Taking it to the streets

by Gautam Raja

It was strange to be stopped at a traffic light in downtown Los Angeles and instead of being among snarling cars and vans (and their snarling drivers), I was surrounded only by other bicycles. Though the streets were full of people and energy, they were also strangely silent, with no engine revving or honking echoing off the buildings around.

I was at CicLAvia, a car-free event in LA, modelled on Bogota’s weekly Ciclovia. Every Sunday, over 120km of Bogota’s main streets are closed to cars, and residents pour out on foot, bicycles, scooters and roller blades, taking in the city or attending various performances and classes in parks.

This is only LA’s second CicLAvia, so the scale was much smaller, but it didn’t do too badly. About 10km of roads were closed off (with a few traffic crossings), there were some performances, and of course this being a food-mad city, lots of food trucks. As I discovered during the event, you interact with, and see, the city quite differently when it’s all bicyclists and walkers on the streets. It becomes friendlier, more human, more accepting. The pace is full of energy, yet relaxed—a contradiction anyone who exercises is familiar with. There were all kinds of cyclists out there: messenger types on fixed gear bikes, larger people on beach cruisers, mountain bikers, road cyclists in Lycra, aged touring cyclists, children, people towing dogs… the variety was endless.

It helped no end that it was a gorgeous California spring day, and though the crowd was relaxed and groovy, the police were clearly present (though they themselves were peaceably chatting with each other in groups). You might accuse me of being idealistic to suggest that LA, or any city, would have the same air if people had no choice but to cycle, but I can’t help thinking that streets full of cyclists are a vision of what might have been, or indeed, a vision of the future.

My suggestion on Facebook that Bangalore in India have its own version of Ciclovia was met with suggestions that I was being a dreamer, but I stand by it. Many of India’s cities are planning bicycle lanes, and you probably know what a ridiculous idea this is. Not only does India’s traffic not stay within road lanes, it frequently spills up onto pavements and medians—taking any space not actually locked away behind metal or concrete. Even physically segregated bicycle lanes would soon be infested with motorcycles, autorickshaws, pushcart vendors and pedestrians who can’t or won’t walk on the broken pavements.

But shutting a few major roads to cars on a Sunday? That’s certainly feasible and takes away the one big reason people (as against car drivers) have to not get out on the roads—the horrendous traffic. For some, exercising on the streets is so scary, they prefer to walk in dark parking basements, pacing up and down like trapped rats. Imagine opening the streets to all citizens—families, the elderly, the nervous—and giving them a safe place to exercise, or simply be.

I think it’s a great idea, but the problem is that unlike bicycle-lanes that can be implemented while being skimmed of cash and then left to rot, this is a project that needs to repeat itself regularly. Once going though, I think it’ll become self-motivated and self-policing, with residents looking after their streets’ barriers and making sure no traffic intrudes. It’s the only chance citizens have to stop fighting their city and feel like they are part of it and it is part of them, something that is currently only the province of the brave, young and, arguably, the foolhardy.

First published in Gulf News, April 19, 2011