Episode 18: Reimagine What Your Streets Can Be with Adonia Lugo and Romel Pasqual

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Featuring Adonia Lugo and Romel Pasqual… [more context and any links/videos]

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Episode Transcript

Cohen: Welcome back to The Movement podcast.  The second episode in our five-episode miniseries from the City of Tomorrow Symposium features Romel Pasqual, executive director of open-streets event CicLAvia, and Adonia Lugo, who teaches in the urban sustainability masters program at Antioch University, Los Angeles and who also co-founded CicLAvia.  First up is Romel, who tells us it’s not how you enjoy the streets on a CicLAvia Sunday, it’s the perspective you get when you look at them on a Monday even if that’s from a car window and not a bicycle. Let’s go.  

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.  

Cohen: I’m joined right now by Romel Pasqual who is the executive director of CicLAvia.  Prior to this role he served as the Deputy Mayor for Energy and Environment for former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.  And I’m going to let Romel tell us all about CicLAvia, but one of the things that I find so beautiful about it is this community aspect of it.  So I’m going to let you kind of give us the vision of CicLAvia and kind of what it does for this community, and then we’ll have a little conversation here and go from there.  

Pasqual: Thank you for having me.  The concept of CicLAvia is not a new one.  In fact, it was a barrowed idea from Bogotá, who they’ve been doing it for about 40, 45 years, and they do it every week and every holiday.  And so imagine a city as big as Bogotá, you know, which is a similar size to LA doing something like this. And they do about 85 miles, so it’s not small.  But what folks who founded CicLAvia—a number of folks including Adonia Lugo, Aaron Paley, Stephen Villavaso, Jonathan Parfrey and others, they went down to Bogotá for vacation and saw Ciclovía and said, “Hey, why not do this?”  

So they came back up to LA—this was back in 2009—and said, “Let’s try to do this.”  And they met separately, and then they realized they were both talking about the same thing and started a conversation, grassroots, very grassroots saying, “In a city that’s known for traffic and sprawl, this idea may be interesting.”  And so they got a lot of momentum and at one point really needed to have city hall engaged, because any time you close down streets in LA you really need some level of political sponsorship, if you will. And so that’s when they met with city hall, and that’s when I was in city hall at the time.  And as deputy mayor I remember saying, “Let’s do this.”   

Cohen: Was that a hard call?

Pasqual: You know, it was one of those calls where you think about what kind of leap do you want to make and what kind of city do you want to see.  And we had a mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, and also our current mayor, Eric Garcetti, who are very bold in their vision for Los Angeles; and at that time Mayor Villaraigosa was the mayor and Mayor Eric Garcetti was the president of council.  And knowing that there is that progressive kind of positioning, you know, saying yes you felt comfortable and confident that it can be done.  

And I’ve got to tell you that when you do say yes or when we said yes it was, “Are we crazy?”  You know, here is a city of traffic and cars and just known for sprawl, and doing something like this, it was kind of an experiment.  And the first time we did it was 10/10/2010, and what ultimately happened was 100,000 people showed up. This was about seven and a half miles of streets in Downtown, and you kind of had to sit there and go, “What just happened?”  

Cohen: Yeah.  Oh, my gosh.

Pasqual: Oh, absolutely.  And it wasn’t so much the number of people that really was surprising; it was really the conversations that were happening.  You know, we tend to forget on any given day a street—the ambient noise of traffic is just background noise, and you kind of get used to it.  And then when you have folks walking, skateboarding, biking, you begin to hear a different level of noise and noise that’s actually much lower but also joyful.  You know?  

And I always tell folks we’ve done 30 of these events since 2010, and I say it’s not about going to communities and seeing the architecture, though that is one gigantic part of it, but it’s also listening as a way to really engage civically that we would otherwise not have been engaged in.  And you would have conversations with people that you probably would not have had conversations with. We’re a city of—what—115 distinct neighborhoods, 4 million people, 470-square miles; it’s a big city, but I think what CicLAvia has done is it actually introduced folks into different parts of the city that they would not had gone to.

Cohen: Because you rotate around, right?

