How Downtown L.A. Became One Gigantic Bike Park

The city that invented traffic jams opened its streets to bikes, scooters, skateboards, wheelchairs…

(Photo: Kristina Bravo)

Oct 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

Downtown Los Angeles became the largest park in the country during Sunday's 10th CicLAvia event, drawing tens of thousands of people to streets that were shut off to vehicular traffic all day.

“There are a lot of people who want to ride on a daily basis but don’t feel safe on the streets,” said 28-year-old Alek Bartrosouf, the policy and campaigns manager of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. He was one of about 30 people who met in front of the central library in surburban Glendale to make the ride to one end of the closure area, Echo Park Lake. “CicLAvia provides this opportunity where [bicyclists] don't have to worry about getting hit by a car. It just shows you the potential for biking in L.A. If the city provides adequate and safe spaces for people to ride, they’ll use them.”

LACBC, a nonprofit that advocates for safer bike lanes, is one of many groups that regularly attend CicLAvia. The daylong events take place every three or four months, shutting down streets across various sections of Los Angeles so that tens of thousands of cyclists can ride free of the city’s erratic sea of cars. CicLAvia is funded by donations and federal and state programs for the environment, public health, and alternative modes of transportation. Five more events are slated between December 2014 and October 2015.

It all began in Bogotá in 1976 as Ciclovía, or "bicycle path"; it was created to alleviate pollution and street congestion. Today Ciclovía is a 70-mile route in the Colombian capital that draws more than 1 million people every Sunday. It has since inspired other cities, from Atlanta to Gold Coast City, Australia. Los Angeles launched CicLAvia in October 2010.

“We had some of the preliminary meetings in my living room,” Jonathan Parfrey explained as he held his bike during a rest. As a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Water and Power, he brought the idea to then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s staff, who “immediately understood how exciting this event could be.”

Parfrey now is the vice chair of the CicLAvia Board of Directors and the executive director of Climate Resolve, an organization that pushes for climate change action in the city. Though he said he admired Sept. 21's People’s Climate March, a global protest held just before the U.N. Climate Summit convened in New York City, Parfrey thinks that bringing the issue home with events like CicLAvia is what’s going to change the game.

“What we require on an international scale is to have two-thirds of the Senate ratifying a treaty,” said Parfrey. “Right now we can’t get 50 senators” to vote for action on climate change. “What we need to do is grassroots organizing throughout the U.S. and the best way to do that is to make climate change relevant in people’s lives. It's the most global of issues, but we're not going to win until we make it local so people know exactly what's happening in their own backyards.”

Los Angeles, home of the world’s first freeway, virtually invented urban sprawl, smog, and traffic jams. Yet in the past couple of decades it’s done a lot to cut its carbon footprint per GDP, through incentivizing solar power, planting trees, and investing billions in public transportation. CicLAvia, said Parfrey, shows that “in our city, we can find another way of doing things.”

Correction Oct. 6, 2014: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of CicLAvia events that are planned to occur before October 2015.