who had a similar vision.  I went on the LA River Ride sponsored by LACBC and several other group rides sponsored by CICLE.  Around 2010, I went on a CICLE-sponsored “tweed ride” in downtown LA.  In many ways I really saw LA for the first time.  Oh, I’d driven through LA many times, usually on my way to someplace, but being on my bike revealed the rich texture of the city for the first time.  It was a revelation that you could feel safe riding city streets if there were enough other people riding too.  I also met Joe Linton on this ride, and he inspired me to continue my effort to be the change I wished to see in the world, as Mahatma Gandhi would say.  I wanted to write about my experiences, share them with others to show that another world is possible, but I was reluctant.  Joe provided the encouraging words that helped me to start this blog, too.  I think that the experience of CicLAvia really reinforced how different—how much better—our human interactions could be in car-free spaces.  CicLAvia sort of turned me into an evangelist for creating car-free space in our communities and giving people realistic alternatives to the car.

This hasn’t been easy.  Recognizing how badly we’ve gone wrong when others don’t even recognize the problem exists can be a lonely and frustrating experience.  Reading writers like Jane Jacobs, Jane Holtz Kay, Jeff Mapes, Charles Montgomery, Jeff Speck, Peter Norton, Christopher Wells, and others, made me realize I wasn’t alone and helped me deepen my sense that these changes were not only possible but highly desirable.  Reading deeply about the existential crisis of climate change has reinforced that the status quo is unsustainable and that radical change is essential.

Change is never easy, but without a movement of organized people pushing for change it will not happen by itself.  When I see the need for safer streets for myself, I know that they’ll benefit others, too.  I also know that it won’t happen if we don’t shake people out of their complacency.  No individual can do it alone—it takes a group of people to get anything accomplished and the bigger and more diverse the group, the stronger it is.  It’s only working in concert with others that my choices make a larger difference.  And really, we build on the work of those who came before and we’re dependent on others joining the struggle after us, too.

My experience as an historian leads me to understand that going against the automobile-fossil fuel-industrial complex and changing people’s living habits will not be easy, but neither was the abolition of slavery, the struggle for workers’ rights, women’s rights, or civil rights.  Indeed, as Naomi Klein has suggested in her latest book This Changes Everything, these movements for human rights must be seen as part of the larger struggle for peace, civil rights, economic justice, a livable planet, and livable social space.   Making our streets and communities safer and more convenient for alternative modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, and transit) doesn’t solve all of these issues, but, properly understood, it is part of the solution that addresses each of them in part.

Change is happening, a movement is emerging.  Why am I an advocate?  I want to be a part of it—even if only a small part.  I don’t know exactly where the movement will lead, but that is what makes it exciting.

Why I Didn’t Go To CicLAvia

I think CicLAvia is one of the best things to happen to L.A. since, well, maybe ever.  The open streets event is now completing its third year and shows that people in L.A. hunger for car-free space in which to walk, ride bikes, socialize, and play.  The good news is this popular event has plenty of political support and is destined to become a welcome fixture in L.A.’s cultural scene.  It’s wonderful to see the concept spreading to other cities across the U.S. as well (see, for example, CicloSDias in San Diego).

I’ll never forget the feeling of exhilaration I felt at the first CicLAvia (10/10/10), rolling through downtown with tens of thousands of others laughing, smiling, talking; the noise, pollution, and pervasive fear of cars having been banished for a few hours.  It was a revelation to really see the city for the first time, and to see how easy and relatively fast it was to get from East LA to West LA on a bicycle when one didn’t have to worry about cars.  Another revelation was the way people of all backgrounds and social strata came together once you got them out of their metal cocoons.  CicLAvia and other events like it are, without exaggeration, a radical re-envisioning of street space for people, not cars.

So why didn’t I go to Sunday’s event, held in picture-perfect October weather?

Well, for one thing, I was getting over a cold that had dogged me all week at work, and I was looking forward to a quiet weekend of rest.  Also, when one commutes by bike daily, as I’ve been doing, the urge to go on a 15-20 mile jaunt on the weekend is not as strong as it would otherwise be if I had been stuck in my car all week.

