Monday, August 16, 2010

embracing kickstands: supporting substance over image

Whenever I go to a home store in Tokyo (think Target but higher quality), I gravitate towards the bicycle section to see if they have any novel items. The selection of bicycling accessories is stunning compared to the bike stores I visit in the states—a wide selection of child seats for kids ranging from babies to toddlers, a cornucopia of baskets and racks, all sorts of unique rain-related paraphernalia (e.g. hands-free open-umbrella holders, or bike-mounted umbrella holsters), the list goes on. Regardless of how many home stores I peak into, one section within the bike accessories always blows my mind—kickstands.

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.


m a r c e l said...

bought time we got a blog from tokyo.

mjkat said...

kickstands are awesome. such a small piece of metal helping to hold up the entire bicycle! and don't forget the motion of kicking it out and in. a pretty important part of the ritual that makes me nostalgic for when i rode a bike as a kid.