City / Culture: A Bike + Planning Conversation with Mike Lydon

A bike-centered conversation with Mike Lydon, Founding Principal of The Street Plans Collaborative, a New York City and Miami-based urban planning, advocacy, and design firm.

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Last week, this space detailed the planning efforts for Los Angeles’ first CicLAvia – the local version of the growing global “Ciclovía” movement where – at least for a few hours on Sundays – city streets are thrown open to bicyclists, pedestrians, rollerbladers and the like, while cars and trucks are prohibited.

Mike Lydon was one of the planning experts mentioned in that piece – which is posted here. Lydon is the Founding Principal of The Street Plans Collaborative, a New York City and Miami-based urban planning, advocacy, and design firm, as well as a member of the 2009 Next American Vanguard. Lydon also co-authored this book, and back when he resided in Miami, was instrumental in producing the Miami Bicycle Master Plan, and the introduction of Miami’s Ciclovías, called Bike Miami Days.

Lydon spoke recently with City Culture. The conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length, will appear in two parts – this week and next.

City / Culture: How did Miami’s Ciclovía come to happen?

Mike Lydon: We started Bike Miami Days in November 2008. It was the outgrowth of a few converging bicycle planning and bicycle advocacy efforts being done on behalf of the city. Less than a year before Bike Miami Days launched, a group of us met with the Mayor and expressed our concerns that it was very difficult to bike in Miami. There were so many benefits to doing so: the weather, how flat it is, and the culture seemed like it could be in tune with it – we saw high numbers of people biking in Miami Beach, but hardly any people biking elsewhere in the City.

Enrique Peñalosa from Bogotá, Columbia fame, came to the City. He met with the Mayor and there were about twenty others of us in the room. He gave a presentation on Bogotá‘s Ciclovía, which is well-known, famous for how large it is, and really set the pattern for the North American cities that are now doing it.

The Mayor got excited and decided Miami should do this on a monthly basis. We did it from November 2008 through May 2009. Then Ciclovía went away for the hot, humid summer months, and resumed in the fall. Then the Mayor was termed out of office. There is a strong commitment with the current Mayor, who is of a very different political leaning. He has supported Ciclovía two times, and the city is now taking donations and going for more of a non-profit model and less of a City-based model.

City / Culture: What role did the Miami Ciclovía play in getting the city’s master bike plan pushed through?

Mike Lydon: I think it gave a nice little bump. Bike Miami Days were going on concurrently with our planning efforts. I was a participant in Bike Miami Days and also the planner in the bike plan. I was able to interact with people one-on-one for seven or eight hours at a time – and that was phenomenal. Because its hard to get people’s attention at 6:00 or 6:30 on a Wednesday night, coming halfway across the city to participate in the bike planning process. But if you are invited to use the streets on a weekend, during leisure time, that allowed us to do public surveying, meet people, and discuss people’s challenges and frustrations with cycling in the City.

It was amazing to see people’s eyes light up and connect with the fact that it’s really enjoyable to bike in downtown Miami. Having no cars on the street played a role in that, but the people there really became supportive of the overall effort, and they wanted more and more Bike Miami Days because they saw the benefit to them personally and also to the City.

City / Culture: So what golf courses were to business meetings, the sharrows are to getting political action done in Miami?

Mike Lydon: I guess one might say that. The City and the mayor were also pushing Miami 21, which was brand new at the time. What’s nice about Ciclovías – or “open streets initiatives” as well call them, is if they are done well, the City has a role and if they are smart, the politicians are very much present. People see the Mayor on a bike, with a goofy helmet, tooling around the streets – that becomes personal for a lot of people. So I think it allowed the Mayor to build some political will, bring out the more progressive people in the city to support some of his initiatives – like the bike plan, like the building code, like redevelopment.

City / Culture: What, if any, are the limits on what a Ciclovía can achieve?

Mike Lydon: What’s interesting is what Ciclovías tend to do is they allow you to temporarily provide a place for people to walk and bike and be healthy and socialize and meet. Whereas it’s more difficult to implement bike lanes and bike paths in the long term. Political processes take more money, more effort, more community outreach. It’s a slower process. So this is a way to provide an infrastructure on a temporary basis, and also build the support to be able in the future to make it more politically feasible.

City / Culture: You’ve compiled a timeline that shows when different North American cities adapted open streets initiatives. The timeline shows 35 cities and one state (Kentucky) having added events since 2008, as compared to seven cities from 1970-2007. What changed?

Mike Lydon: There are lots of converging issues. One, the repopulating of cities, and the desire of people interested in living in cities to make them more livable. There’s a whole public health side of things – getting more active and healthy walking and biking opportunities plays into that. You see community activists reclaiming the streets from automobiles, making them more multi-purpose, so they can meet more needs.

When a city starts setting a new precedent for an exciting and very significant solution to a problem, a lot of cities tend to follow. We call those early cities, “pattern cities.” Bogotá is a pattern city in South America, and other cities follow suit, and that wisdom filtered up to North America. Now you see many more overt efforts and intents to integrate bicycling and walking into initiatives throughout North American cities.

Next Week: Part two – London, India, China, and people poppin’ wheelies.

Read past City / Culture columns here and Email the columnist at lathinktank [at] gmail [dot] org.

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