The tinfoil-hat fantasies of Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes are only the most extreme example of conservative opposition to bicycle-positive public policy. Disparaging remarks from the likes of John Boehner and Patrick McHenry are depressingly common (though it should be noted that Ray LaHood, the most bicycle-friendly head of the Department of Transportation ever, was a Republican representative in a previous life).
I suspect that the Republican animosity toward bicycling is more cultural than it is economic. Bicycling culture in the United States has a generally liberal feel to it, perhaps because more bicyclists live in urban rather than rural or suburban areas, or because cycling instead of driving has a countercultural feel to it in our car-dominated society. Championing automobiles over bicycles, with their faintly European and therefore suspicious aura, is a way for politicians to signal their support for the “real” America.
This is a little curious, because a case can be made that bicycling actually fits many planks of the conservative agenda. My own politics are a little to the left of Leon Trotsky, so perhaps I’m not the best person to point this out, but maybe it takes an outsider to see the opportunities that conservatives are missing. So here are a few key conservative values–both cultural and economic–that line up well with cycling.
The bicycle ought to be an icon of rugged individualism. Few people tinker with their cars anymore–modern automobiles are black boxes which require highly specialized tools to maintain–but almost anyone can keep a bicycle running themselves. Bikes are relatively simple machines that can be maintained with a few wrenches and a screwdriver. And most bicycle commuters make their daily trips in all kinds of weather with no support system but their feet and their wits. Remember that rush of freedom you felt as a kid on your first two-wheeler? It’s like that every day for cyclists.
Conservatives love cowboys, but there are precious few of them left. Might I suggest the bicycle courier as the rugged individualist’s new hero? Out there on the edge, living by wits and courage, the bike messenger is the ultimate romantic loner. (Ignore for a moment that there are a good many anarchists in this niche.) Trade in your Stetson for a bike helmet, and your saddle bags for a courier satchel, and maybe get Alan Jackson to write a few songs about the brave and lonely messenger, riding in the tracks of the Pony Express. American enough for you?
The Republican Party platform has touted energy independence for four decades, but they’ve done precious little to really encourage us to give up foreign oil. As long as we remain an auto-centric society, we’ll never be free of the negative consequences of depending on despotic and unstable regimes for our energy.
My bicycle isn’t entirely free of petroleum products–rubber tires and tubes, petroleum lubricants, and some plastic parts go into keeping it running–but it is a darned sight closer to energy independence than any car. There’s no need to invest in alternative fuel technologies, no need to drill for risky and inaccessible domestic oil; the bicycle is a near-perfect technology now, and an obvious part of an energy independence plan.
Conservatives hate subsidies. Subsidies distort the market, redistribute wealth, and open the door to all sorts of social engineering aspirations.
And one of the most heavily subsidized aspect of our daily lives is the automobile. Whether through bailouts and tax incentives to manufacturers and dealers, or the proportion of general funds as opposed to user fees (license and registration fees, gas taxes) that go into infrastructure, or the hidden subsidies on parking, we pay individually far less for our cars than we pay collectively. If the true cost of our reliance on the personal combustion engine were borne by individual drivers, there would likely be many more people on bicycles or public transportation.
Bicycle infrastructure, by comparison, is incredibly cheap. And because bicycles cause so much less wear and tear on roads, bike lanes are cheaper to maintain. (We Minnesotans know that Republicans hate maintaining infrastructure almost as much as they hate subsidizing it…)
There are still plenty of left-leaning reasons to ride a bike, too: environmental, social, and economic. But that doesn’t preclude conservative support for cycling. The fact that liberal and conservative policies can converge on cycling just means that, like motherhood and apple pie, bikes are a good thing that ought to belong to neither end of the political spectrum.