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.