Bicycling In Our National Politics

capitol-and-bikesEditor’s Note: One of the missing voices in bicycle planning in the Twin Cities is college students. This series aims to include the perspectives of a generation that is much less likely than their parents to own vehicles. The authors are Macalester students enrolled in the “Bicycling the Urban Landscape” course. The overarching objective is to provide intellectual and active engagement with bicycling, including understanding transportation politics, equity, bicycle culture, local, national, and global trends in bicycling, and steps toward increased bicycle mode share locally and globally. This piece was contributed by Abraham Asher.

Even during its recent resurgence in popularity, bicycling has remained, at best, a local political issue. But there’s no reason it should be that way. Bicycling, and all that is connected to it, can have an impact on many of the issues currently ailing the country. During my first semester of college in the Twin Cities, I’ve seen where bicycle lanes do and do not get implemented, and how they change the communities around them.

Throughout the entire span of his run for the Presidency, one of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ go-to lines was a promise to “rebuild our [America’s] crumbling infrastructure.” Sanders was talking about streets and bridges — but he wasn’t talking about making them safer and more accessible for bicycles.

Not a single word about transportation, let alone bicycling, appears in Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s platform. It’s one thing for Republicans to ignore active transportation and livability in their elections. But you’d be hard-pressed to find two more liberal Presidential candidates than Sanders and Stein, and neither have mentioned any of these issues in their respective runs for the White House. They haven’t even come close.

Of course, there are issues more immediately consequential to voters and the Presidency — or service in Congress, or as a Governor — than bicycling. They include the economy, foreign policy, health care, campaign finance, and, depending on geography, any number of other things.

But bicycling isn’t just about a mode of transportation, or, as is often assumed, the environment. Bicycling connects to how we want our cities to look and how we want to live our lives. It’s about creating livable, sustainable communities that promote health and activity.

Bicycling connects to where we put our schools, to health care, and to economics. It absolutely does connect to climate change, which is only going to become a more pressing political issue in the coming years. Bicycling is also about equity. Even in cities with outstanding bike facilities — like Minneapolis — minority communities still get shut out.

The federal government can help. It’s commonly said that all the real governing happens on a local level, and, while that’s certainly been true of bike politics thus far, we know that it was the federal government that encouraged and funded the highway sprawl of the mid-1900s that has put such a strain on cities across the country.

There was no lack of intentionality around the creation of our suburbs and resulting car-culture, and there needs to be intentionality about the messaging around how we move away from those suburbs and that resulting culture. Federal funding for bicycle lanes, economic incentives for cities that invest in bike infrastructure — many of the tools that the government used that encouraged white flight and suburban sprawl can be used to reverse that damage.

This isn’t to say that talking about bicycling doesn’t have risks for politicians. It does. When Sanders talked about “rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure,” the connection was to good manufacturing jobs that bicycling will likely never be able to provide. Sanders scored his biggest upset of the primary season in Michigan — a state where trumpeting the benefits of bicycling could very well cripple a campaign.

President Obama is incredibly unpopular in states like West Virginia for supporting environmental regulation — where he lost the 2012 Democratic Presidential primary to a convicted felon serving a seventeen-and-a-half-year sentence in Texas. Jimmy Carter was pilloried for telling Americans to turn down their thermostats and put on sweaters in 1977.

To that end, Republican Vice Presidential nominee Mike Pence brought up the “war on coal” no fewer than three times in his debate with Virginia Senator and Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine on Tuesday, October 4th.

But bicycling can be part of a broader conversation about transportation, livability, and the environment that we need in our politics. We need to think about the role that bicycling plays in countries like Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands — three nations that rate, compared to the US, as happy and harmonious. In those European countries, government and executive leadership around bicycling have been powerful forces for bicycling and good.

This American Presidential election, meanwhile, has been almost completely devoid of conversation about these issues — at least apart from Donald Trump’s claims that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

Biking is a major political issue in a number of places already, but those places are usually larger, progressive cities. One of bicycling’s next steps is moving into smaller, less affluent communities — as well as moving into more diverse and immigrant neighborhoods.

The rhetoric we hear from our politicians informs our thinking about what is normal, and what is American, in very powerful ways. We’ve seen that throughout history. Bicycling needs to become mainstream. Its goals happen to align with the goals of many of our prominent politicians, especially considering that we appear headed for another Democratic presidency. Now, bicycling needs to become a national issue.

Macalester Student Perspectives

About Macalester Student Perspectives

Contributing writers to this column were college students enrolled at Macalester College in Saint Paul. These posts were part of classes in the Environmental Studies, Geography, and Urban Studies Programs.