Sadly, a scheduling snafu meant that I was out of town for CicLAvia Southeast this past weekend. Having to settle for watching the photos pop up on social media was not nearly as good as being there in person. But it was still pretty great, believe it or not.
The enthusiasm of the ride participants was infectious and the turnout was often amazing – 200 or 300 riders per event in areas of Los Angeles that were pretty much completely off the map in terms of bike advocacy.
But it also quickly became apparent to me that, for members of the Southeast Bicycle Alliance (SBA) and their supporters, the exploratory rides were about more than just putting on a major open streets event.
The Southeast communities face some of the most pressing environmental challenges in the Los Angeles area — pollution from freeways, the port, oil drilling, and Exide and other toxic industries (past and present) mean children there have a much greater chance of growing up with any number of wholly preventable ailments. Disinvestment in some parts of the region has also resulted in insecurity in those communities’ public spaces, making it hard for some residents to bike and walk for recreation or to build community in the way they might wish to. And the association of cycling with poverty or legal woes, in the minds of some, has meant cycling wasn’t always seen as an honorable or desirable mode of transportation.
But the SBA advocates had envisioned a better future for themselves and their neighbors.
They knew there was much to celebrate about their communities, and they believed their communities deserved the same access to streets as their better-served counterparts in Los Angeles’ core.
Perhaps most importantly, they seemed to realize that the process of community engagement involved in putting together a CicLAvia was just as, if not more, important than the staging of the event itself.
Group rides therefore were as much about exploring routes as they were about highlighting commonalities and forging bonds between the riders, tapping into residents’ sense of community pride, and illustrating how cycling could be used to promote equity, justice, and fun. The positivity the rides communicated inspired many to join the growing South L.A. and Southeast cycling communities and launch clubs and/or signature events of their own. As the number of participants grew, long-time residents willingly crossed boundaries into communities they had once shied away from and ride events all over South Los Angeles started feeling like family reunions.
Which is not to say that building all that momentum was easy.
The SBA advocates spent long hours networking, strategizing about how to sell Southeast community leaders on the idea of an open streets event, and trying to convince CicLAvia that heading to the Southeast was a good move. Diplomacy was even required on one exploratory ride a few years ago, when local law enforcement in Huntington Park decided it was problematic to have so many cyclists gathering in a parking lot (the ride’s starting point). We were escorted along Pacific Avenue at a crawl by officers on motorcycles and only left at the border of South Gate once officers were sure we weren’t coming back.