May 19, 2020 - From the May, 2020 issue

Romel Pascual on CicLAvia’s 10 Years of Reimagining Public Streets

Since 2010 CicLAvia’s mission has been to catalyze vibrant public spaces, active transportation, and good health through car-free streets. Now, as the organization celebrates its 10th anniversary and cities around the world are working to ensure that streets currently emptied of traffic and congestion remain that way post-pandemic, TPR spoke with CicLAvia Executive Director Romel Pascual. He shares how 10 years of CicLAvia’s public open-space celebrations have offered the residents of LA County opportunities for rediscovery of their own communities. Pascual reflects on the importance of building Angeleno’s confidence in using their streets, the responsibility of drivers to share the road safely, as well his hope that CicLAvia can bring people joy and together again once shelter-in-place is lifted.


“It’s always been CicLAvia’s mission to have people reimagine what their streets could and should look like.”—Romel Pascual

Romel, our interview occurs on the 10th anniversary of CicLAvia and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, when people are sheltered-in-place. Streets around the world are emptied of motoring and traffic congestion, and some cities are working to ensure the ‘new-normal’ will include far fewer cars on the streets. What’s your message, now, during this pandemic, as CicLAvia celebrates its 10th anniversary?

Romel Pascual: The message is behavior change. Inherently, it’s always been CicLAvia’s mission to have people reimagine what their streets could and should look like, even pre-pandemic. Over the last nearly 10 years, we’ve gone through more than 60 of the 120 communities that make up Los Angeles, and it’s clear that a couple of things happened.

People discovered in new ways their own communities, and communities they’ve only heard about but hadn’t visited. I think over time what we’ve been trying to emphasize was how CicLAvia shaped your thinking.

Having done 35 of these CicLAvia events, it’s all about the ability for folks to use the streets right in front of their door. Before, the first inclination was to jump into a car and go somewhere, now, with the shelter-in-place mandate, folks’ default isn’t to jump in the car. That was what we were hoping—that the default would change by just showing that the streets can be used in a very joyful way.

Even when I bike, ride, or walk in my neighborhood of Eagle Rock, I’m noticing a lot more people because there are fewer cars. If you’ve been to CicLAvia, there are certain fun memories that get triggered about the use of streets, and people are using them now.

In a TPR interview with CicLAvia founder Aaron Paley, more than 10 years ago, he said, "In many ways our success has made it a little difficult for me to get the message across that it’s not just about bicycles. Seeing 100,000 people on television and in pictures on bicycles at CicLAvia is a wonderful thing, but I can say that I really see this as a public space event more than anything else."

Still true?

Yes, it is about public space, but over the years it’s become about being ‘one’ people-centric community. The physical space of a street—if you take the acreage of the streets we’ve been on—is bigger than any of the enormous parks we’re all familiar with. What we do with the public space is allow folks the confidence to use it. By doing that, it shapes their ability to use it more than just on a Sunday.

In the early days CicLAvia was, “Did you know we had these streets?” or “Did you know that Wilshire Blvd had this certain type of architecture?” When you’re in a car, your whole mindset is to go from Point A to Point B, and not anything in between.

By allowing people to see what’s in between, it really opens folks up to different experiences, and we’re not talking about any one kind of experience. I think the beauty of it is allowing folks to just do what they feel comfortable doing. You realize that there’s a certain level of equity associated with what we do, because it doesn’t matter what income level you are, what part of the city or region you’re from, or what shoes you’re wearing. What matters is that everyone is experiencing that one thing in real time and having the same set of feelings about it.

You don’t start with “where are you going?” at a CicLAvia; you just say “I’m here.” Nothing really has changed over the years. Especially now with the pandemic, people are rediscovering their neighborhoods.

Recount, given this is CicLAvia’s 10th anniversary, some of the events and distinct neighborhoods that have been featured over the decade.

We’ve had 35 of those events, the first one being in the Heart of LA in 2010 with a 7-mile route. In those 7 miles, you’ve gone through MacArthur Park, Westlake, Pico/Union, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Downtown, Arts District, and Boyle Heights. You realize that there are dozens of neighborhoods that you experience in a very short distance.