Pasqual: We go all over the city.  You know, we go from places as far north as San Fernando Valley, Pacoima northeast of San Fernando to far south to Watts, South LA to San Pedro, Wilmington, and everything in-between.  

Cohen: What I find so interesting about this is that obviously this is a beautiful area and there’s tons of recreational opportunities.  Right?

Pasqual: Yeah.

Cohen: So you can go ride a skateboard in any park right now.  Right?

Pasqual: Right.

Cohen: That’s not an issue, so what is it about the fact that it’s on the city street?  Is it because it’s the contrast between the—I mean, why is this so resonant?

Pasqual: Well, because our streets are public space.  Right? And so for one day we create the largest public space in the City of LA.  You know, Griffith Park is bigger than Central Park in geography, but it may not be as accessible to those that are in Central LA or southern part of LA or even the east side of LA.  And I think we’re also still a park-poor city, and I think what CicLAvia does is that it allows you to literally reimagine what your streets can be. I mean, this is your street.  

You know, we are a city that has been designed by the car, but at the same time these streets do go through these neighborhoods.  And what’s interesting is that we do an eight-mile route in Downtown; we probably go through 10 distinct neighborhoods. From one end to the other on a bike you probably can do it a half an hour, you know, on a very slow pace, and I think in a car I would probably guess it’s longer than half an hour, and you’re sense of distance and perception become longer when you’re in a car.  Eight miles seems like it’s a really long way, or different communities seem very far away, but when you’re on an open street with no cars you realize that they’re not really that far apart.  

And so I think that’s what it does.  The one thing in doing 30 of these—we’re going to be doing them every other month now up until 2020—is that we introduce folks to a new way of reimagining, essentially sparking your imagination—right—which then hopefully introduces new public policy along the way.

Cohen: Yeah, and I think that’s what’s so interesting to me about this, is in some ways this is like a creativity exercise more than anything else.  Right?

Pasqual: Yeah.

Cohen: Because, you know, where my mind goes with this is, like, “Wow.  This is really great that you’re doing this,” and at the same time in Durham—and we were talking earlier before we got on the air about your previous visits to Durham—and in Durham what we’re really focused on right now is how do we get protected bike infrastructure.  Right?

Pasqual: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Because we have a lot of infrastructure that is just paint, and it’s quite dangerous.  And so the work that you’re doing is not doing that directly, although probably indirectly, so it’s a little bit less kind of tactical and more almost philosophical, and that’s what I think is so interesting about it.

Pasqual: Yeah, it’s really about behavior.  It’s about introducing a certain behavior change or a certain level of observation, because we do it on a Sunday.  CicLAvia happens on a Sunday, and what’s fascinating to me is it’s not how you enjoy the streets on a Sunday; it’s how do you look at the streets on a Monday.  

Cohen: Oh, I like that.  

Pasqual: And so we’re not anti car.  I mean, we’re pro community, we’re pro engagement, pro inclusion, all those things that make a city a wonderful place.  And I think on a Monday if you went on a CicLAvia the previous day you will notice the bike lane that’s in that street; you will notice a cyclist; you will notice a pedestrian because you were one a day before.

Cohen: Or a new restaurant that you might have just blown by in a car.

Pasqual: Or a new restaurant, absolutely, all of those things.  You know, we’ve done metrics, and UCLA, USC, and the RAND Corporation have been our research partners, and they’ve shown that businesses go up as much as 57%, air quality improved by 50%, people who would otherwise stay at home if it hadn’t been for CicLAvia and therefore get their exercise during the day—and there was a medical article based on CicLAvia which was published in Preventive Medicine and essentially said dollar for dollar the investment in open streets like CicLAvia is a better investment in public health.  

And it’s because we do it for about seven hours, and in that time you’re moving, but you’re not realizing you’re moving in the way that you would a traditional gym or running down a street.  And we’ve noticed more and more families coming out. And we’ve done 30, as I said, and we still get about 35% of the participants at any one of them it’s their first time.  

Cohen: Wow.

Pasqual: So there’s still—I mean, LA is huge.  You know?

