Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Sunday's 10-mile street closure in Los Angeles is a sign of progress in a city short on public space
Ten miles of street might not seem like a lot in sprawling, spreading Los Angeles. But temporarily closing those 10 miles to car traffic – a seemingly sacrilegious idea in car-dependent L.A. – is creating a disproportionately large and, frankly, positive impact in the city.
This Sunday, 10 miles of city streets centered around downtown will be closed off to cars and opened up to pedestrians and cyclists for the city’s third CicLAvia event. Based on similar events known as ciclovias that started in Bogota, Colombia in 1974, the temporary street closure is a reclamation of public space that has been embraced by cities all over the world. At the core, it’s a basic idea: prevent cars from using streets, so people can.
“With a simple turn of the switch they become public space where people can be out, be active and meet their neighbors,” says Aaron Paley, who spearheaded the idea.
He says the concept was quick to catch on in L.A. An estimated 100,000 people attended each of the first two events last October and this past April, which Paley attributes to a pent up demand for a strong public space in what is a polycentric and very large city.
“We’ve led the world in innovative residential architecture, but not necessarily in civic architecture and public space,” Paley says.
Paley is also the president of Community Arts Resources, a cultural event production and planning company, and he’s had a longheld interest in bringing more civic activity to his native Los Angeles. On a trip a few years ago to see Bogota’s ciclovia firsthand, Paley was surprised at its similarities to L.A.
“It’s absolutely astonishing. It’s a huge, flat plain, full of city,” says Paley. “There’s a street that looks just like Sunset Boulevard.”
That cemented the idea that a ciclovia type event could work in L.A. After teaming up with a variety of groups in the city focusing on bicycling, public health, the environment and public space, Paley eventually took the idea to the city. Despite some hesitation form some departments and officials, the city council and the mayor’s office were very supportive.
By providing police, fire and street services, the city subsidizes about half of the costs of putting on CicLAvia. Paley estimates that this Sunday’s even will costs about $350,000 total, with much of the funding coming from foundation support and donations from the public. This 10-mile iteration is longer than the previous two, which had 7.5-mile routes.
“We want it to expand in every direction, but that’s what we could afford this time,” says Paley, who hopes to expand the reach to quarterly or even monthly CicLAvias.
He prefers to think of it as an ongoing program rather than an event. “It has implications not just the day that it happens,” Paley says.
Those implications are to bring people out onto the streets on their feet or bikes for what may be the first time. Showing residents that their streets can be useful for more than just cars is somewhat of a paradigm shift in L.A., especially in comparison to other U.S. cities like Portland, San Francisco or New York, which have hosted similar events. The fact that the idea for CicLAvia originated in South America, Paley says, is especially notable.
“Los Angeles has so much more to learn from Bogota, Mexico City, and Guadalajara than from Paris and New York, which have much more to do with each other than they do with us,” Paley says.
Sixty cities in South America host ciclovias every Sunday. Bogota closes down 80 miles of its streets. Los Angeles’ 10 miles may seem paltry, but it’s a good start. The emphatic response of locals to the street closures should be seen as a sign that the city is ready for more civic space like this, even if it’s only temporary.