Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bicycles: Public Enemy?

I've been seeing this article from the Boston Globe posted and re-posted a lot in the past week:

From the Boston Globe, Dec. 15
Reading the article merely provides some context and support for something I've been noticing (or at least suspecting) for a while now. It shouldn't really come as a surprise, but the article was, for me, just an affirmation that I wasn't suffering from paranoia. It's worth reading.

So how does something as simple and innocuous as a bicycle -- or the act of riding one -- constitute a political statement or become an object of the "Red-State/Blue-State" culture wars? I'm trying to keep this from getting overly political. Obviously, there is nothing inherently "Liberal" or "Conservative" in a bicycle or bicycling. If anything, bicycles should be seen as conservative, if one considers that the root of that word is "conserve." Not only that, but their nod to self-sufficiency and individualism should appeal to conservatives. But in what I see as a modern-day corruption of true conservative ideology, anything that challenges the dominance of big oil and gas -- or anything that puts conservation over mass consumption -- is a threat to the status quo, and must therefore be marginalized. It must become a target

Enter the bicycle.

Bicycles are the most efficient form of transportation there is. Zero emissions. Zero fuel. No batteries necessary, either. They're pretty inexpensive, too. Of course, there are bikes that cost as much as cars, but really, a perfectly useable, functional, and reliable bicycle can be purchased for under $1000. Much less if it's used. In an economy that is focused almost entirely on an auto industry (most other manufacturing having long been lost to foreign markets), there is just not enough money to be made on bicycles for them to replace cars (not that anyone's trying to do that, at least not completely) and to satisfy this modern version of conservatism. 
Illustration from the Boston Globe article.
Before he became famous outside of his home
city for his crack-smoking antics, Toronto Mayor
Rob Ford made a name for himself as one of
the most anti-bicycle politicians in North America.
Consider the huge amount of subsidies given to the oil and gas industries, and to the auto industry. Many of these subsidies are indirect, but still benefit those industries. Think of all the tax dollars that go into the infrastructure and maintenance needed for our addiction to motor transport. Think of all the money generated by fuel taxes and sales taxes on new cars. Don't forget all the government contracts for that construction and maintenance. And then there's all the "free parking" on the streets and in front of shopping centers -- which isn't really free -- we all pay for it in one way or another, at least indirectly if not directly. There's a lot of money at stake in our addiction.

Then there's the sense of entitlement of motorists. Cars have been in complete dominance of all infrastructure planning in the US for decades -- all road-building projects since WWII have focused on making things easier for cars and drivers. More lanes for more cars. More parking. Suburban sprawl. All of it has given motorists the sense that the roads belong to them. Any effort that acknowledges non-motorized traffic in road or other infrastructure projects -- whether it be for bicycles or pedestrians -- is seen as a threat to that dominance and must be attacked.

In recent years, more cities are looking at their traffic-choked streets; the bumper-to-bumper cars (many of which contain only one occupant); the huge amounts of tax money needed for construction and maintenance of car-centered infrastructure. Bicycles are starting to be seen as a viable alternative -- one whose use should be encouraged. But any talk of bicycle lanes is immediately seen by drivers as an attack. Taking "OUR" lanes away from us. Bike share programs, which are spreading to more urban areas, are another "encroachment." The response of some political groups is to ridicule these programs on one hand, while simultaneously trying to block them from happening on the other.

That brings up another point -- rural and suburban vs. urban. Using bicycles as transportation (not just for pleasure) or as "tools" not just "toys" is something more likely to be gaining momentum in urban areas. But many politicians and pundits try to marginalize the urban mindset as somehow un-American. Look how many politicos refer to red-state attitudes and values as "Real America." So politicians, almost totally on the "right" side of the spectrum, have decided to capitalize on these ideas and the frustrations of motorists -- making bicycling out to be the problem, not the solution. Or something "liberal," even bordering on "socialist." They want to make bicyclists into some kind of scapegoat for our traffic-choked streets. 

Thing is, I'm not exactly certain when and how "conservation" got separated from "conservatism." I have my guesses or suspicions, though. Keep in mind -- this really isn't about Republicans vs. Democrats. It's something different. Remember that no less a Republican than Teddy Roosevelt, who never saw an animal (endangered or otherwise) that he wouldn't take it upon himself to shoot, was instrumental in creating our national parks system. In my home state of Ohio, it was a bi-partisan effort that created the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is today a bicycling Mecca. Every single U.S. president since (and including) Richard Nixon has implored us for the need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Yet in today's political climate, any actual efforts to do that get ridiculed and opposed.

At the risk of stepping on some readers' toes, I think it goes back to to Reagan, who, in one of his first acts as president, removed the solar panels from the White House roof, then ridiculed the Carter-esque suggestion to lower our thermostats as un-American. He then fought to weaken the auto-industry CAFE (fuel economy) federal regulations. He was as concerned as any Democrat about oil dependence, but apparently didn't see the irony -- the disconnect between his words and his policies. Nevertheless, Reagan enjoyed riding his bicycle.

But there's been a movement in more recent years that takes those anti conservation ideas and goes to the extreme. There's a growing faction that seems to think we're somehow going to drill and frack our way to complete energy independence, and we don't need to do anything at all to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Then again, reducing consumption saves money for the consumers -- it doesn't generate money for the producers. It's ridiculous and short sighted, not to mention illogical.

Honestly -- I don't know where I'm going with this, or how to wrap up this post. And I'm trying hard not to make it a purely political rant. It seems a shame that there are people out there so willing to ignore what we know to be true -- that bicycles, and bicycle riding for our transportation needs, are the answers to so many problems -- and that these same people will do whatever they can to protect the car-dominated status quo. In the end, probably the best way to combat this is to keep on riding our bikes.

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