But another, more significant reason is that I’ve noticed quite a bit of backsliding on the part of the LA City Council and the new  mayoral administration of Eric Garcetti on the goal of making L.A. more bike-friendly.  Since the last CicLAvia, LA has buckled to pressure from a film industry lobbying group and removed the green paint and buffers from the Spring Street bike lane, undoing one of the best examples of safe space for bikes on downtown streets.  Spring Street’s green, buffered bike lane made me feel safe riding in downtown traffic, and now it’s gone, thanks to baseless complaints from Hollywood location scouts who didn’t like its aesthetics.  Another innovative project, the plan for cycle tracks on Figueroa, seems to have been sidetracked indefinitely by the unfounded complaints of a car dealership owner.  Most recently, the approved design for a new Glendale-Hyperion Bridge lacked any room for bike lanes, despite being designated for bike lanes under LA’s bike plan.  In each of these cases, there has been a lack of leadership at City Hall, and the safety of cyclists has been too easily sacrificed to special interests.  When the city is taking away bike lanes and stalling on cycle tracks, I’m in less of a mood to partake in a Sunday event that supposedly celebrates car-free LA.

In the midst of these failures to provide for the safety of all the people who actually bike for transportation the other 6 days a week, I’m tempted to tell LA not to do me any favors.   I love CicLAvia, but the minute it’s over, the streets are turned back over to cars and nothing’s changed.  If one of the main ideas of CicLAvia is not to rethink the purpose of streets and show that bikes can be a viable way to move millions of people around LA, then what is it?

Here’s another irony: CicLAvia could be a golden opportunity to stage creative protests against those LA politicians like Eric Garcetti who took cyclists’ votes and now are kicking them in the teeth.  Yet LA’s cycling advocacy community is so enamored of the symbolism of CicLAvia that it allows these pols literally a free photo op at CicLAvia.  They get to use CicLAvia to appear “bike-friendly,” on CicLAvia Sunday while they ignore cyclists’ safety and bow to any lobbyist who doesn’t like bike lanes the rest of the year.  Shouldn’t we at least call them to account at CicLAvia?  I mean, the “heart of LA” route goes right down Spring Street, for crying out loud.  Souldn’t Garcetti at least get an earful when he rides that street?  How about a creative protest, like hundreds of people in green t-shirts lying down on Spring Street in protest as Garcetti rides by?  How about something more ambitious like a DIY guerrilla bike lane installation?  Now I might attend something that made the point that safe streets are needed more than 3-4 Sundays a year.

This is not a rant against CicLAvia.  CicLAvia was an important symbolic step in LA’s still-nascent shift from a car-centered city, and I still encourage everyone I know to go to this wonderful event, but I need to feel safe riding the rest of LA’s streets the other 362 days a year.  This time, I decided to pass on the symbolism, and have decided to call on my fellow cyclists to push the political system for more tangible improvements in the city’s bike infrastructure, instead.

CicLAvia to the Sea

Bike love

Sunday 4.21.13 was the sixth CicLAvia (not sixth annual as many corporate media outlets erroneously reported), this time along a new route from downtown to Venice beach.  The route was a bit longer this time, 15 miles one way as opposed to 10-12 miles in the past, and offered CicLAvia’s first direct connection with the west side.  What follows are some reflections as CicLAvia continues to mature and grow as an L.A. event.

First, the good.  CicLAvia continues to introduce people to a new way of thinking about experiencing the city.  Yesterday, I met two first-timers on the Gold Line to downtown.  Neither had ever been downtown on their bikes and neither had ever been on the Gold Line.  I could see the excitement in their eyes and told them they’d be in for an unforgettable experience.  CicLAvia to the Sea also allowed me to see parts of L.A. I was unfamiliar with, and connected downtown with the beach, which seems a natural connection to me (DTLA to Long Beach, anyone?).  First-timer JustAdventures shared her sense of wonder and totally gets CicLAvia.

I’ve been to all six of the CicLAvias, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them all.  Moreover, I’m not going to rant on the organizers who have a herculean task of managing this growing beast.  However, I have a small critique along the same lines as blogger Asymptotia.  I’ve always had time to bike the entire route and back, but this time the route was longer (which was fine with me) and the delays along the route much longer (which was problematic for a number of reasons).  The crowd, conservatively estimated by organizers at 150,000, but probably closer to 200,000, was simply too large for the amount of road space we had.  For much of Venice Blvd., LADOT gave us only half of the roadway, which led to major bottlenecks and long waits in the hot sun at traffic lights.  At least twice riders had to wait for four red light cycles before being able to proceed.  With these delays, the ride simply took too long.

