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L.A. biking's big break

When L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa fractured his elbow in a bike crash, it was the break heard 'round the cycling world. CicLAvia events show how the wheels are turning. Mind & Body

January 26, 2013|Roy M. Wallack
  • Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rides in L.A.'s CicLAvia in April 2012.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rides in L.A.'s CicLAvia in April 2012. (David Starkopf / Office…)

On July 17, 2010, after a P90X workout, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his police bodyguard began riding mountain bikes west in the bike lane on Venice Boulevard. About 6:30 p.m., heading toward La Cienega Boulevard, they were cut off by a taxi cab. Villaraigosa flipped over the handlebars. His elbow shattered on the asphalt.

Two days later, with his arm in a cast, he told his staff, "Let's use this as a teachable moment" -- and for good reason. He and the city had a lot to learn about how to make bikes safer to ride and how to integrate them into the transportation system.

Before the crash, L.A. was known as one of the least bike-friendly cities in the country. Advocates had struggled unsuccessfully for years to get bike lanes and paths. As other big cities raced ahead with cycling infrastructure and automated bike-sharing programs, using cycling to lessen transportation congestion and pollution, L.A. did nothing. The city was known more for anti-cyclist road rage, personified by a Brentwood doctor who was jailed for injuring two cyclists on Mandeville Canyon Road in 2008.

That same year, Alex Kenefick of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition said, "The mayor has 20 things on his plate, and cycling isn't one of them."

Slate magazine called L.A. "a pathologically unfriendly bike city."

Changing course

But that was then. Villaraigosa became a cycling advocate after his accident. And L.A. has three high-profile bike projects on its agenda: a 1,680-mile bikeway plan to be installed over the next 30 years; CicLAvia, a Sunday party-on-wheels on car-free routes that draws 100,000 to 200,000 people; and an inexpensive bike rental program that starts this month and will eventually put 4,000 bikes on the roads -- the second-biggest rental program in the country.

In 2012, the League of American Bicyclists for the first time put L.A. on its list of Bike Friendly Communities. Thousands of Angelenos who never cycle-commuted or even rode at all are now doing so. Based on the experience of cities like Paris, which saw traffic congestion drop by 7% after it installed an extensive bike-sharing and bike route program, L.A.'s new focus on cycling adds to a legacy of transit projects (such as the Expo Line) that Villaraigosa hopes to leave behind when his tenure ends in June.

What happened? Was it all due to the bike accident?

"There was actually a lot more to it," says Villaraigosa. "There was Copenhagen and Mexico City. And there were a lot of players involved."

The mayor was in Denmark in 2009 to speak at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit.

"Everywhere I look in Copenhagen, everybody's on bikes," he said. "They were even riding in the rain in 10 degrees! That assessment of the L.A. County Bike Coalition was right: We didn't have biking on our list. That changed after Copenhagen."

The Danish capital has the world's lowest big-city carbon footprint and its highest bike usage, accounting for 36% of trips to work and school.

Adonia Lugo, a UC Irvine doctoral candidate, had developed the name CicLAvia and the concept for a Los Angeles event after seeing 1 million people riding in the famed Ciclovias of Bogota, Colombia, which were founded in 1974 and had spread to other cities. Her CicLAvia partner, Aaron Paley, a street festival planner, made his presentation in October 2009 to Romel Pascual, deputy mayor for the environment.

"He just looked at me when I was finished and said, 'The mayor wants to do this' -- without even talking to him first!" says Paley.

Initially there was no rush. But after Villaraigosa saw a Ciclovia event in Mexico City and later had his accident, CicLAvia was set for Oct. 10, 2010. (The tab was $320,000, with $120,000 from CicLAvia, the rest from the city.)

CicLAvia wheels out

No one had a clue what the turnout might be. "The night before, I was so worried that I couldn't sleep," Pascual says. "I was on the Internet late seeing who was talking about it."

Paley was sure the crowds would come. "The chutzpah was doing it in car-crazed L.A.," he says. "But I thought it would work because of that -- because everyone here actually craves connectedness."

He was right: An estimated 100,000-plus people showed up for the first CicLAvia along 7.5 miles of streets from East L.A. to East Hollywood.

"It was a transformative event," Paley says. "CicLAvia turned me into a cyclist. I didn't even have a bike. Now I ride all the time. I'll ride to Trader Joe's in my neighborhood -- never did that before."

The mayor's team hoped that CicLAvia would have implications beyond a rolling block party.

"We needed to show that cycling was a viable option -- not a scary thing," says Pascual. "And CicLAvia did that. It changed the paradigm. It changed the mind-set for average people and for city councilmen who'd been resistant to cycling."

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