Cohen: Yeah, of course.

Pasqual: And I think we’ve probably had close to 2 million people attend 30 events, 200 miles or so of streets that have been opened to people.  And the fascinating piece to me has always been, you know, “What do you miss in a car?” And in a car you go from point A to point B; it’s those in-between points that we miss and a certain level of appreciation for our architecture and for our people, for our neighbors.  Sometimes people—there have been stories where people have met, married, and had a kid at CicLAvia.  

And I tend to talk to a lot of folks when I’m doing our CicLAvia events, and I remember a conversation with a person who had a kid that was riding on a three-wheel, a very kind of specially made, metal, steel-wheel, three-wheel for them.  And I said, “What brings you here?” and they said, “This is the only event or time where my son really feels fresh,” which means, you know, the son had some levels of disability and really looked forward to these events and has not missed one since the very beginning that was in 2010.  

And you fast-forward, we have kids who now have a new normal in LA, which is the expectation that there will be a CicLAvia, and I think with that expectation comes this whole notion of activity, this whole notion of discover, this whole notion of exploration and hopefully imagination towards changing something as they get older.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I think that’s so important.  And, you know, the real thesis behind the work I’m doing with this podcast is that—you know, look; we’re here at an event, and there’s a lot of technology around us, but I would argue that technology is not the limiting factor.  Right?

Pasqual: Right.

Cohen: It’s the bold decision-making; it’s the innovative thinking, and it’s the courage to make some of these decisions that, in fact, birthed CicLAvia in the first place here.

Pasqual: Yeah, absolutely.  

Cohen: So I guess going back to that, in your mind what are some of the barriers that are getting in the way of us achieving the equitable and accessible and green future we all want to live in?

Pasqual: You raise the point about technology, and I’ve always looked at it as a resource, not necessarily the solution to things.  And I think some of the limiting factors of how we move forward is really a little bit of the leap of faith that you have in wanting to see a future that you want.  And I think a lot of it is also in execution. Right? We can set up the goals that we want. I also worked at the fed, state, and local levels of public policy, and I know that when we would say, “These are our goals,” they were aspirational, as they should be.  And I think that part of the execution portion is knowing the different elements that it takes.  

You know, it’s not just the commitment towards that goal, but it’s also finding the resources, including budget, to be able to help support it, but then you also have to think about where does it live.  You know, it can’t just live as a one-off. Anything we do that really moves the needle towards sustainability can’t live in its own sustainability space. You know, it touches in so many different factors across economics, transportation, environment, equity, all of those pieces.  But I think the other really important piece is we really have to figure out a really strong way to do meaningful public engagement.  

You know, we’ve been traditionally doing it a DAD model, a decide-announce-defend model of public participatory processes.  And I think in LA we know that we have a very engaged community. I mean, if you look at CicLAvia, any one event could have 100,000 people.  These are folks who chose to be engaged in their city, and I think we just have to be really open as cities, not just in LA, just in cities to be able to say, you know, some of the best solutions are not technology but they’re low-tech that come directly from communities.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I think that’s super, super important.  And, again, I think that’s the role that you play in the imagination process that I really, really love.  I love the idea of bringing more art into the space. You know, it’s really easy to just have these crosswalks that are just zebra stripes versus having them that kind of tell a story or excite you.  Right?

Pasqual: Mm-hmm.  Yeah. And it’s also one of those—you know, on any regular day you look on a street and there’s art, and you just appreciate it for what it is.  I think what CicLAvia does, it asks the question of why, “What was the origination by which that piece of art or that piece of infrastructure was put?” because you do have time; you have time to be a little more observational and ask those questions of, “Why this piece and why this crosswalk?”  And it’s because you’re there touching it, feeling it; it’s in three dimension; in a car everything is two dimension.  

Cohen: Totally.  I was walking over here today from my hotel and passed by a memorial to—I was in Japantown—one of the astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion.  And I had just taken my kids to the Kennedy Space Center; so it was one of these things where I walked past and then I said, “Wait. Whoa, whoa, whoa. This memorial—let me just appreciate this for a moment,” right?

