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)

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN