Facts Don’t Matter When You Just Don’t Like Bikes

Some folks just don’t like bikes.

They don’t like the people who ride bikes. They don’t like what they imagine the bicycle represents, which could be some sort of conspiracy against the prevailing social order – against the fossil fuel economy, the combustion engine culture, whatever.

There’s nothing new here. Bikes have long been a political football. The early twentieth century women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony said that, “The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

But for most of us, the bicycle is not a form of political, social or cultural expression. It’s just some tubes and two wheels. Just a form of exercise or a way to get from one place to another. We like to ride because we love the feeling of self-propelled movement through space or we like the calories it burns or we like the money it saves or we like the fact that we can park the thing next to the grocery store. The bike is the most practical and efficient of inventions. Most of us will leave the philosophical implications to others.

That is unless you really hate the bicycle. Then your fevered mind will generate all manner of elaborate conspiracies.

Which brings us to the McIver Institute. McIver is a far right wing Wisconsin based “think” tank, but there isn’t much thought taking place there. They pretty much just make stuff up. Case in point is their “study” of the state transportation budget. McIver has taken the no-new-taxes-side of the state transportation budget debate, so they made stuff up to support that side of the argument.

McIver found 45 examples of state DOT waste, some of which are, frankly, valid. But get this, no less than 14 were “wasted” bicycle projects. That’s right folks, it turns out it’s all our fault. Some right wing radio hosts picked up the red meat and tossed it to their audiences.

Except, of course, they’re dead wrong. Consider:

While McIver blamed biking for 14 out of 45 examples of wasted money (31%) their own math shows that those amounted to a little more than one percent of the $2 billion in alleged waste they discovered. So, using McIver’s own numbers, even if you eliminated all bike projects you’d still have about 99% of the problem.

But of course, even those numbers are wrong because none of that one percent came from the state transportation fund. It’s true that the fund faces up to a one billion dollar gap over the next two years, but precisely none of that is due to bicycling projects.

That’s because cycling infrastructure is not paid for from the transportation fund. State trails are typically funded through a mix of state and federal programs, most related to outdoor recreation. Street installations, like bike lanes, are often so inexpensive as to not be separately accounted for. When they are split out they’re usually paid for by local property taxes – just like the streets themselves. The truth is that most of the streets we drive on are built and repaired with property tax revenues, not gas tax funds. So, there’s no difference at all between money spent on your local streets and money spent on a bike lane. It all comes from the same source, which is property taxpayers. If you want to argue that cyclist aren’t paying their way, well, drivers aren’t either.

There is a very small federal program, called Transportation Alternatives, that can be used for bike projects and it is funded out of federal gas tax revenues, but it has nothing to do with the deficit in the state transportation fund.

So, go ahead and eliminate all the bike projects. You just took a one billion dollar state transportation fund deficit and turned into… a one billion dollar state transportation fund deficit. Congratulations. Nice work.

The McIver report wouldn’t be worth this digital space if it wasn’t for the fact that it reveals an enduring theme, especially on the political right. The attitude expressed in the report and in the comments that followed it online was that bicycles are annoying toys, which have no rightful place on the road. This is not just legally false, but a misunderstanding of history. The bicycle long predated the car and, in fact, the initial “good roads” movement was powered by bicyclists at the turn of the twentieth century.

I could go on at some length about the money cyclists save in terms of wear and tear on roads, space not taken up on streets, expensive car parking not required, real estate developed as homes and businesses instead of given over to much less valuable car parking, the dollar savings of carbon and pollutants not produced and the health care cost savings in a more fit citizenry. But that would be a waste of time. If, like the folks at the McIver Institute, you just don’t like bikes and the people who ride them and you’re driven mad by the social, economic and cultural upheaval your paranoid mind imagines, well, reason will have no effect.

The McIver report, for all its ridiculousness, drives home the point that the bicycle is a weapon in the culture wars. My own view is that we can’t take away that weapon because it’s just too valuable. Facts are like water on Teflon.

The better answer is to end these crazy culture wars altogether, but as hard as we work at the Bike Fed, that one is beyond us.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Director Emeritus

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.

2 thoughts on “Facts Don’t Matter When You Just Don’t Like Bikes

  1. I’d sure like the “powers that be” to do a deeper dive into the health benefits of bicycle riding and how better fitness affects our health as we age. I’d bet a bag of donuts that the bike rider has a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, bone/joint disease, respiratory, and on and on. Saving all of us health care costs.
    Not to mention the mental health benefits from bike riding. I swear it keeps me from going nuts!

  2. Even though I have grown to expect it, it still surprises me the level of frustration expressed towards unknown people who choose to ride bicycles.

    The comments section of the Maciver article has a post by someone with the name, “Stop Bad Bicyclists Wisconsin.” He or she has written 460 comments. He or she complains in a comment that bicyclists don’t pay their way, and, “The bike fed just doesn’t want to listen to their opposition, no one wants to go backwards in history to use a bicycle to try to get things done.”

    Funny thing is, the complete opposite of what this person says is true. Many people are making a choice to spend more time on their bicycle and less time in their car. From 2004 to 2014, people choosing to use a bicycle to get to work instead of a car went up by 60%. See USA Today. According to the League of American Bicyclists, the number of trips made by bicycle in the U.S. more than doubled from 1.7 billion in 2001 to 4 billion in 2009.

    Most people care about what affects them personally. I hope “Stop Bad Bicyclists Wisconsin,” considers that people who choose to ride bicycles vs. drive in cars help him or her. The people riding bicycles decrease this person’s health care costs, decrease the chance of this person getting injured or killed on the road, increase the number of parking spots available, and decrease the chance this person will get stuck in traffic. This is a whole lot of benefit.

    The Mcliver article is about transportation, “waste.” Consider the following waste from motor vehicles:

    1. The time people waste sitting in their car waiting for traffic to move;
    2. The money people waste on parking meters and parking ramps;
    3. The money people waste on gas when they drive a vehicle designed to ferry 5-8 people, but use it on a daily basis with only one person in it;
    4. The money wasted on funerals for the 35,092 people that were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2015;
    5. The money wasted in loss of earnings from the 35,092 people that were killed and can no longer make money for themselves and their loved ones;
    6. The time in hours wasted by people sitting in jail and prisons around the world for driving motor vehicles while impaired or killing people with bad decisions behind the wheel.
    7. The money wasted to house people in jail and prison for traffic crimes.
    8. The money wasted on medical bills for the 2.44 million people injured in motor vehicles crashes in 2015.

    A person could avoid the above waste by choosing to ride a bicycle.

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