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Joel Epstein Headshot

Public Space = Public Health

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All this rain and time spent indoors is giving me cabin fever. Which is why I'm dreaming of traveling to Colombia. So if you work in the PR department at American Airlines or Avianca and have some free tickets to spare, don't be a stranger. Ever since I read Wade Davis' eye-popping book, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, I've been fascinated with the country, its messy colonial history and its importance to ethnobotany both for its ties to the rubber trade and to medicinal plants. So perhaps there's some method to my recent blog mention of Bogotá's TransMilenio bus rapid transit system and these kind words in support of CicLAvia.

CicLAvia is a Los Angeles-based effort that's bringing an inspired urban public space concept that originated in Bogotá to LA. In a, for now, modest way CicLAvia is replicating in LA Ciclovía, a Bogotá event that happens every Sunday from 7:30 am to 2:30 pm with the conversion of many city streets to pedestrian-only and bicycle-accessible thoroughfares. No, I didn't spell that incorrectly. The LA organization's name is a play on the Bogotána name of the program.

Planned as an interconnected network of fixed routes throughout Bogotá, Ciclovía is designed to connect walkers and bikers to many parts of the city. In Bogotá, up to 1.5 million or 30 percent of the population routinely participates in Ciclovía.

Some parallels between the Colombian capital and LA are disturbing. Two smoggy, traffic-clogged cities plagued by a growing problem of childhood obesity and diabetes. When I asked CicLAvia for details on the LA approach they explained that the program is designed to "give people a break from the stress of car traffic. The health benefits are immense, bringing families out to enjoy their streets in a new way and giving them the chance to walk and bike together."

As someone who grew up riding his Schwinn in warm weather along the closed Bronx River Parkway on Sunday mornings, CicLAvia is an idea close to my heart. While the urban policy junkie I've always been thinks, "Damn I wish I'd thought of that," the Angeleno in me is just happy to know that it has come to Los Angeles and a number of other US cities, temporarily turning long swaths of the streets into People's Park.

With a pitch as informed as a doctor of public health's, CicLAvia's Stephen Villavaso explains that, "In Los Angeles we need events like this more than ever, as anyone who tries to move through this city knows. Not only is it difficult to walk, bike, and drive here, but more and more children suffer from obesity and other health effects caused by growing up in a park poor city. CicLAvia creates a park by removing motorized traffic from city streets, and encourages people to come out and carve a new landscape for themselves."

Given the success of the program in Bogotá the concept has spread to Mexico City and Guadalajara, Mexico; Santiago, Chile; Quito, Ecuador and in the US to El Paso, Portland, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Miami.

In a city with many neighborhoods starved for public space and parks, CicLAvia promotes a creative way to make over LA, at least for a few hours a week.

CicLAvia has already been recognized by GOOD Magazine which in partnership with Pepsi on its Pepsi Refresh Project is offering a $50,000 award for, just that, good civic ideas.

As a new board member of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy which is pushing for a soda tax in Sacramento, I just love these opportunities to mix my metaphors... The Center's annual awards luncheon honoring Michael Pollan, David Kessler and Congresswoman Doris Matsui is next week in San Francisco...

The GOOD/Pepsi Refresh Project, a voter-based, month-long competition on Facebook gives users 10 votes a day for the entire month. So remember the advice of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and vote early and often for CicLAvia.

With its Mediterranean climate and large transit-dependent population, Los Angeles is ideal for CicLAvia's adaptation of the successful Bogotá model. Sure CicLAvia lacks the union iron worker job-creating girth of the Tom Bradley Terminal reconstruction project at LAX but it deserves our love just as much if not more.

To its credit, the mammoth $1.55 billion infrastructure project (the most-expensive in Los Angeles municipal history) is not just a boon to the workers and contractors hired to do the construction. As anyone who has flown in or out of the Bradley at LAX knows, it has to qualify as one of the worst airport experiences not just in the so-called first world, but in the developing world as well. As the globe's sixth-largest airport, the only thing missing from LAX's renovation is, you guessed it, a light rail link to the city the airport's named after. But don't get me started, as I'm trying to give the mass transit theme a rest for a week at least.

Roughly 8.6 million passengers, an awful lot of Angelenos, tourists and immigrants, pass through Bradley at LAX in a typical year. The new terminal will be an important gateway to America's most diverse city. Still, while we're salivating over the new building's glass and steel soaring over the waiting room at passport control, let's not forget programs like CicLAvia and the benefits of turning local streets into parks and bikeways, at least from time to time.

Instead let's look ahead to the arrivals' first weekend in, or back in, LA and imagine the smiles on their faces as they stroll and bike along LA's own Ciclovía. It's sure healthier than Animal Style Double Doubles from the drive thru at In-N-Out Burger en route on the freeway to the Nokia Theatre at LA Live.

There are so many good civic ideas in this town and some of them even make it past the cutting room floor. CicLAvia is one that deserves to see itself projected onto even more of LA's endless pavement. Now if Metro would only finish building the train lines to get us there.