Pasqual: Yeah.

Cohen: And I think that just is a great example of how you have to kind of—the walking and the biking and the scooting and the skateboards and all that allow for that.  

Pasqual: Yeah.  It’s all multimodal.  You know, all cities are multimodal including cars, busses, people power, all of those, they’re all—this is what vibrant cities are, and I think you just have to give space for all of that to coexist in a way that doesn’t pit modes of transportation against each other.  We’re a city and a region that taxed itself essentially on a set of transportation projects, and we did it twice, and we’re a city that’s going to be having the Olympics in nine, 10 years, and so there’s a lot to look forward to.  

And I think that the evolution of our city has been one where we are extremely proud and grateful that we are a city that is as diverse as we are.  We have languages spoken in this city that come from all over the world. In fact, populations from that particular country is the largest in LA outside of that particular country.  And so you just have to have a sense of appreciation. And what CicLAvia does, it just showcases all of that. Right? And the agenda of CicLAvia is essentially, “You be you, when you’re on these.  They’re your streets.” We do program them for people to have fun and for people to understand priorities within the city, but for all intensive purposes this is your street; these are your businesses; these are your cultural iconic architecture; appreciate it.  

Cohen: Yeah.  That’s fantastic.  So let’s briefly talk about leadership.  What do you see as the things that the best leaders are doing to effect change in their communities around transportation and mobility?

Pasqual: I think the best things that we do, one, is you’ve got to look to where things have worked.  We’re not Christopher Columbus. It’s not you come in and discover it and you’re the first person to do it.  There are a host of cities around the world that have done these longer and better; we just have to be okay with saying, “We borrowed it from Curitiba, from London, from Paris, from New York, from San Francisco,” whatever.  And I think then you apply it to, like, “Could it work in Los Angeles?”  

And the other kind of lesson in leadership, I think, is really this notion to go with your gut.  You know, if your gut tells you that some decision is one that will be meaningful to the population and communities of Los Angeles, do it.  It’s okay to be wrong. I think that’s sometimes what we forget, is that it’s okay to be wrong because you can always fix it. And I think part of the challenges of public policy sometimes is we want to get it right the first time.  And I can tell you the best cities have not gotten it right the first time. And I think if you just keep on trying something is going to stick.  

You know, cities change and LA’s communities change every six months, you know, things, more art on the streets.  And so I think you just need to appreciate the comprehensive aspect of public policymaking. And it is that, “Take a leap.  You’re not the first one to do it, so copy others; and then if you make a mistake, figure out how to kind of improve upon it.”  

Cohen: I think that’s so right, and I think Jeff Bezos often talks about, you know, “Are these decisions that are irreversible or are they reversible.”  Right?

Pasqual: Mm-hmm.  Yeah.  

Cohen: And I think 99% of decisions are reversible.

Pasqual: Absolutely.  I mean, you just try not to do any harm.  You know, at the end of the day it’s a precautionary principle.  If you go in there with the intent that you start from the position of joy, you start from the position of happy, I think the end result will be that.  You know, you can’t start from the position that the world is ending and therefore you need to do policies that affect that, because you’re never going to get there.  And everything is about incremental change. The sum of its parts becomes what you’re legacy ends up being.  

And in LA since CicLAvia has happened we’ve had more than—what—500 miles of bike lanes installed; we’ve seen city policy move towards complete streets, green streets, great streets, and we’ve seen a recognition that it’s still a challenge to ride safely in LA.  And so we’re doing work to really encourage folks to think about infrastructure as a way to create more safety feelings. I mean, the appetite is there. What CicLAvia has shown is that people do own bikes; let’s start there. You know?

Cohen: Yeah.

Pasqual: And sometimes I want to think, “You know, we probably own more bikes than we own cars.”  I mean, the footprint of a bike—you can have 30 bikes in a garage with one car. So I think that the appetite is there.  I think the desire is there. I just think it just feels like people just need to feel like they can do it.  

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I really like that.  I really like the fact that you expose them to this potential, and then you say, “All right.  You want more of that? Here’s how to do it.”

