Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Through a combination of omissions and generalizations--especially those about the Bicycle Kitchen, LACBC, and Midnight Ridazzz--the article comes dangerously close to presenting a revisionist undermining of the relationships between these communities and LA bicycling. At best, they add up to shoddy journalism, and at worst, they carry a whiff of co-optation by straight white male upper-middle class men.
The article frames the Bicycle Kitchen as a place that facilitated transformation of bicycling from a "DIY, anticapitalist hobby" to a fashion statement replete with iPhones and tight pants. This is a preposterous suggestion. Although bicycling has gained a fashion footnote in mainstream media, the Bicycle Kitchen has never aimed to move it there. On the contrary, the space thrives because it collects the diverse outsider perspectives of its volunteers. While hipsters do use the space, so do homeless people, kids from the largely Latino neighborhood (who can't afford iPhones), and immigrant day-laborers, among others. This departure from the mainstream--not the push towards it--is exemplified in the regular Monday night shift "Bicycle Bitchen," which creates a safe space for women and transgendered people within bicycling.
The article repeatedly misacronyms LACBC as "LA Bicycle Coalition" instead of the LA County Bicycle Coalition. It also reduces the organization's accomplishments to its impact on the Sunset and Venice bicycle lanes and Metro bus racks. If a person glanced at the LACBC's body of work, they would find numerous other projects that have steadily improved bicycling in Los Angeles, including the recent installation of sharrows on Fountain Ave and the continuing City of Lights outreach program.
Most significantly, as a blanket organization, LACBC reaches across the spectrum within the bicycling community, from weekend warrior roadies, to immigrant commuters. The LACBC is not the apex of bicycling advocacy--nor does it claim to be. It faces its own set of challenges and barriers, and exclusionary rhetoric from other advocates that describes its work as ineffective or tertiary is wrong, destructive and counterproductive. Additionally, failure to properly credit the group neglects the efforts of a largely female staff, including planners, community coordinators, and executive directors.
While the article only praises LACBC's origins, it ignores the origin of Midnight Ridazzz, limiting its discussion to later stages, involving the growing hipster participation, clashes with the police, and irritation of drivers. The unacknowledged roots began with women planning rides with friends to explore the city. The early agenda didn’t include creation of a trendy scene, or confrontation with drivers and police. As in its treatment of LACBC, the article limits its attention to a male-dominated back story.
Unquestionably, Ron Milam, Joe Linton, Alex Thompson and Stephen Box have a place in LA Bicycling. And I applaud Box's gusto in running for office. Contending for an elected position in a city as fractioned as Los Angeles is a financially, physically and emotionally draining process. That said, the article's problematically flawed oversimplification of the city's grass roots bicycling movement wrongfully couples Box's campaign to the state of bicycling. His win or loss, however defined, is by no means representative of the feelings for, against, or within, the bicycling community. Life is delightfully complicated as is Los Angeles bicycle culture. Stories about us should illuminate that, not simplify and deaden it.
* Personally, I believe these communities may be predisposed to bicycling in a place where it isn't deemed normal because they already recognize the need to manifest radical solutions in the face of oppressive systems that perpetuate themselves (e.g. racism, sexism, heterosexism), not unlike LA's driving culture.
Monday, August 16, 2010
The awesome number and variety of kickstands for sale is a logical response to the high demand within Tokyo bike culture. Almost every bicycle on the street has a one. This is particularly noteworthy to me because, in Los Angeles, the attitude towards kickstands is exactly opposite. Having a kickstand, in some circles, is a mark of not being a serious cyclist. The kickstand drawers in LA community bike shops are overflowing with what is destined to be scrap metal. I admit to having a hand in this. I’ve been that mechanic, quick to second-guess a patron’s desire for a kickstand, or to scoff and remark, that they “are useless ugly dead weight."
Needless to say, the bike I brought to Tokyo from LA has no kickstand. When I rode the bike in LA, I never thought twice about its missing third leg, but its absence became totally apparent the first time I parked my bike in Tokyo
A note about bicycle parking in Japan: although a famous video has led many abroad to believe that the country abounds with futuristic automated robotic bicycle parking, that characterization is wholly misleading. Most bicycle parking is extremely low-tech; when Tokyo denizens park their bikes, they usually pull up, plant their kickstands and lock up a wheel. It is not customary to lock a bicycle to a stationary object anchored to the ground. While this practice is unheard of in Los Angeles for fear of theft,* a bicycle parking system where each bike contains its own means of support is beautifully simple. Without the requirement of extra state-sponsored infrastructure (i.e. bike racks or inverted-Us), the kickstand is an extension of the bicycle’s self-sustainable spirit.
The differing take on kickstands between Tokyo and Los Angeles alludes to something more profound regarding the contrast in bicycle cultures. In Tokyo, people primarily ride bikes as a logical economic choice. For a specific set of conditions (i.e. distance, speed, and cost), a bicycle becomes a rational conclusion for mode choice—it simply makes sense, fitting between walking, and transit or driving. In Los Angeles, the largest barrier to the mainstreaming of bicycling is this failure for it to become, at the very least, a rational decision.
It’s confounding that people choose to drive two miles in traffic and hunt for a parking space for 10 minutes when they could just as easily bike, with no traffic, and have the closest parking space. Granted, non-bicyclists protest with a relatively empty arsenal of rationalization, citing safety or comfort; one can always find a reason NOT to bike. But truly, that’s just an excuse to not ride, versus a result of informed logical decision-making. The popular conception is that bicycling just isn’t done in Los Angeles regardless of how sensible it might be.
The real difference between bicycling in Tokyo and Los Angeles is that the image of bicycling has become more important in LA than the economics of it. I worry that, in combating this image problem, we’ve gotten sidetracked in our attention to how our bicycles look, or the appearance that we are making a statement when we ride, rather than establishing that we ride as a foregone conclusion.
This is not to say that semiotics doesn’t have its place, or to deny a view that everything we do is somehow significant to our meaning and purpose. But, if we allow an obsession of image, of posturing, to dominate our discussions, how do we separate our advocacy from our ego? What is the role for bike activists? We should be making our world accessible, appealing, and inclusive, rather than honing it into a selective image of militancy, accompanied with exclusive questions of whether a person seems “down” or not.
Although I’ve been the culprit, in the past, questioning the aesthetics of kickstands, I’ve also been on the receiving end, getting laughed at for riding a cheap heavy frame, or combining a rear rack, or a brake, on a fixed drive train. It’s bad that Angelinos can’t think of bicycling as an obvious choice. It doesn’t help when we misconstrue riding as a larger life-style and political statement than it needs to be. It’s even worse if we get wrapped up in the posturing of advocacy, rather than simply advocating; because with posturing, we start worrying about the image we culture, and who is or isn't worthy of our attention and energy. We forget that working with others is a sensible decision, just like riding a bike.
*A sociological comparative behavioral study might produce some good analysis regarding contrasting notions of public trust and personal responsibility.