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Q+A> Aaron Paley Reinvents LA Streets
As CicLAvia returns this weekend, its founder speaks about the project's success, expansion, and goals for the future.
Robert Pacheco

Los Angeles embraced its first “CicLAvia” last October when an estimated 100,000 bicyclists, walkers, skateboarders and roller-bladers took over a 7.5 mile no-auto route from East Hollywood to Boyle Heights. The concept of closing city streets to car traffic for a non-racing event on Sundays was adopted from Bogotá, Colombia where the event is called Ciclovia, Spanish for "bike lane." I'ts Los Angeles success was good news for Aaron Paley, the event’s producer and one of its founders.

The president of the organization Community Arts Resources, Paley is now preparing the expansion of CicLAvia to three Sundays in 2011, starting with this Sunday, April 10 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then July 10 and Oct. 9. It is an expensive and complicated affair, involving money and cooperation from the city bureaucracy, local businesses, charitable corporations and foundations.  Paley, 53 and a Los Feliz area resident, says he hopes to schedule the event six times in 2012 and monthly by 2013. At his office in the art deco landmark Pellissier Building on Wilshire Boulevard, Paley recently discussed CicLAvia with writer L. J. Gordon.

The Architect's Newspaper: Do you think Los Angeles is more or less receptive to something like this than more pedestrian-oriented cities like San Francisco or New York?

Aaron Paley: More receptive. And the reason I say more receptive is because it’s different. I mean we don’t have parades on Fifth Avenue every weekend. We don’t have these regular things that move throughout our streets and engage people in this way. I think LA is actually hungry for this.

Why not make this every Sunday? Or are there too many obstacles to that?

There are huge obstacles. Once a month is already daunting. I believe it’s definitely doable, but this project is only sustainable if it’s a public-private partnership, something along the lines of the Olympics in 1984. There also are some cultural issues with liability, which are very different than in South America. There, if your driveway is blocked, you can call a volunteer from the organizing company (to guide the vehicle out of the event). It is no big deal. But that is absolutely taboo here. We cannot have vehicles in the road once we declare it open for CicLAvia. And doing it every week here is too much to ask of the people along the route, that every Sunday they would have the same inconvenience.

A video of CicLAvia from 2010.
Courtesy StreetFilms

I see the route is the same for April 10 as it was last year. What about extending it?

We are hoping by October that we will be able to add an additional spur. Either we will be able to go south to the Exposition Park area or further into Boyle Heights. And we are looking to go through Chinatown to the LA River.

Are you doing anything different this time?

One of the major things is to get the message across that it is more than just a bike event. So we are encouraging people to come out on foot, in wheelchairs, on skateboards, and roller skates or just to hang out and realize you don’t have to be on a bike.

Another different thing is that we are looking at how we can encourage more opportunities for businesses along the way. In Little Tokyo, we are hoping to have a bike valet and coupon program. So you park your bike, and it would be free to park if you go to a local restaurant or store and get validated, and you could get a coupon that also will give you a discount.

And we are asking the community to bring their creativity out and do things on the route. Last time we had yoga classes, dodge ball games, and a marching band. About 50 things were happening. That’s what I want to expand. I want the creativity of the city to be on display. This is kind of like the Burning Man idea. Come out and do it yourself.

CicLAvia route map 2011

Map of CicLAvia's 2011 route.
Courtesy CicLAvia [Click to enlarge.]

Last year seemed overwhelmingly dominated by bikes and seemed almost dangerous for walkers. Have you considered separate lanes for pedestrians?

We don’t want to do that. In these other cities, it works (without separate lanes). And we’re just starting here. We came out with our first event and the bike community really got the message to come, bless their souls. We want them to come again. We also want everyone else to come. And what we need to get across to everyone on bike is to respect the pedestrian as well. It could be better. We are working on the rules of the road and trying to get that message out.

How do you want people to interact with the city?  

We look at this as molding and shaping public space through this temporary intervention. We’re hoping this is the kind of thing that reshapes the way people perceive their city, which will change the way they use their city and change their expectations for the city. We think this can have as big an impact as building a park. We are adding this whole element of new public space, which can be done efficiently and sustainably and cheaply without actually building something.

And what about people just observing or going into areas where they’ve never been before?

The thing that people said to us was: "Oh my God, I didn’t realize how small LA is. I didn’t realize I could get from here to Boyle Heights in ten minutes." The feeling was that LA is much more intimate, and who knew how beautiful it is? That is the right to be able to look at your city and own your city when people are not in their cars.

Was there an area on the route that was most surprising or attractive to you last year?

Of course, being able to ride over the Fourth Street bridge is spectacular. But actually I think the New Hampshire Avenue part between Melrose and Third Street was an eye-opener for me and a lot of other people. It was so beautiful in that neighborhood. The urban fabric is intact, with the pattern of the buildings, the setbacks for the duplexes and triplex, and all the palm trees. It is so stately and graceful.

L.J. Gordon