Thursday, June 12, 2014

How Bikes Can Win in DC Without Resorting to Tweed: Don Beyer, WABA, and Neo-Rikshawism

Why is cycling associated with liberal Democrats?

From the beginning, the bike was a political instrument: initially plaything of wealthy dandies then later the way poor people got around; instrument of women's liberation later vehicle of the proletariat. Racing once was the sport of coal miners and laborers--of union-paying radicals--and now it's the sport of liberal dentists.  And then there's Portland, which seems to align in popular imagination the bicycle with any number of fringe movements: vegan-istic, communitarian, localvore, nudey, critical mass-y, put-a-bird on it nonsense.

I won't speak to Portland, but here in DC, and generally, the reputation of cyclists as politically left-leaning naked critical massy types is mostly undeserved.  Most of us ride for apolitical reasons: to get to work or to exercise.  Hopping on a bike is no more political than getting behind the wheel of a car.

Note, I say mostly.  There's these people.  You know, people who have "ideals of refined style and purposeful living."  You know, because nothing gives purpose to life like fenders and uncomfortable clothes.

Enough on that.  The public views us cyclists as a bunch of idiots, thanks to Portland and tweedy riding critical mass-type nonsense.

But that's only part of politics.  The important question in politics is not whether we are liberal fringe types, but whether we yield power.

Do we?  Well, no.  Cycling isn't an issue on the national stage.  When it comes to legislation, or at least rhetoric about bike infrastructure, neither Democrats nor Republicans spend much time on cycling.  Legislators reveal only hints at stances, but everyone at the national level knows, whether Republican or Democrat, pushing an initiative to direct resources toward bikes is a waste of time. It will not earn reelection.  It's not low-hanging fruit.

From politicians, there's no real antipathy toward bikes; only mild concern.  Republican Speaker Boehner once stated that American families oppose spending on bike paths, but Democrats have often been just as wary--the late New Jersey Senate Democrat Frank Lautenberg once responded to infrastructure pushing cycling with this dismissive remark: "China is building railroads that will be going hundreds of miles an hour," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), "while America retreats more towards the rickshaw."

We are lucky to have one of the country's most bike-friendly politicians on (or about to be on) the national stage.  You know, the guy whose name is on half the jerseys of the 7am goon ride.  I'm talking about Don Beyer, now the Virginia 8th District candidate.

While we are lucky to have an ally like Beyer it's unlikely cycling infrastructure will play any role in his voting record.  Indeed, his issues page, while it favors progressive transportation solutions, does not specifically mention the expansion of cycling infrastructure.  As the owner of nine area car dealership, it's hard seeing Beyer get behind measures already in the works: e.g., DC's MoveDC proposed tolls on vehicles entering the city.  But even if he went against self interested and favored such legislation, there's no compelling reason for him to do anything for bicycles on a national scale.
No knock on Beyer here, since I can't find a single politician on the national stage who puts cycling at the core of his or her agenda.  Cycling has not been a key issue.  This had led politicians on both sides toward antipathy.  Rather than being pro- or anti-bike, they are more accurately described as not being against bike infrastructure.

While politicians in DC are indifferent to cycling, DC government politicians have become increasingly responsive to bike advocacy groups--a nationwide pattern in many cities and counties.  Groups like WABA and AAA now exert significant power through endorsements.  Even local experts and wonks like those at Greater Greater Washington here and Streetsblog in NYC exert a degree of political power that have led politicians to suddenly start engaging in bike politics.  Here are their endorsements for the April 2014 election, for instance.

Former Mayor Fenty was the not the first DC mayor to engage in bike politics, but he certainly was DC's first prominent Mayor to ride--and even race--his bike (the aforementioned Don Beyer on his chest in the photo below):
At Bike to Work Day in 2010, photo by WABA
Urban politics in America, however, are largely one-party contests.  Opponents and supporters of bike infrastructure are, in DC at least, almost entirely Democrats.  In NYC, Mayor Bloomsburg leans toward conservative politics, but he has pushed bike lanes and introduced a bikeshare program despite objections from fellow conservatives and from liberals alike (e.g., a lawsuit brought by Senator Chuck Shumer's wife).

Costs of bike infrastructure, as an advantage, are small: bike lanes cost between $5,00 - $535,000 per mile with an average cost of $130,000 per mile.  Compared to roads, which cost between $2 and $10 million per mile, bike paths.  And since they siphon off bikes from roads, often even the staunchest commuters support the construction of bike lanes.

What about ideologically?  Isn't bike infrastructure somehow left-leaning?  Yes, bike infrastructure is a public expense, but so are roads and sidewalks--paid for by the public and used by the public.  And gas taxes may have once paid for highways, but now they no longer do--now funds come from the general taxpaying funds. The old argument (once shouted at me in the parking lot at Lost River staging) that roads are for taxpaying drivers and not for tax shirking cyclists, is debunked.  I'm not sure if this could be seen as an argument leaning left or right, but in any case isn't no longer admissible.  The point: any argument suggesting funding bike lanes is particularly liberal or conservative can be met with the observation that funding bike infrastructure is no different than funding car infrastructure.  It is not public transportation (read: socialist!) any more than highways are.

Conclusion
As advocacy groups like WABA and journalists and wonks like Greater Greater Washington play a stronger role in pushing agenda, the cycling community should resist accepting a political reputation: cycling is an apolitical issue.  Aligning with a particular party or group in a two-party system, particularly on the national political stage, would be a mistake.

Politics on the local level can be more pragmatic.  It's the place for more political pressure.  When it comes to bike lanes and improving infrastructure, politics is local--especially true since the only government doing anything in DC these days is the DC government.

The auto and gas lobby pushed hard nearly a century ago to make streets more car friendly and succeeded, largely at the level of local politics.  It'll take some doing, but WABA and other groups can bring the same kind of pressure, totally outside of party politics, to make cycling safer and more common in DC. Maybe then we won't need to don tweed and make an occasion of a ride as a lame attempt at finding purpose in life.

Instead, getting on a bike will just be life and we'll be able to find purpose in what's really important in life: Greenbelt or Dawg Days or pipping Strava glory from Captain Katusha.

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