Josef Bray-Ali is a Strong Towns member and safe streets advocate who runs a bike shop in Los Angeles called Flying Pigeon LA. He’s also currently running for the District 1 seat on the Los Angeles City Council. Today, he shares a guest essay about how to increase the profile of biking and how to unite the "biking for leisure" people with the "biking for transportation" people.
How do we get people who ride bikes for leisure to join forces with people who ride bikes for transportation? First, I'm going to need to unpack what biking for leisure and biking for transportation encompass. Next, I'll give a couple of real-world examples that span the budgetary range of all-volunteer and zero budget, all the way up to officially sponsored by local government and corporations. What ties these successful efforts together is a philosophy of radical openness that stands in stark contrast to the status quo in the United States.
What is "biking for leisure"? As America spent wildly to support mass motoring in the 20th Century, recreational and sporting aspects of cycling came to dominate the bicycle business. Streets became the property of those in motor vehicles — both by design and through a steady barrage of pro-car propaganda. Riding a bike to have fun or get fit has been the only space left for the bicycle in the popular imagination of most Americans.
So, what is "biking for transportation"? That really depends on what part of the country you're doing your bike riding in. In some places, riding a bike to work is the stain of either poverty or permanent adolescence. In other areas, being able to ride a bike for transportation is an amenity or a moral obligation to prevent climate change. When it comes to riding a bike for transportation, there are issues of class, nation of origin, history, and income that can confound the discussion. I'm going to lump everyone riding a bike for transportation together for the sake of brevity, but keep in mind the Washington, DC office worker on the C&O towpath is not living the same reality as the invisible riders plying the industrial streets of Los Angeles. It seems obvious when you think about it, but it's easy to overlook these differences when you come from one strata of our society and want to "encourage cycling".
Speaking of "encouraging cycling"… how do you do that?
Every Bike Plan I've read from cities large and small includes phrase similar to this: "encourage increased use of bicycles." When you review the universally dismal results of this encouragement, it gets easier to abandon hope, to flee to the mountains, to embrace the charity rides and the raging helmet-use discussions online. Attending any public meeting on a cycling project will drive you into an abyss:
"They don't stop at stop signs."
"They don't pay for the roads. My gas taxes do."
"They're entitled weenies."
"They need to grown up and get jobs."
"Bikes cause traffic and slow down cars. Slow cars means more pollution. Think of the children."
Just google "bike lane bingo". We've made a game of it!
This is the world I parachuted into in 2005, when I attended my first Critical Mass ride in Santa Monica, California: Failed government initiatives and broken promises about pollution and safety, all with nothing to show for it but maps of bike facilities that were all lies. What is a Class III Bike Lane, anyway, but a meat grinder made of asphalt?
That year turned out to be a big one for bicycling in Los Angeles County. Earlier that summer an all-volunteer collective ran "BikeSummer 2005" - a month long calendar of bicycle rides, parties, unsanctioned races, tours, and more parties.
There was no government sponsorship of BikeSummer. There was no corporate sponsorship. No local businesses backed the effort. BikeSummer was a Strong Towns-style event before there was a Strong Towns movement: a group of Strong Citizens who cared about their community sold t-shirts to fund staging costs and printed copies of flyers to promote the rides and events around town.
The result was group ride on top of group ride on top of group ride. BikeSummer 2005 flooded some parts of town with bike riders at all hours of the day and night, for all kinds of reasons, from as broad a cross section of people as one could possibly find. When the month of events was over, a small group of two dozen people had multiplied into about 200 hundred excited new Ride Organizers. Some of the people touched by BikeSumer 2005 went on to become the county's second wave of advocates. It was because of the efforts of this excited new group of people that I caught the bug on that first Critical Mass ride I went on in Santa Monica.
It ended up changing the course of my life. I, in turn, went on to found a bicycle repair collective in my garage. From there I staged a free, monthly bike tour of art galleries. I later opened a bike shop and started a regular bike ride to dim sum restaurants, and later added on regular brewery rides. A friend of mine took the social bike ride (an informal bike ride, after work hours) phenomenon and spun it off into a website and later into a series of unsanctioned races. Other folks, feeling the energy, got involved in non-profit work. If they worked at magazines or TV shows in town, they chose to incorporate bicycles into their reporting. If they were writers or photographers, they wrote about bicycling or took pictures of biking in action. People interested in cycling were drawn into the early days of socializing online and now, the distances that kept us apart made the rides we hosted in our backyards more exciting for each other.
