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Imagine: L.A. bicyclists in the driver's seat, one day a week

The Los Angeles Times: Imagine: L.A. bicyclists in the driver’s seat, one day a week

A group called cicLAvia wants to close major L.A. thoroughfares to cars and open them to bicyclists on Sundays. City officials are looking for ways to support the plan, which originated in Colombia.

By Matthew Fleischer
November 4, 2009 | 11:22 p.m.

Imagine Los Angeles without cars. A town where people ride their bikes and walk in the streets and the smells of tacos and veggie burgers drift through the air instead of exhaust.

Sound like a pipe dream? Not if a group called cicLAvia is successful. A volunteer coalition of bicycle advocates, transportation experts, artists and academics, cicLAvia wants to make Sundays in Los Angeles virtually car-free -- transforming the city’s streets into giant bike lanes and creating a public space that connects every neighborhood in the city.

"This city is so park poor, and so car dependent," says cicLAvia member and director of the Green L.A. Institute Jonathan Parfrey. "Air pollution is awful and childhood obesity is epidemic. But building new parks for people to get out of their cars and exercise can be prohibitively expensive. We want to create public space using the infrastructure we already have - our roads."

The idea, called a "ciclovia," isn’t new. A phenomenon across Latin America, the ciclovia was born in the Colombian city of Bogota 30 years ago. Car-choked and polluted, Bogota’s geography and sprawl very much mirrors that of Los Angeles. But every Sunday in Bogota, the city’s major avenues are shut down to cars and hundreds of thousands of cyclists take to the streets. CicLAvia wants to replicate that success in Los Angeles - a city not exactly known for being bicycle-friendly.

"It can be scary out there," admits cicLAvia’s Adonia Lugo, a PhD anthropology candidate at UC Irvine studying bicycle culture in the Southland. "Los Angeles has a very strong bike culture, but I think the casual rider has the perception that this is a dangerous city for cycling."

"I think the best thing about a ciclovia is that it would give people a chance to try biking, without having to feel like they’re risking their lives as soon as they leave the driveway," Lugo adds. "This would give people a safe space to travel around their neighborhoods without using a car."

However, says Parfrey, shutting down miles of city streets to traffic isn’t something a small organization of volunteers can accomplish on its own. "This is something that will be impossible to pull off without involvement from the city."

As it happens, members of cicLAvia met with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office on Oct. 7. Both sides came away from the meeting encouraged.

"We’re excited by the idea and we’re looking for ways to support it," says Romel Pascual, L.A.’s associate director of energy and the environment. "Making events like this happen is always in the details -- what neighborhoods to start with, the routes involved. But it’s definitely something we’re looking to explore in 2010."

That will cost money, but Parfrey says that an event like this has the potential to make money for the city.

"We’re looking at this as a potential economic driver," he explains. "Instead of driving out of town on weekends, people could cycle within the city limits and spend money in their own communities."

There are plenty who agree with Parfrey. The charity group California Foundation, whose mission is to eradicate poverty in underserved communities, has conditionally agreed to provide $20,000 to fund a ciclovia in Boyle Heights - an event that could prove a trial balloon of sorts.

"We don’t have to close 80 miles of streets all at one time," says cicLAvia member Aaron Paley, who is president of the group Community Arts Resources. "We can start small and build incrementally."

Paley says the way farmer’s markets were rolled out across Los Angeles -- one neighborhood at a time -- could prove the perfect model for ciclovia. The mayor’s office agrees with this approach and plans are being negotiated for a test run in the spring of 2010. The exact route is still being determined.

"We want complete community involvement in this process," says Paley. "If you start small in one neighborhood and put on a great event, other neighborhoods are hopefully going to take notice and say, ’We want this too.’"