Pasqual: Right.

Cohen: “We need some protected bike lane on Spring Street and so forth.  That’s how you get a little bit more taste of this.”

Pasqual: Yeah, it’s capacity building and leadership development in the places that are not so obvious.  Part of, I think, change over time is how do you develop new leaders coming in, and it’s not the traditional way of you’ve got to study this and you have to go down this path of public policy.  I think a lot of it is what sparked your interest, and then it really becomes then how do you hone it, how do you create a set of partners; and I think the things that have worked in LA are those that are the most unlikely partners that have come together to make something happen.  

And I love the fact that in LA we’re still a young city.  In comparison to the other metropolitan areas in the country, LA is still relatively young.  And I think because of that we still have a sense of hope. It’s not done yet. You know, you can come here and you can say, “I want X, Y, and Z,” and if you’re resilient, dedicated, and open enough to make it happen, I think it happens.  You know, and it’s not done for you already, and I think that’s the thing; you can really make that level of change, no matter how small or big it is.  

Cohen: I love that.  Let’s maybe wrap up with this, which is, you know, we’re here at the City of Tomorrow Symposium.  What do you hope to learn or see or be inspired by today?

Pasqual: You know, I like stories of the why.  I think there’s a lot of things you can get from the evolution of a problem-solving analysis, and I think there’s so much to gain from folks’ stories about why certain things worked, and then we focus on that end result and hope to recreate it, and I think we’d get more out of it by understanding how did they get to that point.  And I think it’s in that space of history that more of our innovation comes out.  

So I’m hoping that aside from the new technologies that are informing our cities, I also think that the stories that continue to take shape in our metropolitan areas are things that we can probably share and have something in common.  And especially now when the country feels so divided, you know, I think there’s a strong appetite to just say, “We’re better than this. This is not who we are.” And conferences and symposiums like this really showcase that because the stories are the stories of you, the stories of me, the stories of us, and it all comes together, and we can all understand it and appreciate it.  

Cohen: I think that’s a great way to wrap it up.  Romel, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.  

Pasqual: Thank you for having me.  Take care.

Cohen: My guest right now is cultural anthropologist Adonia Lugo who teaches in the urban sustainability masters program at Antioch University in Los Angeles.  And she began investigating the cultural shift needed to support sustainable transportation during her doctoral work here in LA, and she co-founded CicLAvia and the organization known today as People For Mobility Justice.  She has also been doing some work with The Untokening, which I hope we’ll talk about in a little bit, and a national leader in the emerging mobility justice movement that works to bring complex mobility experiences of people of color and other marginalized groups into urban planning and decision making.  So, welcome to The Movement.  

Lugo: Thank you.  Thank you for having me.

Cohen: I’ve never had a cultural anthropologist on my podcast before, so I really want to kind of get a little bit more context from you.

Lugo: What we do as anthropologists is we study people, so people has been my main entry point to seeing the transportation landscape and seeing what opportunities there might be to make change toward more sustainable modes.

Cohen: And I imagine some of the way that’s kind of seen is kind of on these subtle cues and maybe not so subtle cues on where we belong.

Lugo: Mm-hmm.  

Cohen: And so I think that’s what’s so fascinating about CicLAvia is it kind of upends that.  Right?

Lugo: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: It takes this feeling of, “I don’t belong in the street,” and it says, “You belong in the street,” at least temporarily.  Right?

Lugo: Right. 

Cohen: And the conversation I was having with Romel earlier, it really kind of highlighted how that changes how you look at something, so if you do CicLAvia on Sunday and then on Monday you’re driving even, you may notice that cyclist more than you did the day before.

Lugo: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And to me that seems like that’s a very tactical extension of some of the work you’re doing.  And maybe help me connect those dots a little bit, which is the origin of CicLAvia, like, was that actually something you actually wanted to test as part of the program you were in?

