Are bicycles the latest weapon of neoconservatives?

Bumper stickers for the far right.

Call it bike rage. The simmering conflict between some cyclists and some drivers seems to have boiled over a bit this summer.

No less a revered source than the USA Today produced a long story about the issue. And even the usually sensible National Public Radio host Scott Simon took a shot at bike riders on Twitter when he found some bizarre way to link urban bike commuters to Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal.

On Monday the Bike Fed’s other Dave will publish a blog post packed with local and national studies that suggests people might actually be more law abiding when they ride bicycles than when they drive cars. Be sure to check back here for that, but so far this summer, in my own unscientific research, I have observed countless people in cars cheating on yellow lights and sometimes just blatantly blow through red ones. Red light running by cars has become an epidemic. If there’s rage to be had, it should be over that because a couple thousand pounds of glass and steel moving at forty miles per hour through a red light can do a whole lot more damage than a twenty-five pound bike traveling at ten or fifteen.

Now look, I’ll be the first to admit that there is plenty of irresponsible biking that goes on out there, but I am not convinced that it exceeds the amount of irresponsible car driving. Last week in just one edition the Wisconsin State Journal reported that three drivers had been charged with their fourth, fifth and (get this) ninth drunk driving citations, respectively, but certainly not respectfully. And Wisconsin remains the only state in the nation in which first offense drunk driving is not a felony.

So given the more or less equal amounts of irresponsibility on the part of both drivers and cyclists and given the fact that dangerous driving will cause a whole lot more mayhem than bad bicycling, what accounts for all of the venom directed at bikers?

A good theory is that it has little to do with biking at all. Bikes have become a symbol and neoconservatives pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Dorothy Rabinowitz in New York, Dan Maes in Colorado have made them a weapon in the culture wars. Politicians like Toronto’s now infamous Mayor Rob Ford have taken that political football and run with it all the way to public office. I guess it starts with bicycle lanes and then before you know it everybody’s got health insurance and we’re all sitting in cafes watching soccer matches or news shows about the good work the UN is doing around the world. Oh, wait, maybe that is actually happening.

By portraying everyone on a bicycle as entitled, urban hipsters or elite super athletes, they appeal to their conservative base, most of whom live in suburbs, exurbs or rural areas where single occupancy vehicles abound. One way or another the far right wants to portray bicycle riders as somehow un-American. It is shocking what a difference a few decades make, while our parents generation embraced gas rationing during times of war and driving alone was considered unpatriotic, today the far right sees no reason to encourage people to conserve.

People who saved gas, car-pooled, and took transit used to be considered patriotic, and it was un-American to drive alone.

In that USA Today article Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said it best: “In some cases, a bike has become a symbol for some folks of so many social, historical, racial, demographic and mobility issues that have been packed over so much time and space. At that point, the debate is not about bikes anymore.”

So what to do about it?

Well, let’s all start by taking a deep breath. I will admit that when I am driving I find myself getting irritated by bad cycling behavior. When that happens I breath deeply and remind myself that at that moment I am in charge of deadly force. I have a special responsibility behind the wheel to look out for other motor vehicles, and people walking and bicycling. Others may act badly but my job is to stay cool and focused. The computer piloted driverless car may someday take care of this problem, but for now it’s good to remind ourselves that driving should not be an expression of our emotions.

And when we ride bicycles, we need to be on our best behavior because people in cars are watching. I make it a point to stop at red lights even when there is no traffic, to signal my turns, to stay off of sidewalks where that isn’t allowed (mostly downtown) and to otherwise just be courteous on the street. Maybe the best thing we can do to cool the tension is just to take the thirty seconds and actually come to a complete stop when the rules call for it.

And finally, there’s a public policy solution as well, which is more safe bike infrastructure. By building more dedicated bike paths and clearly marked and protected bike lanes we are providing better facilities for both bikers and drivers so that we each know our space and we can live in harmony.

But one way or another this needs to be worked out not just in Wisconsin but in the whole country. The explosion in cycling is no fad; it’s the future. Bicycle commuting is up sixty percent nationwide. Bike lanes and other bike infrastructure is being added at a rapid rate and Millennials are biking a lot more than Baby Boomers.

The bike is not a symbol of anything. It’s just a bike. Don’t get mad. Go with the flow.

And be sure to check back here on Monday when Deputy Dave will overwhelm you with facts and figures that you can use to refute claims that people on bikes are scofflaws.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Executive Director

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

29 thoughts on “Are bicycles the latest weapon of neoconservatives?

