Is Bicycling Partisan?

tcs-screencapI thought Bill Lindeke’s recent post on TCSidewalks would be another in a long line of his great posts. ‘7 Reasons Conservatives Should Embrace Bikes’, sounded promising. Instead he seemingly wants to pick a partisan fight with allies. He has a notion that conservatives just about have anti-cycling cornered and cycling supporters must likely be liberals.

On first thought it would seem that way. Almost universally it’s more liberal cities, with Democrats running things, that top the lists of most bike friendly. Reality though isn’t so cut and dried nor is the future we’re hoping to accomplish.

In the beginning there was indeed a Republican – Robert Moses. However, it was a Democrat, Al Smith, who provided the power to get Moses’ pro-auto, anti-everything-else projects going. Republican mayor Fiorello La Guardia provided a bit more support and from then on it was pretty much Democrats who supported Moses’ massive leveling of neighborhoods and freeway building. It took a Republican, pro-transit Nelson Rockefeller, to end his reign of destruction with Democrats fighting tooth and nail to keep Moses in power.

Today, New York City is quickly becoming one of the top cycling cities in the nation and may soon be ahead of the Twin Cities. This is largely thanks to Republican mayor, Rudy Giuliani, and DemRepublIndy, Michael Bloomberg, and to Bloomberg’s replacing Iris Wienshall with Janette Sadik-Khan. To be honest, Giuliani was a luke-warm supporter of cycling, though at the time this was quite warmer than the vast majority of politicians of either party throughout the U.S.

Interestingly, the loudest and strongest anti-cycling folks fighting Sadik-Khan are led by Democrats Charles Schummer and Iris Wienshall.

On a national level, the Transportation Secretary who has likely done far more for cycling than any other in history, and possibly all of them put together, is Republican Ray Lahood. And, if “Right-wing politics is deeply tied to the politics of the automobile” as Bill says, then why were Democrats the key supporters of the auto industry bail-out while Republicans opposed it?

Democrat R. T. Rybak is one of the hero’s of our local cycling infrastructure and I’d nominate Republican Sen. David “what’s a bike lane” Hann for the dumbest cycling comment made by a MN politician (I think Republican Ed Orcutt retains honors for the dumbest cycling comment by any pol in the nation).

We recently gave Democrats 100% control of MN state government and yet they failed to produce an equitable gas tax*. As I wrote in the Star-Tribune on May 12, our auto-culture, and each and every decision we make to drive somewhere, is subsidized by taxpayers. (And, some of these are walking/biking taxpayers.) Any time we are protected from the costs of a decision, we are not likely to make a good one. Thanks to our subsidizing of road users, they are completely out of touch with the true costs of their decisions and that’s not serving us well.

BTW, these same Democrats also failed to fix funding for public transit.

Of Twin Cities folk who ride a bike for transportation I know equally as many liberals and conservatives. And a few libertarians. If you have the stomach to listen to talk radio the most pro cycling person you’ll likely hear is conservative radio pundit Mitch Berg who rides a bike to work every day. Likely the most anti-bike on national radio is also a conservative – Michael Gallahger.

Three of the worst incidents I’ve encountered with drivers were those with ‘Obama’ stickers on their 4000 pound motorized weapons and the one time I’ve been hit was by a conservative. Interestingly, one of those three had union stickers on their bumper.

I know people on both sides who drive gas guzzling SUV’s and folks on both who drive electric cars. My escapist exurban neighborhood is comprised primarily of liberals who consistently elect Democrats, and that includes the precinct of elderly white people.

Each side, Democrat and Republican, Conservative and Liberal, have their fair share of flunkies, hero’s, and greedy folk lacking normal morality. Each includes numerous pro-bike and anti-bike folks. Neither even remotely holds a corner on good or bad, or altruism or greed, and the stink of hypocrisy can make some of both a bit unpleasant to sit by.

While progressives are quick to embrace change, conservatives are often infuriatingly slow to do so. The latter can be frustrating, but also good because not every idea for change, from either side, turns out to be good.

Do ‘most conservatives see bicycles as a vast left-wing conspiracy’? A few certainly, but from what I’ve seen, not even close to most. Bill is right about one thing, conservatives do seem to have disdain for bicycles. But, so do liberals and others. They all appear to dislike cyclists for pretty much the same reason – they don’t like being delayed an extra 15 seconds getting where they’re going.

None of this is to say that we can’t market specifically to conservatives (or liberals or libertarians or whomever). There are general differences in these groups that we should openly discuss and take advantage of in promoting cycling (and walking, transit, better urban environments, architecture, and aesthetics).

20130528_bridge09_53.jpgBest of all, we have the advantage because we have solid, logical, winning arguments, and Bill listed six of them. (The seventh, Freedom From Rules, won’t fly in most conservative and libertarian circles that I’m familiar with because it confuses libertarianism with anarchism – a small and mostly un-welcomed minority.)