Lugo: Yeah, so I first learned about the open-street model in 2008 at the same time I was putting together my dissertation project.  And because I was really interested in changing cultural attitudes toward transportation the open-street or Ciclovía model made a ton of sense to me.  It was like, “Oh, wow. Instead of focusing first on the built environment change or trying to change policymakers’ minds, this is saying, “If we just interact with our streets differently, the streets are going to feel different,” because we as street users are also producers of the kind of social spaces that we’re experiencing.  

So I got to go on a really great trip to Bogotá, Columbia in the summer of 2008 and witnessed the Ciclovía there, which has been growing since the ’70s.  So they close over 70 miles of streets every Sunday, and people can walk their dogs or ride their bikes or do whatever they want to do besides being in a car on those streets.  And came back to LA just very inspired by the idea of what could happen here if we managed to graft this event onto this particular urban landscape.  

Everyone we talked to outside of our committee—you know, a few people got it, but most people were like, “What?”  And so even once we got the mayor’s office on board and we were talking to folks at the city to actually make the first event happen in 2010, we were still encountering a lot of, like, “So, is it a race?  I mean, what’s the starting point?” And, somehow, yeah, it did come about. When I was formulating my dissertation project I did have a sort of idea that this could be a testing ground for seeing if a temporary street change could have a bigger effect on people’s travel behavior.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, and I think there’s definitely been some clear impact from what we learned this morning.  We’re here at this event, and there’s a ton of people here; there’s a ton of things going on. And I’m curious from your perspective, what do you most hope to gain from today, or maybe in the past tense is there something you’ve learned or something that was particularly interesting that you’ve kind of either talked to somebody about or learned about so far?

Lugo: Yeah.  Oh, that’s a great question.  I have enjoyed this symposium more than I expected to, because my—okay, so I’m part of this national network of people called The Untokening that formed a few years ago because it’s very common for people of color, women, people with disabilities, queer folks, you know, you name it, whatever category of marginalized community you’re part of, it’s very common for us to get invited into spaces where there’s not a lot of interest in the knowledge we bring; it’s more about checking a box.  Right? So tokenism.  

Cohen: Yeah.  

Lugo: So we came up with this concept a few years back of The Untokening where, like, “All right.  What if we want to move beyond that and want to do an un-tokening and come up with that vision for mobility justice that we can be advancing in our different cities.”  And I love being a part of that network, so since I’m very aware of this phenomenon, I didn’t know coming to today’s symposium what was going to be role on the panel that I was part of.  There were people involved who I trusted and knew from other contexts, and the theme there was around bringing equity into the transportation and mobility, future-oriented work that people are engaged in.  

So I was one of four panelists along with Doug from TransLoc, so, yeah, there was TransLoc presence on the panel.  And our conversation was mainly looking at how does equity come up in the work that we’ve been engaged with. So equity in transportation can mean a lot of different things.  You know? Often times it’s an entry point to anything from the range of, “Oh, we need to do better community engagement,” all the way to, you know, “We need to make sure that more people are finding ways to access economic opportunity in our transportation systems and through our transportation systems,” and stuff like that, but, you know, there’s the question.  

And I found that the panel I was a part of had some very passionate people who are trying to figure out how to do good work in the ways that they’re engaged with the transportation industry, and so it gave me just a good reminder that even when the strategies that people are employing aren’t the same as the ones I’m using or they’re not trying to push for the same kind of approaches that I am, they’re still people, and they’re still probably doing this because they want to see a better future.  

So that was helpful for me to kind of re-humanize the conversation that’s happening around future-oriented mobility, micromobility, because a lot of that stuff can come across to those of us who are working more on the community centered side as missing the mark and not being very responsive to the deeper, root cause issues out there to the kind of economic immobility that a lot of communities are experiencing.  So, yeah, it’s been good to have the human connection.  

Cohen: Good.  Well, thank you so much, Adonia, for joining me.  I think this has been a fascinating connection between kind of the work you’re doing on the cultural side and anthropology side with the very tactical, which is stuff like Untokening and CicLAvia, and so I appreciate all of your work that you have done and will continue to do and really appreciate you taking the time to join me on The Movement.  

Lugo: Great.  Well, thank you for having me.  Good to be here.  

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.  

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