For a few surreal hours Sunday, the car was stripped of its crown in Los Angeles and pavement was turned into playground.
Well, in part of the city, anyway. Gasoline still ruled most of the city’s streets, but on a 71/2 -mile stretch from East Hollywood through downtown and into Boyle Heights, there wasn’t a horn to be heard honking or a plume of exhaust to inhale.
Instead, a moving crowd that organizers estimated at 100,000 bicyclists, runners, walkers, skateboarders and roller-bladers came out for the city’s first CicLAvia — aimed at challenging widely held assumptions about how transit, exercise and the notion of public space play out in this auto-obsessed city.
The turnout and ease with which the event went off far surpassed the expectations of organizers, who had questioned whether Los Angeles could accommodate and tolerate the idea of shutting down heavily traveled streets for no other reason than to let Angelenos on foot and pedal have the run of the place.
“This was amazing — a huge success,” said an ebullient Aaron Paley, CicLAvia’s producer and a member of its steering committee. “This was about giving people of Los Angeles another way to experience their city.... It was about what belongs to us. The streets of L.A. belong to us. If we think to repurpose them, they are our greatest public space.”
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.
For the vast majority, that meant riding bikes. Streets normally clogged with cars and SUVs became two-way thoroughfares of the self-propelled. People of all shapes and ages turned out — weekend warriors rode swiftly on their fine-tuned bikes, young kids on training wheels labored to keep up with their parents, an elderly couple smiled broadly as they kept at a leisurely pace.
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.
“We’re alone in our cars. We pass above whole neighborhoods on freeways and never actually see them. Today, I’ve seen buildings I never took the time to lay eyes on before. Today gave people a chance to just slow down and it connected the neighborhoods of the city in a new way. That’s important,” said Rafael Navar, 32, who was taking a break on the 4th Street Bridge with his brother, sister-in-law and their three young kids.
People also talked with a sense of surprise that the city felt smaller and more manageable Sunday. Many said that, when they set out, they had expected the journey from East Hollywood to Boyle Heights would take far longer and be far more arduous than it was.
It was not lost on Cyndi Hubach, 49, and Kevin Mulcahy, 45, that the 45 minutes or so they took to cover the route may have been faster than what it would have taken in typical stop-and-go traffic. For them, and many others, that realization led to musings of what life could be like in Los Angeles — a city inhospitable to cyclists.
“Being able to ride freely and safely right through what you knew were usually really dangerous intersections, it got you thinking about what it could be like if the city created a network of dedicated bike routes. Getting from place to place would take on a whole new light,” Mulcahy, an architect, said.
For now, cycling advocates may have to settle for more one-off CicLAvia days. Paley said organizers are in the early stages of planning for four or five open-street days next year and one every month in 2012. The ultimate goal, he said, would be to make CicLAvia a weekly event.
There is plenty of precedent for that. The concept of the ciclovia, which is Spanish for bicycle path, originated in Bogota, Colombia, three decades ago.