Sadly, not enough of any group support these reasons yet and Bill ruined his otherwise clever and well-written piece sandwiching the good between slices of hyperbole (Rob Ford comments excepted). Yes, we should talk about immigrants and gun control and many other issues, but within discussions promoting bicycling isn’t the place – if we want to gain support for cycling.

Bicycling is not a partisan issue. It only becomes one when we make it one. And it serves no purpose, for the benefit of bicycling anyway, to do so.

* If road users were to pay for what they use (or what we currently spend on them) we’d need to raise the fuel excise tax by about $1.36 per gallon. However, that current spending is not adequate. It is not maintaining our road system at it’s current level, much less improving it. Just to maintain our system at it’s current level, prevent it from falling in to greater disrepair, we need another $0.40 per gallon. If we want to make reasonable improvements we’d need even more. All total, if each road user is to pay for just their share of what they use we’d need to raise the fuel excise tax by about $2.10 per gallon. Sen Scott Dibble proposed raising the current gas tax by 7.5 cents per gallon, less than 3% of what’s needed, and couldn’t get it passed.

Bipartisan support for a bridge to exurban sprawl. (Photo: Jeffrey Thompson / MPR)

Bipartisan support for a bridge to exurban sprawl. (Photo: Jeffrey Thompson / MPR)


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6 Responses to Is Bicycling Partisan?

  1. Froggie June 6, 2013 at 1:37 am #

    Concur with Walker on several points. In my recent experience in DC and Alexandria, VA, there are *PLENTY* of left/Democrat-leaning people who could be considered “anti-bike”, and a fair number of right-leaning cyclists. At best, the “left/right/pro/anti” line is blurred.

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 6, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    So on the one hand, I think the politics of the automobile transcends partisan divides. As the awesome Stillwater groundbreaking photo illustrates, both parties mainstream candidates will stampede to support expensive and wasteful highway infrastructure. (Sadly, transit is another story, e.g. Chris Christie and Scott Walker.) It’s similar to the way that policies supporting Wall Street deregulation and the financialization of the economy have broad bi-partisan support. At the same time, there are voices on the right and the left calling for fiscally smarter transportation investments, from supporting bicycling to requiring highways to ‘pay for themselves’ through user fees.

    On the other hand, you cannot deny that urban / rural-exurban landscapes are distinctly partisan. Most core cities, the places where the vast majority of bicycling takes place, are overwhelmingly left-leaning. (E.g. Ellison’s district has a PVI of +22D, Oakland is +36D, Portland OR is +22D). Extreme Republican areas are overwhelmingly rural, places like the Texas panhandle at +32R. These drastically different built environments shape the politics of each party. When you live in a place like Isanti County, you’re economically tied to your car.

    Don’t get me wrong, Democrats still support sprawl. I have a colleague who’s a lobbyist for a construction union, and he’s never seen a big infrastructure project he didn’t like. These kinds of growth coalitions, on both sides of the aisle, lead to bad decisions like the Stillwater bridge and the Vikings stadium.

    That said, see the NYC bike-lash-lash going on in New York right now, people like Dorothy Rabinowitz at the far-right Wall Street Journal editorial page (http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2013/06/extra-extra-wall-street-journal-wins-at.html). Whether its people like her or people like Senator Schumer, there’s a bicycle sea change afoot. People who don’t get it, no matter what party they belong to, will end up looking like idiots.

  3. Alex June 6, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    I know this isn’t your main point, but can you explain more about your estimates for fuel tax increases to cover the cost of maintaining the road system? Specifically I’m wondering if it includes municipal or county roads or just roads with FHWA contributions.

  4. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell June 7, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    Alex, these are very rough estimates (though conservative) based on MNDOT numbers and included all road funding (muni, county, state, and inter-state). EG, this is what would be required to make up for funding that currently comes from other than user fees, so funding that currently comes from general funds, property taxes, etc. The amount needed for ‘reasonable improvements’ is a bit of a swag based on numerous comments of officials and others. IIRC they were all based on 4.9 billion gallons of fuel sold annually.

    Though I think this would be a lot better than our current subsidy model, there would still be numerous holes such as how to capture fair costs from alt fuel vehicles (and then the question of what is fair) or even if it’s fair that a very fuel efficient 3 ton truck with 6 tires pay half as much as a less efficient 3 ton truck with 10 tires. And then to Tony’s post on Minneapolize, how much should bicycle riders pay?

    ??

  5. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell June 7, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    Bill. YEP!

    That Rabinowitz video was really amazing. It’d be interesting to keep track of a bunch of anti-bike folks over the next few years as they change their tune – out of common sense or political necessity.

  6. Walker June 16, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    Just saw this StreetFilms video on LGRAB. Indianapolis has gone from 0 miles of bike path to 75 under their Republican mayor. Indianapolis isn’t on any of the top 50 cycling cities lists that I’ve seen, but I’d guess they’ll make the next one.

    http://vimeo.com/68037407