  1. Dave – I am so disappointed by this blog post. It has the tone of divisive, political vitriol, not the tone of empowerment, encouragement, and cooperation that the “other Dave” does so well. Antagonism between drivers and cyclists is a real problem, but to blame it on political beliefs and on a small handful of people is narrow-minded, unlikely to lead to practicable solutions, and an irresponsibly gross over-simplification.

    You suggest some ways to improve your own behavior behind the wheel and on the bike, but you offer no solutions for improving broader driver-cyclist relations. Why not give some talking points for conservative and liberal cyclists to share with their non-cycling conservative friends the next time the topic comes up? Why not use your position to remind liberal and conservative cyclists of the passion they share in common rather than exacerbating their political differences?

    I know you realize that a substantial number of Bike Fed members are conservative. Riding a bike is an apolitical activity, and cycling actually fits very well with the conservative ideals of fiscal responsibility and individual liberty. I just don’t understand why you would risk shoving conservative cyclists out of the tent with a post so lacking in constructive content.

    • I’m in agreement with you, as this article is politically charged. I believe the problem between drivers/ bicyclists is about even, I’d bet bicyclists & drivers break the law just as much as one another.

    • Yeah, I don’t recall signing onto a set of political beliefs in order to ride my bike. This is exactly what I was afraid of when I saw I was joining up with a group headed by Mayor Dave, I’m in the break-away now.

    • Witheld,

      To be fair, I must admit that I “the other Dave” wrote the headline for Dave C’s post and added the rationing posters from WWII to suggest that conserving used to be considered patriotic and so should cycling. We agree riding a bicycle is truly a conservative thing to do. The post above called out both neoconservatives as well as a member of the “liberal” media who perpetuate the misperception that people on flout the law more on bikes than in cars. That said, in response to your request for some constructive talking points, we published today’s blog What to say when people complain about bikes. It not only gives you suggested responses to typical complaints, we included the traffic engineering studies that prove people on bicycles are no more likely to break the law then people in cars. Give it a read and let us know if you think this is more helpful.

      • Thanks for the response, Dave. I’m a big fan of yours, but I’ll tell you – I’m disappointed to learn that you contributed that headline and the poster images. My issue is with the political slant of that article. It was totally unnecessary. Yes, some conservative talking heads have said some really stupid things about cycling. But we conservative cyclists are smart enough to realize how stupid they were.

        Unfortunately, the level of political discourse in our country seems to reach a new low every day. To be successful in its mission, the Bike Fed needs to rise above the muck and speak respectfully to people of all political leanings, on behalf of all cyclists.

        I will grant that this post probably would have gotten fewer reads without the political angle, but it would have advanced the Bike Fed’s mission much more successfully. Ironically, the author used the same political sensationalism he criticizes Rush Limbaugh for using.

        I think we can all agree we need less political vitriol and more reasoned, respectful debate. You’re one of the few who can do that really well, Dave. I hope you’ll stick to it, and I hope your boss can muster the humility to learn from you.

  2. One correction: Wisconsin is the only state where the first OWI is not a CRIME. Instead it is a citation with a fine, similar to a parking ticket.
    http://www.madd.org/drunk-driving/state-stats/Wisconsin.html

    In many states, the first offense is a misdemeanor, not a felony. After multiple convictions, a driver reaches the felony level. In only four states is a second conviction a felony, but our neighbor Minnesota is one of them.

    Here is the list of how many OWI convictions are needed in each state before it is a felony:
    http://www.madd.org/laws/law-overview/DUI_Felony_Overview.pdf

    • Fro first offense I would say traffic and not crime, but if the BAC is .08 – .125, after that enhance by stepping up one level. Number two is a misdemeanor with BAC enhancer to a felony. Three and beyond is a felony with BAC enhancing the fines and jail times.

      The standard for OWI is now so low that I would guess many folk are not getting nabbed for silly driving but for miscellaneous infractions that turn into OWIs when the officer smells some beer or liquor.

  3. The anti-vehicle bias in this article has reared its ugly head again. Heres my take on why motorists dislike bicyclists,
    1. bicyclists needing to stop their dangerous risk taking behavior is a big one. When I see them riding on a highway, I cringe. If something happens the bicycle advocacy groups are going to blame the motorist like always, not the dangerous risk taking of the bicyclist. Bicycles don’t belong on highways. I don’t care how much I hear “SHARE THE ROAD” or some other way to diffuse/deflect from the dangerous issue. If bicycles really fall under the same rules of the law as motor vehicles, bicyclists wouldn’t be getting special user laws, like the vulnerable user law.

    The next problem I have, bicyclists seem to think they have no accountability, all the burden is put on the motorists, when the bicyclist has none what so ever ( sounds like a special privledge to me) they seem to think they can do what they want.

    I am not anti-bicycle, I just want them prohibited from highways/rural roads, which upon doing research a lot of the tragedies that have happened that the bike fed has made a big deal over have seemed to all happened on none other then HIGHWAYS.

    • Vulnerable user does not apply just to bicyclists, but pedestrians, people replacing their car’s flat tire, police officers writing citations etc.

      I agree with the notion you have that it is very much a us vs. them attitude with many bicyclists, but I am not going to stay off of the roads and since I started road biking I pay more attention to the road and the tingle my phone gives is not looked at until I am where I need to be or at a red light.

      • I know what the vulnerable user law covers. Considering how bicycles are suppose to use motor vehicle law, bicycles should be removed from the Vulnerable user law, otherwise they’re getting special privledges ( remember share the road rules? )

        I am going to say it again, I didn’t say bicycles need to get off the roads…I said they need to be prohibited from highways, and rural roads. If you look at the bike fed archives all the bicycle accidents that were made a big deal of happened on highways.
        So in the interest of safety, prohibiting bicycles on those areas will keep bicyclists safe, anywhere else is fine other then the prohibited areas.

        • Would you agree to this deal? Kill someone with car, get ten years minimum. Kill someone with a bike, get ten years minimum. The status quo right now is that if you kill someone with a car, you MIGHT get a ticket. The “special citizen” you speak of is the motorist who kills someone and then faces no legal consequences. So by speaking out in favor of continued fatalities, you are speaking out in favor of continuing to allow drivers to kill cyclists and other drivers with no punishment – which is the way things are now.

          • So a law some how is preventing accidents!? LOL! Why do some bicyclists get offended, & angry when someone that doesn’t ride a bicycle points out something is dangerous, that some how equates to an anti-bicycle attitude.
            Walking is cheaper, and saves more money!

        • Brian, if prohibiting cyclists from roads makes roads safe, why do so many people die on freeways? A couple of years ago, a man in a van was smashed to death between two semis down by the airport. Last year, a Wisconsin family was killed in Kentucky when rear-ended by a truck. Let’s apply your logic: no cars allowed on freeways. Many, many more drivers die on freeways than cyclists die on highways.

          • Lance says:
            July 19, 2014 at 8:32 am

            Brian, the “bicycle” tragedies you refer to are actually CAR tragedies. The people getting killed are not being killed by other bicycles. It takes a car to turn it into a fatality. Just like almost all of the 35,000 motor vehicles deaths every year are car-on-car, the relatively few bicycle deaths also require that a car be present in order for a fatality to occur. Why is killing someone with a car acceptable, so acceptable, in fact, that bikes should be banished in order to allow fatalities to be exclusively car-on-car?
            ============
            Lance, that doesn’t mean bicycling on highways, or rural roads is a good idea.
            Those bicyclists took a risk by riding on a highway, and it ended in tragedy.

            I never mentioned that killing someone with a car is acceptable, you naturally seemed to have assumed that.

            Due to speeds vehicles travel on highways, and rural roads, and often narrowness, it’s not safe enough for a bicycle to coexist, it’s barely enough for vehicles to coexist on some of these roads.
            It’s much safer to ride in the city where the traffic moves slower.

  4. “I’m not anti-bicycle. I just want them prohibited from highways/rural roads” …lol. Are you kidding? Of all the reasons you might have to put your phone down and momentarily concentrate on your driving passing a bicyclist is probably the quickest and easiest. Passing Amish buggies would be slightly harder and imagine all the snap chats you would miss trying to pass a line of combines. I guess you want all farm machinery removed from rural roads and highways as well. Hope you can grow your own food.

    • I don’t ever use a cellphone while I’m driving. Further more I have an old style flip phone.
      Your arguments are ridiculous, I didn’t mention any of the things you mentioned. farming machines and amish buggies are to be expected in certain areas. You’re comparisons are flimsy, and deflect from dangerous bicycling issues. You know the line where a person assumes something of someone else, what does that make you?

      My wanting bicycles prohibited from highways/rural roads is not an outlandish statement, you may want to look at the archives here of the bicycle tragedies that have occured, almost all occured on highways!

      • Well with that logic perhaps we should prohibit all cars from rural roads and highways. There are far more fatal car crashes in such roads than bike crashes.

        • I bet you’re one of those that ride you’re bicycle on a rural road, & highway, since you’ve been unreasonable from the start towards me.

          • Brian, the “bicycle” tragedies you refer to are actually CAR tragedies. The people getting killed are not being killed by other bicycles. It takes a car to turn it into a fatality. Just like almost all of the 35,000 motor vehicles deaths every year are car-on-car, the relatively few bicycle deaths also require that a car be present in order for a fatality to occur. Why is killing someone with a car acceptable, so acceptable, in fact, that bikes should be banished in order to allow fatalities to be exclusively car-on-car?

  5. Cars kill 35,000 people every year, and have done so for decades. Bicyclists kill less than 10 each year. That’s about all there is to this argument : 35,000 to ten. These people posting who say bicycles that kill ten people per year are the problem, and cars that kill 35,000 people every year are just fine make no sense. If bikes are so bad, where are all the dead bodies?

  6. Kind of thought this one would get people’s attention.

    It is often considered “fair” to write things in which you suggest that two sides are equally culpable for some situation. The problem with that in this case is that it isn’t honest. The truth is that far right conservatives have, in fact, used the bicycle as a weapon in the culture wars and they’ve done it in a way that threatens bicyclists’ safety by implying in some cases that it’s okay to harm us just because we’re there and we annoy them. To write that Democrats or liberals are equal in this game or to avoid pinning the blame where it belongs would be inaccurate. I will point out, however, that I did mention the bizarre comments made by Scott Simon, the NPR radio host, who is widely regarded (or at least regarded by me) as left of center.

    But NPR listeners came down on Simon and he reconsidered. The same can’t be said for Rush Limbaugh.

    So, the problem isn’t with my blog. The problem is with the conservatives who play this game. If you’re conservative don’t whine about what I wrote. Work to change the attitudes of your fellow conservatives.

  7. Great article with astute political analysis. I always follow the law to the letter when on my bike and encourage my fellow bikers to do the same.

    Timely as well especially considering what is happening in larger cities such as New York and D.C where the bike / car conflicts are escalating both in reality and in print.

  8. Dave, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point. Readers of the Bike Fed blog – whether liberal or conservative – are cyclists. (Well, with the exception of Brian, I guess.) We read this blog to learn about how we can work together to make Wisconsin a better state for cycling – not to hear the kind of cynical political bickering that would divide us along partisan lines.

    I’m a Bike Fed member and a conservative. The fact that you are a liberal doesn’t bother me, because your job isn’t to be a politician. Your job is to make Wisconsin a better state for cycling. What does bother me is when you put your politician hat back on and say things that divide the cycling community. That is going to interfere with your ability to do your job – the job our dues pay you to do.

    So, consider this a bit of constructive criticism. Stop the divisive political posturing and focus on uniting the cycling community. We’re divided enough as it is – racers vs. non-racers, roadies vs. mountain bikers, Brian vs. everyone else. You’re already at a disadvantage because of your political past, so you need to work extra hard to earn the trust and support of cyclists whose political beliefs differ from yours. Posts like this one are taking you – and by extension, the Bike Fed – in the wrong direction.

    • Withheld (I feel weird responding to that pen name),

      Sorry, with all the Daves here I am not sure if you saying the blog post today with facts and suggested responses misses the point? (This is Dave S BTW), And maybe you missed my other comment in which I said I added the headline and the posters, not Dave C. His suggested headline was “Be Cool. Be Kind.” I still think that the point of what he wrote is we should be the change we want to see in others, we should try not to get mad and we should build better infrastructure, so I’m not sure what was divisive other than the headline.

      I am also curious how you respond to fellow conservatives who make spurious claims about people who ride bicycles. I know not every conservative is opposed to cycling and that our membership includes people from across the political spectrum, but pretty much every attack on cycling comes from the far right.

      • Dave S – I’m no good at picking noms de plume. I want to remain anonymous, so if you’ve got a suggestion, lay it on me.

        My reply at 10:32 AM today was in response to Dave C’s comment at 11:36 AM yesterday. I’m glad to hear his original title was less combative. As I said, the article would have been more constructive if the political stuff had been left out entirely.

        My response to anti-cycling conservatives is – me. I’m a conservative who loves to ride, who is happy to see tax money spent on good cycling infrastructure, and who recognizes the economic benefits of the entire cycling culture/industry in Wisconsin. When a conservative friend learns that I’m a cyclist, and that cycling doesn’t conflict with my political beliefs, he has to either reconsider his position on the issue or his respect for me. Usually, he’ll do the former!

        If I have to go deeper, I’ll make my case on two pillars of the conservative ethos: fiscal responsibility and limited government. You’ve done a great job calculating the fiscal benefits of the cycling industry in Wisconsin. A conservative will also agree that the creation and maintenance of infrastructure fits within the essential responsibilities of government. So there you have it: conservatives should believe that it is the government’s duty to create and maintain infrastructure that supports an industry that contributes measurably to the state’s financial wellbeing.

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