Two years ago, on October 10, 2010, Angelenos across Downtown awoke to a strange sight: seven miles of arterial streets in the heart of the city were closed down to vehicular traffic. Of course, the City had shut down the streets before for coordinated events like the L.A. Marathon or AIDS Walk, but this time was different: CicLAvia, an "open street" event, was intended for anyone and everyone to come out, on bicycle or on foot, just to enjoy a Sunday afternoon together.
And come out they did – conservative estimates peg attendance in the tens of thousands, while the Los Angeles Times put the figure on the order of 100,000.
"The difference between a street that's full of cars and a street that's full of people is just ... it's exciting," said Adonia Lugo, one of the early advocates for the event.
City officials, on the other hand, were skeptical at first. Then, as support for the event gained momentum, that skepticism turned to apprehension – that no one would show, that the whole endeavor would flop.
But this type of event has a history of success stretching as far back as the '60s, taking root in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Ottawa. Still, the most recognized open street event throughout the world is Bogotá's weekly Ciclovía, now a household name synonymous with the tradition (and, obviously, the namesake of its Angeleno counterpart).
"Somehow in Bogotá, a crime-ridden city of fierce traffic, Ciclovía took root in a way it hadn't in North American cities," writes Aron. "It has since become an institution, held every Sunday, spanning roughly 75 miles. On this single day, as many as 1 million Colombians use the route for everything from parades, protests and performances to simply running errands."
Making an event like this work in a city as auto-dependent as Los Angeles took a great deal of cooperative planning. CicLAvia was unique among road closure-worthy special events in that it set aside channels, directed by law enforcement officers, where vehicles could pass through. "The goal is to not shut down the city," says city traffic engineer Stephen Villavaso of the "soft closures." "If you don't allow cars to cross, the likely outcome is a lot of traffic, which wouldn't help us in the long run."
"It was really a leap of faith," said Jonathan Parfrey, head of the Green L.A. Coalition. "We didn't know if anyone would turn up."