In the heart of L.A., wide open spaces

What would you do if seven miles of city streets stretched out before you and there wasn’t a car in sight?

Hop on your bicycle? Drop into a yoga pose? Samba? Salsa? Sing?

These are the sorts of choices Angelenos will have Sunday, when the city boots vehicles from several major thoroughfares and urges its citizens to come out and play.

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., portions of a dozen streets will be closed to car traffic on a zigzagging route that extends from East Hollywood through Westlake and into downtown and Boyle Heights.


In this car-centric metropolis, where drivers spend an average of 72 hours stuck in traffic annually and jaywalkers are heavily fined, CicLAvia, as the event is known, is something of a marvel.

It is designed to challenge the idea — so ingrained in the city’s psyche — that automobiles rule the road.

Jimmy Lizama, a Koreatown bike messenger, plans to march the route with a group practicing capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian mix of martial arts and dance. His 9-year-old stepson, meanwhile, will join in a children’s bike ride. Lizama said CicLAvia will transform the road into “a re-imagined, reinvented public space.”

It’s a free-form event. There’s no official schedule to tell you what’s happening where. But organizers say they have heard of people planning to use that space for soccer matches, yoga classes, dance routines and political protests. And because many of CicLAvia’s planners are active in L.A.'s growing bicycle scene, there are sure to be cyclists galore.

A diverse group of bike activists, transportation experts, academics, artists and event planners has been working for a couple of years to make CicLAvia, pronounced seek-la-VEE-uh, a reality.

Many other cities around the world host similar events. The concept of the ciclovia, which is Spanish for bicycle path, originated in Bogota, Colombia, three decades ago. Now each Sunday there, hundreds of thousands of people take to the temporarily car-free streets.

Aaron Paley, CicLAvia’s project head, visited Bogota last year to see the event first-hand. At the time, he was skeptical that Los Angeles, with its sprawl and car culture, would be able to sustain a ciclovia.

But Bogota, with foothills, valleys, choked roadways and 5 million people, seemed to him a lot like Los Angeles. It even had a street that looked like Sunset Boulevard.


When Paley returned to L.A., he discovered that a collection of bicycling activists had also been talking about hosting a ciclovia.

Together they approached city leaders. The timing was perfect. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had just returned from the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009, and he was eager to find ways to make the city greener.

“In a city as congested as this one we need to promote multi-modal forms of transportation,” Villaraigosa said this week. “We have an addiction to the single-passenger automobile, and most of the infrastructure in this town focuses only on cars and only secondarily, and sometimes not at all, on pedestrians and cyclists.”

CicLAvia will cost about $280,000 and will be paid for with various grants and with county money from Measure R, which raised the sales tax half a cent to pay for transportation projects.


New York and San Francisco both host regular ciclovia-style events. Jen Petersen, a sociologist who studies streets, has been to them.

Without the hiss of horns and the rasp of buses, it’s easier for people to hear each other, Petersen said. In San Francisco, she saw children bicycling in the streets. In New York, she saw an older couple sitting in the median on Park Avenue, drawing the building where they had lived for years.

“We so easily think of the street as a fleeting space, a temporary place we want to get through as quickly as possible,” said Petersen, a Los Angeles native. “But if we can start to see those places, those in-between places, as we would our destination, then we really will begin to care for our city.”

Allison Mannos, a car-free 25-year-old who works at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, is looking forward to having a relaxed ride Sunday. L.A. cyclists have to be such defensive riders, she said, and biking here tends to be a solitary experience.


CicLAvia, she said, is significant because it shows that the community of bicycle activists is finally getting official recognition.

“It’s a crazy coup,” she said. “Bicycle activism has grown up in this real guerrilla fashion, and this is the first city-sponsored thing.”

The mayor will help kick off the CicLAvia festivities at 10 a.m. Sunday in Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights.

Villaraigosa was riding his bike on Venice Boulevard one evening in July when a taxi abruptly pulled in front of him, causing him to fall and break his elbow. He hasn’t been back on a bike since, he said. But he plans to ride the whole 7 1/2-mile route Sunday, wearing a helmet and elbow pads.