What the New Bicycling Stamps Say and Don’t Say

Posted on 07/30/2012

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So, after seeing them posted in a few places on Facebook, I figured I’d better go get me some of the U.S. Postal Service’s new bicycle stamps.

2012 US Postal Service bicycle stamps

From the wording on the back of the stamps:

Whether a youngster just learning to ride, a commuter on the way to work, a road racer crossing the finish line, or an airborne BMX rider, everyone who bicycles has one thing in common: They know a great thing when they feel it!

As a bicyclist, I am a minority somewhat starved for seeing my own image. It’s a situation similar to folks who are Latino, Black, Asian, mixed-race, gays,  lesbians, transexuals, etc. watching movies or tv and not seeing themselves portrayed enough. Similarly, the few bicyclist portrayals have something to say about how the public perceives who bikes and who doesn’t.

1999 USPS BMX Biking postage stamp, part of the Xtreme Sports series

Let me start by briefly reviewing other USPS bicycle stamps – oh boy!

I remember being pretty excited about these 1999 “BMX BIKING” stamps that were one-fourth of the Xtreme Sports stamps page. It was just after I was among the founders of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, which formed in1998. When the extreme bicycling stamp came out, we were still mailing out various stuff. Even though extreme biking really wasn’t the bicycling I was doing or promoting, all in all, I was happy to have some kind of recognizably bike-themed stamps to put on some of our mailings.

In the long run, though, I think it’s a little counterproductive when the general public sees cycling as “xtreme.”

2011 USPS Go Green stamp urges folks to “ride a bike”

More recently, in 2011, the USPS came out with a sheet of 16 “Go Green” stamps. Each of the stamps illustrates a tip for reducing our environmental footprint. Tips include “use efficient light bulbs,” “recycle more,” “compost,” etc. One out of sixteen urges folks to “ride a bike” and shows a bicyclist. I actually really like the cyclist, who looks like he has just gone to the market, and is carrying cargo in both a front basket and a back rack.

(The thing that I dislike so much about the Go Green stamps is that, of sixteen, one stamp shows a bike while two show cars. Rounding out the green transportation picture, one each for walking and for riding the bus. I personally really resent cars being shown in any kind of environmentally responsible transportation picture. Cars, even the so-called greenish ones, are very environmentally destructive… and while there are some settings where they’re appropriate, I don’t think that they should ever be seen as eco, or as safe.)

The 2012 bicycling series is probably best in the simple fact that they do acknowledge, respect and draw attention to bicycling. Appearing on a stamp says that we bicyclists exist! It says that we’re legit!

Woman with cargo – my favorite of the new bike stamps

What I was happiest to see: cargo! When I look around at bicyclists in Los Angeles (and urban bicyclist all over) they’re usually carrying something: a messenger bag, a backpack, panniers, or something! Then when someone (generally a non-bicyclist) portrays a cyclist, they often are shown carrying nothing – no lock, no pack, no nothing… which tends to mean that the cyclist portrayed is a weekend recreational cyclist, not someone running an errand, commuting, shopping, etc.

The commuter’s posture is a little more upright – not so up as the child, not so hunched over at the racer-man. That’s good – to me, the more upright the posture means the easier, more fun, more everyday, more accessible to all.  So… her somewhat-upright posture is good, but the overall impression may be that as one grows up one’s gotta hunch over more on one’s bike.

The other excellent thing about the “commuter on the way to work” is that she’s female! It’s the first female bicyclist I know of on a USA stamp. There’s so much great energy in the female bicycling leaders in L.A. and elsewhere. Now they have at least one stamp.

So… now to a few things I don’t like so much about the stamps – which I really do like overall.

Unfortunately only one in four cyclists is female and is carrying any kind of cargo.

Three out of four of the bicyclists (all of the adult cyclists portrayed) are wearing expensive-looking special clothing – basically lycra. This gives the impression that one needs a special fancy wardrobe to ride. I would like to see some people riding in everyday clothing… the way most urban cyclists ride.

All four are wearing helmets… which similarly gives the impression that helmets are necessary, and that bicycling is unsafe. I wrote some helmet stuff here. My bottom line is that basic urban bicycling is really safe, and that helmets unjustly make it appear more risky than it is. I think it’s ok to show some folks wearing some helmets… but suffice it to say that it’s unusual to see four out of four cyclists wearing helmets in an urban setting.

Racially, the stamps show: a child of indeterminate race (with slightly darker skin than others, but, as far as I can tell, no clear racial signifiers),  a white woman, a white man, and a BMX rider so wrapped in expensive gear that it’s impossible to tell who’s inside. So… the overall impression is that adult cyclists are white, which isn’t what I see on the streets of Los Angeles.

As much as I like these stamps, including the accompanying text on the back – which is very very good – I would have loved for them to include more of the everyday cyclists that I love seeing on city streets. Perhaps there could have been other archetypal riders: the working-class immigrant cyclist, the messenger, the fixie youth, the folder, the cargo bike, the tandem, the businesswoman, even families riding together with various ways of getting kids on board.

What do you think of these stamps? Do you see the kind of cycling you do reflected in them? Did you run out and buy dozens of them, like I did?

(Note: If it wasn’t already tortuously clear, I am sort of a stamp collector – in part because I do some artwork I send through the mail. Examples here.)

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Posted in: bike_culture