Yesterday in Los Angeles was CicLAvia, an event held twice a year during which 10 miles of streets are free of cars, so bicyclists, pedestrians, skaters and baby strollers can take them over. CicLAvia’s inspiration are the ciclovías in Bogotá, Colombia, which started 30 years ago to relieve the city’s congestion and to fight pollution. Ciclovías have since spread across Latin America.
The immediate benefit for the tens of thousands of bicyclists like me were to cruise from the “Hel Mel” neighborhood in central LA through downtown to Boyle Heights in half an hour. Having the street unobstructed by cars gives you a perspective of LA’s architecture and skyline that cannot be viewed from a car or bus. And, of course, a 25-mile bike ride is great for exercise unless you frequent the food trucks that were plunked at CicLAvia “hubs” like City Hall and the historic Pueblo near Union Station. But the five hour event is also a case study of how bicycling can pay off in economic development and build communities.
Bicycling can offer an economic punch for a minimal investment. One study, touted by a conservative attorney in Virginia, suggests that bicycling generates at least $133 billion in economic activity. In a chaotic housing market and an era of NIMBYism where few homeowners want to live by a freeway or railway, an adjacent bike path can boost home values. From the upper Midwest in Wisconsin to across the pond in the United Kingdom, bicycling offers a measurable payoff from manufacturing, tourism and of course, from accessories and clothing.
Then there are the intangible economic benefits of bicycling. A more physically fit population means less money is spent on health care costs. Less money spent on gasoline means not only less pollution, but more spent within local economies. When you rent that car and pay for parking on your vacation, the chances are high that your money is going off to some corporate headquarters far away from the location you are visiting. But renting a bike at a local business means that they money you dish out will have more of a multiplying effect and be spent again and again within that community.
Clearly the reality is not that we can all just ditch our cars and get by on a bicycle. But even an incremental increase in bicycle usage can start paying dividends. Thankfully we are moving in that direction with the early stages of an interstate bicycle highway system in the works. The road towards more bicycling is on a bumpy path, however, with Congress threatening to eliminate funding for “frivolous” bike paths.
Pros and cons over bicycling’s future aside, I saw an immediate impact today in Los Angeles. Businesses that were usually closed stayed open. Others moved in along the route for the day with booths and tents pitching their products and services, and many of them were mobbed. Local entrepreneurs selling baked goods and large companies like REI and Coca-Cola had a presence. Areas of town that are usually dead on a Sunday afternoon were thriving. But obviously not all businesses were catching on, such as what I caught on Twitter as I stopped for a water break:
Photos courtesy Leon Kaye.