Who Says Nobody Walks in L.A.?

Quick Quiz: Which of these cities is the more walkable city in CA?

A.)  San Luis Obispo

B.)  Los Angeles

C.)  Monterey

D.)  Richmond

When one thinks of walkable cities, Los Angeles probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind. After all, Southern California was the birthplace of the pervasive car culture in Los Angeles, and hearing statements like “I live by the 60 (Pomona Freeway)” are commonplace when Angelenos identify their address and current location. But, according to Walk Score, a website that measures walkability in North American cities, the answer to the question above is B.) Los Angeles.

In fact, Angelenos are so fond of walking that over 150,000 people came together on Sunday, April 21 to uncover the mask of LA’s car-obsessive culture and celebrate walking and other non-car transit modes at CicLAvia.

What is CicLAvia? Only the most exciting event in Los Angeles! CicLAvia is named after ciclovías, which translates from Spanish to ‘bicycle way.’ Over thirty years ago, the city of Bogotá, Colombia organized ciclovías to occur every Sunday, in which it closed the streets to cars and opened the streets strictly for pedestrian and bicyclist use. Ciclovías in Colombia continue to this day. In October 2010, the idea reached Los Angeles.

The first CicLAvia event in Los Angeles took place on October 10, 2010 and included 7 miles of roadway extending from Boyle Heights to East Hollywood. Instead of noisy, polluting cars, the street corners were filled with capoeira dancing, local food vendors, bike floats and giant chessboards.

CicLAvia was so successful that this year, the organizers added more than 8 miles of roadway to reach the Pacific Ocean, bringing together 150,000 people to enjoy the route to the sea.

Events like CicLAvia are crucial to supporting pedestrian safety, because pedestrians are more likely to die in Los Angeles due to a car crash than in any other city, with the exception of New York City, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. In Los Angeles, about 33 percent of all fatal crashes involved pedestrians, which is about three times the national average and almost two times higher than the California state average of 17 percent. However, these percentages do not accurately reflect the risks of walking in Los Angeles because although there are fewer motorist fatalities, the number of non-motorists deaths in collisions actually increased. There is no denying that support for pedestrian safety is often not a priority.

Despite the fact that 20 percent of the population in Los Angeles county walk or bike to their destinations, less than 1 percent of transportation funding goes towards bettering pedestrian infrastructure.

In light of the knowledge that it can be unsafe to walk in Los Angeles, what can CicLAvia offer for pedestrian safety? CicLAvia gives credence to the adage “there’s safety in numbers.” More than 100,000 bicyclists and pedestrians come out to enjoy Los Angeles, as it becomes a giant street park. But CicLAvia is more than a park. At CicLAvia, I’m not just working off the chocolate brownie I ate, but I’m also rediscovering my city–the local shops and network of community organizations. As more people join CicLAvia events, more people realize that walking in Los Angeles means realizing the health and social benefits of being a pedestrian. People might be more inclined to support measures to increase pedestrian safety.

There are many ways to improve pedestrian safety in Los Angeles. Los Angeles policy officials and transportation planners can increase pedestrian and driver education on rules of the road, invest more in pedestrian infrastructure, and improve the pedestrian infrastructure we have now through better signage and crosswalks. Such projects are already underway. One example is the MyFigueroa Project that will transform the Figueroa Street Corridor into a complete street–a street designed for bicyclist, transit rider, and pedestrian safety and convenience.

And fellow Angelenos can also take part in this effort by supporting pedestrian advocacy groups like Los Angeles Walks and enjoying free and fun events like CicLAvia.

When I first heard of CicLAvia I thought it was just an awesome party for bicyclists—and it is, to an extent. I admit that CicLAvia is more commonly associated with cycling, but as I rode my beat-up blue road bike at my first CicLAvia in 2011 and found that I couldn’t move as freely as I wanted without injuring someone because there were too many bicyclists, I dismounted my bicycle and just walked.

I remembered that I first experienced Los Angeles as a pedestrian. I was born in Los Angeles, and growing up, I walked everywhere. I walked to school. I walked to visit my friends. I walked to the bus stop. I realized that I first fell in love with the city when I was walking through its mural painted streets under the shade of trees, not when I was encased in a car on concrete freeways. I remember spending an evening in the summer walking with a friend to a park in Los Angeles where I met new people that lived in the neighborhood as we played la lotería, a board game, and ate burgers and oranges. I realized that when I walked, I could experience the community around me more easily than when I was in a car. This is why I hope and believe that Los Angeles can become a model walkable city.

Jimena Cuenca is an undergraduate Geography student at UC Berkeley. She studies how city planning is connected and can contribute to bettering environmental health. She likes to explore new and old surroundings on a bus, a bike, or on her feet. You can contact her at jcuenca@berkeley.edu