Within a few years, Los Angeles had a full-fledged cultural shift underway in city hall. No public money, no corporate sponsorships, no ad buys in newsletters, or pledge drives, or charity dinners. BikeSummer captured the imaginations and energy of residents from all walks of life. The merits of cycling for sport, for fun, and for transportation bled into a hydra-headed effort that brought protests and petitions to city hall, with our former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa forcing Department of Transportation paint stripers to forgo vacations in order to add more lane-miles of bike lanes, and with a Cyclists' Bill of Rights.
Method #1 for bringing people together from all walks of life for zero dollars, and actually encouraging cycling: BikeSummer.
After the ball got rolling, and doing anything public in support of bikes became an indicator of a politician's embrace of the future of the city, another amazing thing happened.
In the 1970's, the government of Bogota, Columbia began temporarily closing streets on Sundays to all motorized traffic. This allowed people on bicycles or on foot to reclaim public streets for a fun half day of outdoor recreation. The Ciclovia model of government-sanctioned and sponsored events is an example of how to actually "encourage bicycling." Please note, this is not just a bike ride or a marathon. Cities have been doing those for years with no impact beyond the world of leisure and fitness. Instead, Ciclovias are like a mass effort to "be the change we want to see in the world." It is an experience like none other. I'd say it has aspects of a religious holiday wrapped up in the way it makes you feel about a city. It makes sense that Ciclovia originated in a Catholic country, with the spirit of the city swapped with a saint.
In Los Angeles, we established our own version of this, which we call CicLAvia. The effort here started with a group that had the perfect storm of skill-sets from PR to local politics, design, transportation engineering, activism, and more. They had cool logos and graphics. They had a team to negotiate traffic plans. They had a board. They had multi-lingual outreach, door knocking to build support, and political connections to set up meetings. The first event, on October 10, 2010, was a bright and sunny day. It changed the way every participant viewed our city.
Local politicians dared not miss it. This was the vital heart of becoming a 21st century city, and it brought together all the tribes that normally divide up the world of cycling: The day laborer and the racing bike enthusiast. The mom with kids in a trailer and the teenagers on skateboards and track bikes. The event, at its best, facilitates a vision of ourselves and our city as members of a collective enterprise.
Method #2 for bringing people together from all walks of life, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and actually encouraging cycling: CicLAvia.
So, how do you cut across the lines that divide bicycling for leisure and bicycling for transportation? You have to focus on people, on our imaginations and our desires.
Both BikeSummer and CicLAvia do not charge for access. Both only require that one is polite to other participants. Neither require any special equipment to participate outside of something with wheels. In the case of CicLAvia, you don't even need that. Both set the table for a different kind of interaction than we're used to in America.
Most of the time, my city is divided into economic ghettos — people who make less than $35,000 a year live here, people who make more than $100,000 a year go there. We live in ethnic enclaves for a variety of reasons. We use streets that follow design guidelines and laws that make it illegal and very dangerous to act as humans have in cities for millennia. This isolation and regulation create a huge pent-up demand for people to be people again, and that is what BikeSummer and CicLAvia were able to address.
To bring together cycling groups, you need to look beyond cycling itself and find the deeper principle that has people energized about these events in the first place: the radical idea that people should move and associate freely in the streets of any town or city.
(Top photo of CicLAvia 2015, on Venture Blvd in the Valley, by Junkyardsparkle)
About the Author
Josef “Joe” Bray-Ali was born in Los Angeles and earned his B.A. from UCSB. He’s worked as an archaeologist with the National Park Service, a field representative for Assemblymember Rudy Bermudez, and as a project manager for a residential housing company. In 2008, Joe and his brother Adam opened the Flying Pigeon LA bike shop. Best known for his work in bicycle advocacy and street safety campaigns like Figueroa For All, Bray-Ali is also the founder of the community bike repair collective, The Bike Oven, which began in his Highland Park garage in 2005. He has organized and led hundreds of free community bike tours to art galleries, parks, local breweries, restaurants, and dim sum parlors across the county.
The middle son of a mixed-ethnicity couple, he and his wife, Susan, have a young daughter and live in Lincoln Heights. He can be spotted most weekday mornings riding his daughter to school on his bicycle. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.