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I started my CicLAvia at La PLacita downtown at 10:00 am, and estimated riding at a moderate pace I’d be in Venice by 11:30, 12 noon at the latest.  I had arranged to meet a Venice friend at the hub there.  Unfortunately, because of the long delays at traffic lights I did not get to Venice until about 1:00 pm.  Three hours to complete a 15-mile course is an average speed of 5 miles an hour.  Once I got to Venice, I had to cancel with my friend because I did not think I would have had enough time to get back to Union Station before the route closed at 3:00 pm unless I immediately turned around and started back.  I grabbed a quick bite to eat, watching the clock the whole time and began my return.  As it was, I rode the bike lane on the eastbound side of Venice Blvd. much of the way back to Culver City rather than get stuck at traffic lights on the CicLAvia side of Venice Blvd.  I felt like I had to  ride fast to beat the clock, and that is not the spirit in which CicLAvia should be experienced.  I decided to take the Expo Line from Culver City back to downtown, which I’d never ridden, but I really would have preferred to ride my bike all the way back.

I trust this isn’t what organizers had in mind when they planned this new route, and I also hope some changes will be made next time.  I would start the event an hour earlier (or end it an hour later) to give people more time to explore the longer route and work with LADOT to reduce the number of traffic stops along the way.  I think the overwhelming popularity of the event and its purpose (to get us out of our cars and connect us with our city and each other) provide ample reason for these changes.

Despite these glitches, I’m still a huge CicLAvia supporter.  It really has changed the way I perceive my city.  Perhaps it is a measure of the fundamental shift in consciousness that CicLAvia has wrought that I am no longer blown away by 15 miles of L.A. streets open for people instead of cars.  Experiencing city streets without cars seems almost normal now.  I’m no longer surprised when nearly a quarter of a million (a quarter of a million!) Angelinos of all races and colors and ages show up to enjoy these open streets.  A quarter of a million of us showed up and voted with our feet, with out bodies, with our bikes.  We want safe, car-free space to ride our bikes for everyday transportation, for health, and for fun.  The era when the automobile held unquestioned sway over our public space in the most car-centric city in America is coming to an end.  Elected leaders, are you listening?

CicLAvia 10.7.12

An estimated 100,000 people enjoyed 9 miles of car-free streets in L.A. yesterday at the fifth CicLAvia, L.A.’s recurring street party.  Those who have experienced it understand what an amazing feeling it is to enjoy the city by bicycle, without fear of having to tussle with cars.  Those who’ve experienced it understand the pleasure of gliding along some of L.A.’s usually-gridlocked avenues absent the constant thrum of engines, where the only sounds you’ll hear are the whisper of bike gears, laughter, conversation, and the occasional bicycle bell.

One of the things that leaves a lasting impression is the sheer volume of bicycles that are able to move smoothly through the streets of the city during CicLAvia.  Consider the traffic nightmare that would result from dumping over 100,000 cars onto 9 miles of L.A. streets all at once and you begin to understand the subtle ways in which CicLAvia changes our perception of what efficient use of street space is.  Indeed, that is perhaps the most radical, if not subversive aspect of CicLAvia:  it alters our understanding of city streets and what they might be used for.  Turns out, if you make some streets for people, not cars, they turn into space for play, exercise, socializing, and efficient transit from one place to another on foot or on two wheels.  It’s this re-imagining of urban space that reflects one of CicLAvia’s greatest achievements.

The other achievement is to break down the invisible walls that separate communities when they are bisected by roads that become impassable rivers of steel and concrete.  More than one participant I talked to yesterday remarked how they had never noticed L.A.’s people, its neighborhoods, or its architecture like they did from the vantage point of a bicycle.  Freed from having to watch for cars, they could look around, listen, and appreciate their surroundings.  For my part, CicLAvia has made me feel a deeper connection to L.A. than ever before.  I especially like the way CicLAvia provides a means for this middle aged white man from the suburbs to get to know the people and communities in South L.A., Boyle Heights, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, and everywhere in between.  It’s not just the places, it’s the people in them that I feel more connected to.

All of which reminds me that, while the automobile has brought certain benefits to society it has also impoverished us in ways we don’t often consider.  We are all enriched by the conversion of some street space to car-free space.

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