CicLAvia heads down a new road

October 3, 2012 

The Bicycle District is usually packed for CicLAvia but now the event is rolling out to new communities.

For the first time since its inception, the freewheeling car-free street party known as CicLAvia won’t be cycling through Los Angeles’ Bicycle District when it rolls around this Sunday.

The Heliotrope and Melrose neighborhood known for its pioneering, bike-friendly ethos and jaunty nickname “Hel-Mel” has been penciled out, this time around, in favor of a map that stretches farther south than ever before—from downtown to Exposition Park and USC. It also includes a new northerly hub in Chinatown, an eastward stretch to the Soto Gold Line station in Boyle Heights, and a stop at downtown’s new Grand Park.

As CicLAvia prepares for its fifth outing, its new map is just the most visible sign of an enterprise that’s literally on the move, stretching into new areas easily reached by L.A.’s growing public transit network. Pedestrians are taking their biggest step yet toward claiming their place on the pavement, as Los Angeles Walks sponsors a mid-day “walking parade” dubbed WalkLAvia down the middle of Figueroa from 8th Street to Exposition Park. And, with ambitious plans to expand and integrate CicLAvia more deeply into the fabric of the city, efforts are underway to significantly increase the amount of corporate support to sustain the event in years to come.

The course is actually slightly shorter this time—9.1 miles, compared to the previous 10. But clearly, CicLAvia’s cultural footprint is big, and growing, with more than 100,000 participants expected Sunday for the event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“We instantly, overnight, became the largest car-free event in the United States,” said Aaron Paley, who helped found CicLAvia and now serves as its executive producer. “We went from being an idea…to becoming something that Angelenos expect out of their city. A car-free day is now just as much a part of Los Angeles as the Venice boardwalk, or the Hollywood sign. We changed the conversation in Los Angeles.”

It was never (entirely) about the bike, Paley said, noting that three distinct groups—cyclists, environmentalists and public space planners—came together to create the original CicLAvia in 2010. They’re now being joined by many others, including health activists, as the event enters the L.A. mainstream.

“CicLAvia itself is much larger than a biking event,” Paley said.

One of the signs that walkers will be carrying in their parade.

The new route, thanks to its proximity to the recently-opened Expo Line, makes it easier for many communities to take part, said Tafarai Bayne, community affairs manager of the neighborhood action group T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. and a CicLAvia board member.

“We definitely think we’ll increase turnout from neighborhoods like South L.A. and the Westside,” Bayne said, noting a “huge surge” in youth cycling that provides a natural constituency for the event. The setting makes sense, too, he said: “We have really big, wide boulevards that this event can take advantage of.”

In the Bicycle District, a popular café, Cafecito Organico, is having to adjust to the idea that CicLAvia will be passing it by this time around. “It is quite a disappointment,” said Angel Orozco, one of the partners in the business. “CicLAvia is our busiest day of the year.”

But at Orange 20 Bikes, another neighborhood fixture, customers seem to be taking the new route in stride as a necessary step in drawing new participants to CicLAvia.  Most are eager to see their collective “passion and excitement” for the event shared with “underserved communities” around Los Angeles, said Nona Varnado, Orange 20’s outreach coordinator.

And if CicLAvia won’t come to the Bicycle District, the Bicycle District will come to CicLAvia—in the form of an Orange 20 team that will be setting up shop Sunday at the Mariachi Plaza hub in Boyle Heights, offering free bicycle maintenance and community education.

“Wherever CicLAvia is, we’ll be there,” Varnado said.

To borrow some familiar buzzwords from the presidential race, it’s as if regular cyclists are “the base,” and everyone else is a “swing voter.” And turnout, naturally, is the name of the game.

“Everyone I know in the bike world comes out,” said Bobby Gadda, president of the CicLAvia board. “It’s like a convention of bicyclists. Now it’s going beyond that. There’s all kinds of people mixed in. That’s what’s so great about it.”

A particular effort is afoot to boost pedestrian participation. It’s no accident that the official press release describes CicLAvia as a “car-free, linear park for strolling, biking, playing, and experiencing the city from a new perspective.”

The 3-mile WalkLAvia parade down Figueroa (“Strollers welcome”) aims to send a festive but clear signal that pedestrians have just as much right as bicyclists to enjoy the car-free streets.

During the previous CicLAvia, “we found some bicyclists a little on the aggressive side,” said Jessica Meaney, an L.A. Walks volunteer and the Southern California coordinator for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

The new route down Figueroa is big and open, and the hope is that bicyclists will notice the parading pedestrians and “share the space,” Meaney said. “We consider ourselves traffic calmers.”

CicLAvia is free to participants but it’s not free to put on. The city of Los Angeles shares the cost with the CicLAvia nonprofit organization, which raises money from foundations, government grants, individual donations (including proceeds from the sale of raffle tickets and merchandise) and from corporations.

Current corporate support comes from firms such as REI, Small Planet Foods and Larabar.

“Corporate support, we hope, will grow over the next two years. It’s been small so far,” executive producer Paley said. “We hope to actually change that so corporations become 20 to 25%” of CicLAvia’s fundraising.

“We are definitely looking at a whole range of things,” he added. “It’s all about making it sustainable.”

The route has changed, but the 4th Street Bridge is still a key part of the CicLAvia itinerary.

Posted 10/3/12

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