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Map guides bicyclists to Watts Towers

Bicyclists travel to South Los Angeles.
Bicyclists ride to the iconic Watts Towers in Los Angeles. (Photo/Rodrigo Mejia)

Researchers and faculty at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, along with community organizers, have developed a new map that aims to help Southern Californians push the pedal to the metal – on their bikes.

Designed with input from residents and organizers, the Watts Ride Map Project encourages biking in South Los Angeles while highlighting social justice.

At the project’s April 15 launch at the South Hub of the CicLAvia route in front of the African-American Firefighter Museum at 1401 S. Central Ave., project leaders pointed to the broad social agenda behind the project – from city planning to advocacy for social change

“Social change with maps only happens if they are integrated into the community’s storytelling network,” said project researcher and USC Annenberg student George Villanueva. Storytelling must go “beyond media organizations, and include residents and community-based organizations.”

Core partners included TRUST South L.A., Cyclists Inciting Change Thru Live Exchange, Bikerowave, the East Side Riders Bike Club (ESR) and CicLAvia.

Data for the map was gathered during a January test ride using the ParTour L.A. mobile platform ( High-tech features included iPads mounted to roving bikes that monitored incoming pictures. Low-tech features equally were important.

“We supported basic cell phones – anything that can take pictures,” said professor François Bar of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, which advised the project on technology. “Our final map built on the dozens of geo-coded photos cyclists sent during the ride and their comments about what makes the neighborhood special.”

Tafarai Bayne, a community organizer with TRUST South L.A., said: “Our goal is to reveal some of the South L.A. features that local residents enjoy all the time but are hidden to potential visitors. Many people are surprised to learn that you can bike from the Watts Towers to the beautifully restored wetlands at Augustus Hawkins Park, all in South L.A.”

The map’s route was tested with 60 cyclists. One rider had a boom box attached on the back of his bike, which supplied music for the ride.

“Bicycle diplomacy is emerging as a way for communities to connect,“ said John Jones, co-director of the ESR in South Los Angeles.

Cyclists from Silver Lake to Long Beach participated. “What starts as a fun ride can also be a source of pride, a chance to meet new people and a way to learn community activism.”

To create the print version, a professional designer turned the stream of pictures into a custom map.

“Alongside mapmaking, we featured pictures taken by residents to create a narrative of the ride,” said the map’s designer, Colleen Corcoran, who also designs the CicLAvia graphics. “To be authentic, we developed the map content in workshops with community organizers, researchers and neighborhood residents.”

Taking pictures had civic importance. “The future of L.A. depends on seeing the present differently,” said USC Annenberg student and researcher Benjamin Stokes. “Riders with a camera see things differently – from store signs to corner shops – even things they’ve passed many times before. Community mapping is part of looking for the future.”

The map also encourages riders to “get involved,” providing instructions for requesting bike racks from the city, mobilizing your network and joining campaigns for change. The website allows cyclists and residents to submit additional pictures and gives more detail on how to take action. The website and print map are designed to interrelate, with each form supporting the other.

“Online distribution may be cheap, but paper distribution is often necessary to engage at the street level,” said team member Otto Khera.

The mapping approach and technology came from the ParTour L.A. project at USC Annenberg, a joint effort of the school’s Mobile Lab – led by Bar, a communication professor, and the Metamorphosis project, which studies changing urban communities under professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach.

The underlying technology built on tools previously deployed through Mobile Voices, which allow anyone with a camera phone to send photos via text message to a computer that places the photos on a map, based either on GPS data or location information entered by hand.

Moving forward, the team hopes to create additional maps, continue to refine and distribute the maps they’ve created and engage the South Los Angeles community. The maps will be available in print and online, following the Mobile Voices model. In that project, after stories were published online, the team printed them in a newspaper that could be distributed at various locations for those without Internet access.

A print version of the map can be downloaded at

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