Bicycle transportation is a truly bipartisan issue, or should be.
Back in 1971, it was Republican politicians in Oregon who passed our landmark “Bicycle Bill” which is partly responsible for funding the infrastructure that has allowed bike culture to flourish in Corvallis, Eugene, Portland, and around the state. Today’s the bicycle caucus in Congress is bipartisan, though it has become inexorably branded with the bowtied US Rep from lefty Portland who founded it.
So how did bicycling get to be seen as an elite liberal thing? In part it’s because the case for bicycling has been made so resoundingly by the left. You can read a lot about how biking is healthy for you and for society and for the planet, and how people should really bike more — if only we could “get” them to.
This focus on “getting” people to do things shows one way the left flops miserably across the board — it’s a lot easier to berate people about making better choices than it is to get the rats out of the business of providing us with the rotten infrastructure that’s limited those choices in the first place. That’s one reason I started writing about bicycling from an economic perspective (check out my Bikenomics zine for more on that) — focusing on the money is a way to clearly display the gory details of how our country got to be in such terrible shape.
Bicycling hasn’t been entirely been lost in the culture wars yet, fortunately, and I think that’s because the case for it as a form of transportation is as compelling on the right as it is on the left, and perhaps more so. Below is my attempt to channel what I understand about conservative ideals in making that case.
The conservative case for bicycle transportation
Bicycling is a wholesome activity that is good for families and particularly good for children. Riding a bike teaches the values of hard work, personal responsibility, independence, and resourcefulness. Wanting a bicycle is an opportunity for a young person to earn and save money; having a bicycle is an opportunity to learn to work with their hands and perform repairs rather than simply throwing things away. Kids who ride bicycles rather than being chauffeured everywhere turn into self-reliant adults who aren’t afraid to take risks, can pick themselves up after a fall and keep going, and who do not expect to have everything in life handed to them on a silver platter.
For adults, bicycling is the most financially sound mode of transportation that exists. It’s a vehicle that allows individual choice and ownership. Bicycling reduces household costs directly, freeing up money that can be spent on homeownership, insurance, and other means of economic self sufficiency. Moreover, adults who ride bicycles are much less likely to fall prey to illnesses related to inactivity, and the oft-resulting unemployment and reliance on entitlement programs.
Bike commuters are good employees who use fewer sick days, are more productive at work, do not require expensive parking spaces, and, at the end of the day, have more energy to raise strong families. Bicycling unclogs our roadways so that commerce can operate freely. And bicycles provide opportunities for entrepreneurs to create jobs with lower risk, for instance by opening, delivery or vending businesses with a low capital fleet.
Bicycling goes hand in hand with smaller government. Unlike car transportation, which requires far greater subsidies than buses and trains, bicycling needs only a minimal public investment that pays for itself many times over. Even if the greatest savings in health, public safety, and congestion are not considered, bicycling’s return on investment is achieved simply through the taxes paid by bicyclists, who produce little road wear, traffic congestion, or parking demand, and who do not put any burden at all on our most expensive highways.
Perhaps the greatest economic potential of bicycling, though, can be seen in protecting the integrity of our cities, suburbs, and rural towns. In recent decades, too many once-thriving communities have been gutted, and entire municipalities have gone bankrupt, all due to the huge public expense of building and maintaining the roads and sewer systems on which exurban developments rely. If we want to rein in government spending and keep our communities strong, it behooves us to vote with our pedal strokes and yank these corrupt planners and politicians out of bed with developers. We must rethink our towns on a bicycle scale once again.
Bicycling, for many, rightly evokes the glory days of the U.S., when World War II and its aftermath saw the best generation of Americans’ demonstrate their exemplary national spirit — hard working, uncomplaining, with a dignity and resolve that seem lost today. Today, those same people are becoming unable to drive, and are now trapped in their homes rather than enjoying their old age with the freedom and independence they surely have earned.
In summary, bicycling produces wealth, freedom, and opportunity for those prepared to work hard and take responsibility for their own role in making this country great. The only thing standing in the way of a new generation pulling itself up by its bootstraps is a bloated government mired in endless road building schemes and despotic energy-seeking adventures. Bicycling is the only patriotic way to travel, and we must put a stop to the bureaucracy and corruption that have for years taken that choice away from the everyday American.
Want to read more about the fiscally conservative case for bicycling? Check out my print zine about the bicycling economy, or read my recommendations for Portland’s strategic economic plan.