CicLAvia, the Largest Open Streets Event in the U.S., is Back

As we exited Highway 110, heading east toward Wilmington, the landscape grew more industrial. We passed an electrical substation just as a massive oil refinery came into view. My sister and I were headed to CicLAvia – Wilmington, an open streets event with 2.25 miles of road open to people and closed to cars. We both felt puzzled as we looked around, wondering where a lively, human-centric event was supposed to take place against this industrial backdrop.

We were down in Los Angeles photographing a wedding (my sister is a photographer, and I occasionally assist). On a hopeful whim, I looked to see if CicLAvia was happening anywhere in LA that weekend, sensing that the “hot vax summer” might see big open-air events like this come back. To my extreme delight, the Sunday after the wedding was not only a CicLAvia event, but the first one since COVID. CicLAvia, a geographical spin on the global movement called Ciclovia, which started in Colombia, is an LA-based nonprofit that catalyzes vibrant public spaces, active transportation, and good health through car-free streets. CicLAvia engages with people to transform our relationships with our communities and with each other.

My former (sigh) coworker Alejandra wrote a wonderful piece on life lessons she’d gained from Ciclovia, having grown up in Columbia where the open streets movement started nearly 50 years ago. This movement has spread the world over since then, and now the biggest one in the U.S. occurs in Los Angeles.

The neighborhood of Wilmington came on my radar back in 2010 when I took my first bike tour from Santa Cruz to Carlsbad down the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). PCH goes right through Wilmington, but everything I saw was so new to me at the time that Wilmington didn’t stand out. I’ve passed through it on several subsequent bike tours since then, but it wasn’t until right around the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020 that Wilmington captured my attention. I watched the film District 15, a beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately inspiring film about the fight for environmental justice in Wilmington. Wilmington contains a high concentration of oil drilling, oil refining, and the associated transportation of material, creating a heavy pollution burden for the community that calls this neighborhood home. One of the current battles is to push the LA City Council to put a 2,500-ft buffer in place between the oil drilling and residences.

It was against this backdrop that we entered an oasis of beauty and fun, an island of humanity that couldn’t help but energize us both after an exhausting workday the day before.

In the span of a few blocks, we went from industrial badlands to a densely populated neighborhood street with signs of an open street event happening nearby. We parked and unloaded my cargo bike and strapped helmets on. My sister hopped on the back of the bike, and I shoved off toward the start of the closed road.

Once we crossed the threshold of the road closure, it was like we entered a portal. Immediately, my heart started racing and a grin erupted. I felt like a kid again. My sister, who was sitting on the back of my cargo bike, was also making sounds of excitement as we approached the road before us that was covered in people rather than cars. Every square foot had something going on: dogs, low-rider bikes, scooters, and bikes of every color, style, and age. Tiny humans were running around, and families were riding together. Colorful and stylish roller skaters moved fluidly. There were pop-up bike mechanic stands, vaccine pop-ups, helmet giveaways, food, and more.

For my sister, who unlike me doesn’t daydream about reimagined streets and active transportation all the time, this experience was eye opening, engaging, and fun! “I didn’t know what to expect going in,” she explained. “There was so much diversity of people, and it was such a fun vibe and scene. I was in awe of the exquisite low-rider bikes and the talented riders on wheelie bikes. It was great to see another part of LA and attend such a cool and well-organized event. Overall, my main takeaways were that it was fun, people seemed to be in a good headspace, and families with young kiddos were riding in the street together – how cool is that!”

I stopped by the information booth and talked with a CicLAvia staff member, who said that everyone was excited to be back after the COVID hiatus. They mentioned that each individual CicLAvia event represents months of work, coordination, logistics, volunteer recruitment, marketing, and more, but that, when it all comes together, it’s worth it every time. For them, what rings true is that these events provide a one-of-a-kind experience and case study for what can happen when people, not cars, are able to safely move and experience their neighborhoods. They estimate that tens of thousands of people were attending that day; in some of their other event locations, such as downtown LA, they can see hundreds of thousands of people in a single day. In fact, on their website, they state that CicLAvia has five times more people using its temporary park space during event days than are using all of the other parks in the city of Los Angeles combined.

If CicLAvia’s mission is to catalyze vibrant public spaces, active transportation, and good health through car-free streets, I’d consider their mission to be fully realized in these events. The positive community energy is palpable. After the event, CicLAvia reported, “Again and again, people along the route told us how magical the day felt, how much they missed us, and how important CicLAvia is to Los Angeles.”

Back at work, as I was recounting my experience from CicLAvia, our youth team was gearing up to attend Ciclovía Soledad. My coworker Callie sent me the following report from the Soledad event, with many common threads from CicLAvia present at this event too.

On the Sunday morning of August 22nd, Callie left misty Santa Cruz and headed south toward sunny Soledad for the much-awaited and anticipated Ciclovía. Youth volunteers met Callie and her party with smiling eyes (their actual smiles were concealed by masks) and guided them toward a spot at the end of the usually bustling Front Street. The main streets of Soledad were closed off to cars for the event, encouraging the community to move freely using active transportation to explore outdoor Zumba classes, information and activity booths, cultural arts, and phenomenal food. Ecology Action’s booth provided an “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader?” activity wheel, ABC quick bike safety check demonstrations, biking and walking safety handouts, and prizes (for those who proved they were smarter than a 5th grader). The team had the pleasure of talking with community members, one of the standouts being Soledad’s Mayor and cyclist, Anna Velazquez, who signed up to volunteer with Ecology Action’s youth programs and was blown away by the map they provided of Soledad’s current bike infrastructure. “Wow, I didn’t realize we had so many bike lanes!” she exclaimed. Among the attendees, most were on foot, others were biking or scooting, and one notable skater was stoked to have the streets open to practice. It was so inspiring to see families walking and riding their bikes together, sporting their newly won helmets, bike lights, and bells, and stopping at Ecology Action to obtain helpful tips and challenge their kiddos to answer safety questions. Callie was sure that there was nothing more exciting than watching your 2nd grader answer a 5th-grade question correctly: the “woohoos,” high fives, and “way to gos” were priceless. Ciclovía Soledad went above and beyond by not only opening a space for the community to wheel and walk safely, but also by providing excellent resources and activities for public health, youth and senior safety, environmental conservation, and cultural inclusivity through dance and art. Although we are still navigating the challenges of the pandemic, the smiling eyes above everyone’s masks were all that Callie and her team needed to see in order to know that Ciclovía Soledad was a success.

We are excited to get the chance to represent Ecology Action at Ciclovía Salinas in the fall, hopefully (date TBD).

These events are becoming more common, and, as with most feedback loops, more events and more people coming out means more events and more people coming out! There is a fun-looking Ciclovia-style event in San Jose called Viva CalleSJ on September 19. In addition, the word on the street is that we’ll be looking forward to an Open Streets Watsonville event sometime in October, a.k.a. Biketober.