Aaron Paley, co-founder of CicLAvia, the hugely popular bicycling and open-streets festival that began in Los Angeles in 2010, emailed me with news: He was planning to step down as the nonprofit organization’s executive director and take on a reduced role as executive producer. Since helping to start CicLAvia, the 57-year-old Paley has been wearing two hats; he is also president of the for-profit firm Community Arts Resources, or CARS, which assists in producing CicLAvia and other cultural events.
Was I interested, Paley asked, in writing about his move? Sure, if we could do it as a wide-ranging conversation about CicLAvia, his role at CARS and the future of mobility and public space in Los Angeles, his native city. We met for coffee at the Pie Hole in the arts district. What follows has been edited and condensed.
Why the decision to step down as executive director?
We started a strategic planning process at CicLAvia last year, and as a result we’re looking to chart out a sustainable future for the organization. We feel we need to build a broader base of support as we grow. So the organization will be hiring a new executive director as well as a development director, an operations manager and a digital communications specialist.
Part of this is disentangling CicLAvia from Community Arts Resources.
CicLAvia staff before either worked for CARS or they were independent contractors. As CicLAvia grew, it was important to have its own identity. We’re at a $2 million-a-year budget now, and there’s a general consensus among board and staff that we want to get to $3 million a year in the next couple of years. So we need to build capacity for that.
CicLAvia will be launching a search for an executive director. In your view, what does the ideal candidate look like?
We’ll be doing a national search. We’re looking for somebody who has an ease or comfort in more than one silo. So yes, it would be great to have somebody who’s from the environmental world or who really understands public health or who understands active transportation or an urbanist who understands the way cities work. But we can’t have somebody who only understands one of those. The wonderful aspect of CicLAavia is how it touches all these different worlds.
There aren’t too many things or places you could say that about. Maybe the L.A. River.
And in fact it was the river that led me to CicLAvia! I was obsessed with doing a river festival, which was going to be linear and 50 miles long. I got the Stanton Fellowship from the Durfee Foundation in 2008, and my thesis was to find better ways to activate public space in Los Angeles. So I was very excited about the river, developing this whole concept, and Claire Peeps, at the foundation, says to me, “You have got to go travel — one of the reasons we’re giving you this fellowship is to go find best practices around the world and bring them back to L.A.” And I said, “Claire, river festivals in other places have rivers with water in them.”
There’s no real equivalent to ours.
No. So then I say, “OK, the issue is that I want to create a linear festival. A linear urban festival.” I met with Jason Neville, a planner, and he said you have got to look up Ciclovia in Bogota. And I said, “Could you write that down? I didn’t get that.” And so I watched the Streetsblog video on Ciclovia that day. I was sold. Around the same time, Kit Rachlis at L.A. magazine says, “Antonio Villaraigosa just got reelected and we’re soliciting essays about what people want the mayor to do in his second term.” So I write an essay that says, “Mayor Villaraigosa, let’s create a Ciclovia for Los Angeles.”
This is after you’re back from Bogota?
No. I haven’t even gone yet! I write this thing right away, and it appears in the May 2009 issue. This is the issue that says on the cover, about Villaraigosa, “FAILURE.”
They weren’t exactly passing it around City Hall.
It was like verboten. But very soon I get this phone call from this woman Adonia Lugo and she says, “Hey, we’re working on a Ciclovia for Los Angeles, and we’ve been working on it for months.” So I meet in Barnsdall Park, on a Sunday, with three young women. They’ve got a name and a logo and a committee. They’ve gotten really far. At the end of the meeting, I get up, pull out my car keys and they all gasp. “You drove here?” It was unthinkable to them. So that’s how CicLAvia came to be.
Did you ever guess it would take off the way it has?
CicLAvia is the first thing I’ve done that has had this kind of traction. It didn’t just happen, it stayed in people’s hearts and consciousness.
Why do you think it got that response?
The timing couldn’t have been better. We appeared at this moment when there’s this community of people looking for new ways of moving through the city, of defining the city.
A number of things happened around the same time. The huge immigration-rights marches in 2006. And then Measure R in 2008 and the expansion of public transit. And then you’re right on the heels of that. These things begin to build on one another.
They’re indicators. They reflect a larger change that’s happening in the community. We had seen this in a scattered and diffuse way in all of our work. We knew that people were interested in engaging with the city, but all of a sudden it reached critical mass. And that has a lot to do with the demographic and generational transformation of the city as well.
Since then CicLAvia’s been expanding geographically. You’ll be in Pasadena at the end of May. Other cities in L.A. County are planning independent open-streets events. And you have a partnership with Metro, the transit authority. How have your relationships with these public bodies evolved?
It’s shifting. The remarkable thing was Villaraigosa signing on from the very first meeting, which was shocking. When we met, we presented to him what we considered a very far-flung idea — let’s close 7 1/2 miles of streets to cars and open them up to people. We got a green light like I’ve never gotten.
What about Eric Garcetti?
More support than Villaraigosa, if that’s possible. Mayor Garcetti is challenging the organization to work with the city to increase the frequency of CicLAvia, to get to a goal of doing it monthly.
What about weekly, like Mexico City and some other cities around the world? Could you see it happening every Sunday?
I think the next five-year plan, if we want to be Soviet about it, is to continue this rollout across the county and also to see if there’s a way to create a monthly event in the city of L.A. That’s enough for the next five years.
To me, a really fascinating goal would be to close a major east-west boulevard, like Wilshire, and a major north-south one to car traffic every Sunday. That would change the face of the city.
I agree. We know that doing the same route more than once, there’s huge benefits to that. We did Wilshire twice, and it was so much easier the second time. If we did pick a fixed route, we’d want to ask, what kind of things could we build into that route? Could we build in signage? Or easy ways to temporarily close the street, bollards that pop up?
A kind of infrastructure of the temporary.
Yes. Right now there’s a huge expense that comes with closing the streets. When it comes to CicLAvia routes, we’re asking, “What can we do to the cityscape that exists all those other days we’re not there?” I’m very proud that along the very first route we did in 2010, downtown, I think 90% of it is now striped with bike lanes. And it had no stripes when we started.
What are the other opportunities you see in helping reshape Los Angeles?
I think the big opportunity is neighborhoods coming into their own, having fully formed identities. Instead of just complete streets, let’s think of complete districts. To be in a place where you can do as many things as possible without getting in the car. That was a luxury that very, very few people could enjoy in their own neighborhoods when I was growing up.
Not to mention the whole larger idea of postwar L.A. worked against that. When the freeways were new they allowed Angelenos to think of the whole region as part of their “neighborhood.” Twenty minutes to everywhere. Now that dream is over.
Rick Caruso is planning to rebuild the movie theater in Pacific Palisades that used to be there. It’s a neighborhood, but everybody who lives there has to drive to Santa Monica to see a movie. When I look at the quilt of L.A., I want to see that same change, that same investment, in Garden Grove, in Huntington Park. That’s the big issue now: Can we help create a very different city, so it’s not just these islands of luxury? Can we create a great city everywhere?