Over time, we’ve really diversified where we’ve been because the City of LA is over 500 square miles with more than 100 distinct neighborhoods. We’ve gone as far south as San Pedro/Wilmington and as far north as San Fernando Valley. Regionwide, the furthest east we’ve been is Claremont. The neighborhoods that we've been to are places that I think folks have only heard about. Certainly, in South LA and Watts, people have been very open to doing CicLAvia—the community has been tremendous—but folks realized that the local gems in the neighborhoods are not the ones we normally know about.

We did Hollywood Blvd to West Hollywood. Hollywood Blvd is very iconic, but folks didn’t realize that when we did West Hollywood—on Santa Monica and Highland—we had to translate all of our materials into 5 different languages. You begin to appreciate the diversity of Los Angeles just by virtue of how we do outreach. Some folks didn’t realize there was a Little Armenia or a Thai Town, we just pass by those blue signs.

The appreciation is about the fact that cultural diversity is built into LA. We identify as being part of different neighborhoods, because the LA way is to ask, “Hi, how are you? Where are you from?” When you’re at CicLAvia, you realize you are part of this bigger ‘Angeleno’ concept.

There was a point early in our history when Aaron and I would talk, and folks would actually ask, “what is this and why are you coming into my community?” There was a lot of apprehension. I also remember going to a neighborhood council meeting and a person was yelling at us that we weren’t coming to their community, because it helps on so many different levels.

Aside from the environment and public health, we certainly have shown local economic benefits. When you have a lot of folks looking at businesses along the route, it’s not the chain shops they’re looking at, it’s the small ones. I remember talking to a business on Venice, he said, “This CicLAvia is the second biggest we’ve been in our history.” His busiest was the first time we came. There’s something there, and I think it’s very appropriate now when we’re in this stay-at-home environment that we realize there’s a certain level of confidence that needs to be built.

COVID-19 forced the cancelation of the April ride. What are CicLAvia’s plans going forward? What routes, communities and neighborhoods are requesting to be featured?

There were certainly a lot of neighborhoods pre-pandemic. We do a two-year cycle, so we did 2019 and 2020 already. We do six per year, one every other month. Our plans moving forward are still hopeful that the world opens up. We can’t be in a position where we lose hope, because if we do that, there’s nothing we can do.

We’re a responsible community, and you can see that with the strength of what the mayor has been saying about how people are following and understanding the stay-at-home order. Moving forward, we have scheduled events in June, August, October, and December. Moving into 2021, we’re going to look at moving some of the events that were postponed to the 2021 calendar and also seeing what the latter part of 2021 into 2022 will look like.

We’ve had a number of requests in the different parts of our region. We’ll certainly go back to San Fernando Valley, South LA, and Westside. We've had folks in the South Bay wanting to have a CicLAvia. CicLAvia has almost become like Xerox or Kleenex; it’s just an open street, but it’s branded.

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With less traffic around the city given the Safer at Home orders, public works departments have accelerated street repairs, repaving, and infrastructure—because it’s efficient to do so with less or no traffic. At the same time, there’s been in increase in bicycle use. Are the street repairs likely to benefit pedestrians and the experiences that CicLAvia offers?

Tangentially. You don’t experience the roughness of our streets unless you’re out of a car, which absorbs so much that it’s got to be a significant pothole for you to feel it. But when you’re literally there looking at it from outside of a car, you realize there are needs in repairing our streets. Almost every major city has this challenge.

The opportunity that Cities are using to repair our streets is at a time where it minimizes the impacts. We’re still a car-centric city and region. CicLAvia is not an anti-car organization, it’s about expanding your choice of modes of transportation.

 If our readers were to overhear a conversation with you, LA City’s Adel Hagekhalil of StreetsLA or Seleta Reynolds of LADOT, what might you be pressing to take advantage of this opportunity to invest in street and curb infrastructure?

The City of Los Angeles has already got a bike plan that they’ve laid out, so expediting the implementation of that plan is where we start. Having worked in the city, I know that there are barriers when you fix a street in a normal time. The challenge is if it causes more traffic than it needs to.

If you can apply the bike and pedestrian plans to the repairs that are happening now, do it. There has to be prioritization in terms of which streets you fix, which they've laid out. Ideas are wonderful things we all have, but the hard part is implementation and we’ve been given this opportunity. 

