Pedestrians and cyclists enjoy a new perspective of Grand Central Station during Summer Streets, NYC. Credit: Aurash Khawarzad

As spring comes to north American cities, so will a series of Ciclovia events that will not only get communities active and using the largest public spaces in their cities – their streets – but will also capture their imagination by giving them a new perspective to experience their city.

At least, those are the most commonly cited benefits of Ciclovias.

But Ciclovia events can also be powerful transportation planning tools to facilitate discussion around bike-ped issues, catalyze demonstration projects for context sensitive streets, and lay the groundwork for long-term multi-modal investments that can improve mobility and turn streets into quality public spaces.

Ciclovias are also an important example of a lighter, quicker, cheaper approach to bottom-up transportation planning. These events, although temporary, create lasting impacts on city streets without large capital investments in infrastructure.

What is Ciclovia?

A Ciclovia, which in Spanish translates to “bike path,” are events that temporarily close streets to automobiles to provide safe space for walking, bicycling, and social activities.

In New York City, for example, several miles of road in the heart of Manhattan are shut off to automobile traffic for every Saturday in August as part of DOT’s Summer Streets initiative.  Bogota, the iconic Ciclovia city, on the other hand, has their Ciclovia event every Sunday of the year. PPS was an early advocate for bringing Civlovia to NYC as part of our broader NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign. After experiencing it ourselves, we convinced Streetfilms to go to Bogotá with PPS Senior Associate Gil Penalosa, who was behind the success the weekly 70 Mile event.  The Streetsfilm that emerged helped Ciclovias go viral around the world.

Currently, there are 46 Ciclovia events throughout the U.S. and Canada… and many many more around the world.  There are events in Seattle, San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, El Paso, Tuscon, Portland, Miami, Los Angeles, and Durham.

This is what happens in LA when you take the cars off the streets on a sunny October day! Flickr photo by waltarrrrr

Using Ciclovia Events to Build Consensus around Long-Term Change

For many, Ciclovia is not just a one-time event but it’s also an exercise in community building.  As Gil Penalosa, former Commissioner of Parks and Recreation in Bogota behind Ciclovia’s amazing success there says that Ciclovia turns a city’s streets into a festival: “It is like a gigantic paved park that is open 7 hours a week, and people of all ages and backgrounds take over the otherwise car dominated space and have fun.”

Tactical Urbanism (TU), a new guide to innovative community-led planning methods, describes the benefits of Ciclovias, which TU terms an example of an Open Streets Initiatives, as “facilitating social interaction and activity between people of all ages, incomes, occupations, religions, and races in public space.” Mike Lydon, one of the authors of Tactical Urbanism, says Ciclovia enables “people to experience their city’s public realm in a different way, which helps build broader political support for undertaking more permanent pedestrian, bicycle, and/ or other livability improvements.”

This potential to build off of the momentum created by Ciclovia’s can be an incredibly valuable tool to build consensus around an agenda that would otherwise be greeted with intense skepticism and friction from the community or conservative transportation agency staff.

Ciclovia as a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper Planning Tool for Both Agencies and Communities

Some Ciclovias are led and coordinated by city officials, but others, like Open Streets Chicago, got their start when community groups established a broad-based local partnership that led the planning and implementation of the Ciclvoia – with the city playing a supporting role.

Quick, temporary events like Ciclovias show both local stakeholders and actors in the public and private sector the benefits of increased biking and walking throughout a city, and introduce the potential for permanently shifting infrastructure and culture to embrace biking and walking as viable means of daily transportation.

And because the events are only temporary and don’t require big infrastructure investments, it’s easier to convince officials and stakeholders to give it a shot. That’s one of the biggest benefits of a lighter, quicker, cheaper, placemaking approach to transportation projects.

Successful Ciclovia events that are born out of collaborations between local governments and community groups can actually help establish productive, collaborative relationships in which both groups work together to produce positive changes in their city.

CicLAvia: L.A.’s Ciclovia Event

Ciclavia is for everyone... even if you can't reach the pedals yet. Photo of L.A.'s CicLAvia event by Flickr user lasubwayblog

Los Angeles is beginning their Ciclovia season this Sunday with the reprisal of CicLAvia. Last year’s event was a stunning success, with 150,000 Angelinos getting a perspective on their city they could never safely see before. CicLAvia is one of the many projects that LA’s forward-thinking mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has implemented to build consensus around a new people-friendly vision for LA’s streets.

The Mayor hopes “that CicLAvia is not just a one-time event, but merely the beginning of a shift in the culture of Los Angeles away from the single-passenger automobile and towards healthy and environmentally friendly modes of transportation.”

In Los Angeles, CicLAvia is organized by a coalition including the City, Los Angeles County Bike Coalition, LA’s transit agency – Metro, and a group of independent artists, community advocates, and business owners. This is an important coalition that can keep working together to change the paradigm of transportation in LA- one of the Mayor’s goals.

If you’re in LA, or close by, check out the opening this weekend, April 10, 10AM-3PM.

Here is a StreetFilm on L.A.’s CicLAvia

CicLAvia, Let’s Go! from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Ciclovias Turn Streets into Places for Pleasure, not just Traffic

Ciclovia events such as the ones listed above are in line with the radical rethinking of public space, including the use of streets, that PPS promotes as part of its Streets as Places campaign. Our vision of Streets as Places is for streets to be recognized as public spaces that foster healthy cultural interactions, economic development, and physical activity – characteristics that are necessary for any community to thrive. Learn more about our Streets as Places approach here.

Ciclovia events are not just about biking and walking: during NYC's Summer Streets, this sidestreet in SOHO became a tennis court. Credit: Aurash Khawarzad

Without community engagement, transportation projects, no matter their effectiveness, will be greeted with unnecessary hostility and skepticism. By organizing Ciclovia events, agencies can foster healthy activity, while generating participation and buy-in into a new vision for transportation infrastructure and amenities.

Meg MacIver contributed to this post.