CicLAvia founder Aaron Paley says L.A.’s biggest bicycle event isn’t about bikes, it’s about reclaiming public space

Aaron Paley says CicLAvia events are “beginning to shift the whole consciousness of the city as to what kind of city we can be” Photo by Kpups Photography courtesy of CicLAvia

Aaron Paley says CicLAvia events are “beginning to shift the whole consciousness of the city as to what kind of city we can be”
Photo by Kpups Photography courtesy of CicLAvia

Seven years ago, Aaron Paley was working out concepts for a public festival that would have spanned 50 miles of the L.A. River. Then he turned his attention from that concrete river to the rivers of concrete that flow through every neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Taking inspiration from Bogotá’s Ciclovia festival, Paley founded CicLAvia. The quarterly events close stretches of L.A.-area roadways to cars, giving free roam to bicyclists and pedestrians — if only for a few hours.

The largest CicLAvia to date connected downtown Los Angeles to Venice Beach in 2013. The event’s long-awaited return to the Westside takes place Sunday and incorporates Culver City, Mar Vista and Venice.

But the point of CicLAvia, Paley says, is less about pushing two-wheeled transportation than it is about activating public spaces that we’ve given up to cars.

“CicLAvia is not a bicycle event — it’s a public space event that you can experience on a skateboard, in your wheelchair, on foot, from a sidewalk café. I don’t want people to get the impression that it’s only a bicycle thing and if they don’t bring one they can’t participate,” he says. “My 89-year-old mom will walk half a mile and sit down at a café, and she’s had a great time. Everyone sees it differently and does it differently.”

Paley, 57, has a long history of producing public events that encourage shoe-leather exploration of the city and face-to-face contact among participants, including the 1987 Los Angeles Fringe Festival, the launch of the Grand Performances free outdoor concert series and programming for Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.

President and co-founder of the parent nonprofit Community Arts Resources, Paley plans to step aside from his role as CicLAvia’s executive director but will stay on as executive producer — a calculated move to help the phenomenon grow into a monthly happening.

— Joe Piasecki

What about Los Angeles can you experience differently on a bike or on foot vs. in a car?

Once you get out of your car and start experiencing things on the granular level of the sidewalk and the street, you see all the different offerings that you just drive by when you’re going 35, 50 miles an hour. Not just the stores and boutiques and restaurants, but little bits of street art or a beautiful tree or flower, or the architecture of a building. The other thing is that you get to talk to people who you don’t know. The barriers between people — the tin and glass walls of our cars — literally come down.

Do you believe public events such as CicLAvia are the best way to change how Angelenos engage with their neighborhoods?

Yes. They’re not the only way, but these public events are easier to do than going through an environmental impact report, planning for 10 years, raising tens of millions of dollars and moving dirt around. By doing a temporary event, you have the opportunity to transform the city for a short period of time and show Angelenos just what is possible here. I think that’s what CicLAvia does — when you take all the cars off the street, the city looks like a completely different place. It feels like you’re living in some utopian future.

How is L.A.-area public space treated differently now than it was in 1987, when you did the Los Angeles Fringe Festival?

My grandmother had a property on Rose Avenue by Pioneer Bakery. We used to come, starting probably about 1960 — that’s as far back as I remember, when I was three years old I remember coming to Venice. Ocean Front Walk was always a place without cars, and the idea that there was a place without cars in Los Angeles, that was Venice for me. Venice has always been one of the great public spaces of Los Angeles.

Since the ‘80s there’s definitely been a turn in the sense that we’ve started to add public space and we’ve started to be aware of it and as a city we’ve started to think about what is good public space. We are starting to invest in public space. Santa Monica built Tongva Park, for example. You see this all over L.A. County — an investment in making places for people, not just making places for cars.

The Mar Vista Farmers Market appears to be a big part of this CicLAvia…

Farmers markets are very much part of what CicLAvia means. CicLAvia is this temporary repurposing of the street, and that’s what farmers markets have been doing for the past 25 years in Los Angeles. This kind of itinerant market coming to town is really a very old tradition. We got rid of it in Los Angeles when we went into this car frenzy so much that the only thing left of it was the market at Third Street and Fairfax — some kind of tourist thing, like ‘Look at the way people used to by produce.’ We re-introduced the concept to ourselves 25 years ago by doing these temporary market events — take the cars out and let the farmers come in. That’s part of the whole premise, that the streets belong to us and we can use them in all kinds of ways; we don’t just have to use them for cars all the time.

How do music and the performing arts play a role in building community?

They’re building blocks. In Los Angeles we’re lucky that besides all the different geographic communities we have all these different ethnic communities. We have amazing diversity here, and there’s an overlay between the places that have arts and culture associated with them and the people who live there. We have this wonderful, rich culture just below the surface. When you bring it out and put it on the street, those are the building blocks that allow people to share an experience. It brings people together in a nonverbal way and is part of what makes a great city.

What’s next for CicLAvia after you change roles?

The organization is going to continue to grow and expand. We’re looking to keep up the pace of quarterly CicLAvias and go to new places over the years. At the same time, Mayor Garcetti has challenged us to do eight more each year so that we’re doing one a month. We’d have eight CicLAvias that are smaller in scale and the four larger quarterly ones. We’re trying to figure out how quickly we can ramp up.

What’s the ballpark attendance for a CicLAvia?

Two years ago when we connected downtown to Venice, we had upwards of 150,000 people. It was the most-attended event in our history. A small CicLAvia is in the 40,000 to 50,000 range, the bigger ones 75,000 to 125,000. We’re working with UCLA and the RAND Corp. on how to [more precisely] count.

How much do they cost?

These really big quarterly CicLAvias are costing somewhere between $350,000 and $500,000.But if you’re getting 100,000 people, it’s like $5 each. We think it’s worth it. We think we’re making a big difference in terms of creating this great joyous day for Angelenos and beginning to shift the whole consciousness of the city as to what kind of city we can be.