Clearly, in great part because of the pandemic, there’s great concern about the future of the public transit agenda of every major city—including LA, as Metro pulls back its service. There’s also increased interest in pedestrianization, bicycles, and other forms of travel that many assert must have an increased share of the urban mobility pie. Are you part of those conversations? Will there be a “new normal?”

Yes, we are and always have been, part of the conversation. We consider interest in different modes a fascination partly because of the stereotype of what this region is— but if you walk down Hollywood Blvd, you’ll see a lot of people walking.

We don’t give ourselves enough credit to understand that the cities that we tend to visit, love, and compare to don’t consider it a fascination. We really need to think about providing the confidence and choice that allows folks to be able to use the streets, which are the same as they are in all the different big cities around the world. The situation around transit has a lot to do with what the feeling of confidence that people have right now, and it boils down to that.

Los Angeles’ Seleta Reynolds and former NYC Mayor Bloomberg long have pressed a Vision Zero agenda, but we have not seen much impact pre-pandemic in terms of saving lives. How does Vision Zero—and the security that comes from closing streets—get translated into behavior change post-pandemic? Will pedestrians and bicyclists in time have the sense that it’s “their” street too?

 You put the mass education not so much on the folks who are already thinking about using the streets for alternative modes of transportation, but you flip it and say there is a sense of responsibility for us drivers—including myself—to watch out for those using the streets. If we begin to think about traffic safety and speed as a public health issue, we’ll go even further in changing people’s mindset.

Right now, folks are saying that no one is using the road or that cyclists aren’t going out there. The onus is not on the cyclists or the pedestrians; the onus is on the driver who speeds above speed limit. If we begin to realize that cars are just one mode of transportation, and there’s a sense of responsibility, I think we’ll lean in on that.

Especially now when the streets are more open for those who are driving, speed has increased, at least anecdotally. The responsibility is not to the road user on foot or on a bike to watch out for safety, it’s on the drivers who are in much bigger cars.

Going back to CicLAvia’s early premise and how it’s evolved, how has the open streets public event concept evolved and how might it evolve going forward?

We have to think about CicLAvia not just as an event, but also as an opportunity for folks to regain some level of trust with one another. As we move forward, we’re going to be extremely mindful of what this new reality tells us. We’re an organization that has public health in our mission, which is very different from other types of organizations. We always start from a position of safety, not changing transportation infrastructure; our position is very people-centric. We have to stay there as we move forward, because the more that folks are moving away from a people-centric approach, the more you lose creativity and begin to think about infrastructure as the only solution.

I think behavior change is number one in dealing with climate change and increasing ridership on our existing and expanding public transit system. When you are walking around with a face mask, you can’t see facial expressions anymore. It adds to this whole experience where you have to think differently and start from the position that we’re all in this together.

CicLAvia to me is about making joy a human right. If you think housing, clean water, clean air, environmental justice, and civil rights are human rights, then joy and wellbeing are human rights. If we approach any local policy from that position, you end up using that as a metric. There’s the UN report on happy cities; it’s not a new concept. People may roll their eyes at it, but right now it becomes even more important to focus on the simplicity of things. The most impactful way of getting out of this pandemic is to think about it in the simplest of terms: let’s find ways to flatten the curve while folks work on finding a vaccine. It’s worldwide, and it’s going to happen faster than you’d think. Even though so many variables are dictating how we need to think, I like to think that we’re going to come out stronger and in a new way.

Lastly, if TPR has the good fortune of interviewing you in 5 years, what do envision will be the defining contributions of CicLAvia?

We’ll see that CicLAvia played a very critical role in getting people to know how to interact within the responsible measures of social distancing, and that people are not afraid of each other. And the level of uncertainty as to who you’re interacting with doesn’t start from a position of skepticism, stereotypes, or fear.

Five years from now, I want folks to say that the CicLAvia they went to—as soon as we were able to come together—was the thing that made me feel more comfortable. We’re not going away. CicLAvia is an outdoor event and—if anything does start to open up—we’re hoping that we’re one of the first ones to say, “we’re back.”

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.