The conservative case for bicycling

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.

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20 Responses to “The conservative case for bicycling”

  1. Dr. M January 1, 2012 at 11:48 pm #

    Elly, while everything you wrote here about cycling is true, I think you used too many cliches on what you deem to be conservative values. Really it was to the point of being condescending. This country is really in trouble if the common sense values cited are not also shared by liberals. These stereotypes are insulting and demeaning. Almost like adding sugar to cod liver oil to get a child to take it. Obvious and doesn’t work. What might work is to offer programs and stipends for employers to assist bike commuting employees. Tax breaks for such companies will be returned with healthier, fitter employees without forcing an unconstitutional ObamaCare down everyone’s throats.

    • Elly January 2, 2012 at 12:56 am #

      Ah yes, I was being cartoonish on purpose, but also wondering if only liberals would actually appreciate this case for cycling. If that’s so you may have hit on the reason why. No insult intended. I’d appreciate hearing your further thoughts on the case to be made beyond just the workplace.

    • Carl January 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

      Obamacare? – It is hunk up because it got watered down from what should have been a truly Universal health care program. A sort of Medicare from womb to tomb. But instead we got a program that is just ok. The current system is one I like to call “Sickcare”, there is no true real preventitive medicine happening. Insurance companies make profit by denying care and selling us pharmaceuticals that we really would not need if the food people ate was actually “real” food. Go Vegan – or at least vegetarian.

  2. Brittney January 2, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    Hmm, I’m with Dr. M in that this is very insulting, but I AM conservative, AND I strongly support bicycling. It really isn’t just a liberal thing, believe it or not, and insulting/mocking those of a different political party isn’t helping the cause.

    • Elly January 2, 2012 at 11:03 am #

      Alright, thanks for saying so. How would you do it better?

    • J.R. January 2, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

      I’m sorry, but I’ve read the article twice and see nothing that’s insulting to either Left or Right. It’s a bit overblown, but you’d have to have skin like tissue paper too be actively insulted by it.

    • Bob E January 2, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

      Elly, Thank you so much for taking a first brave step toward articulating the conservative case for cycling. I like that you are inviting the first responders to contribute positive insights into their value systems so we can all understand each other.

      In a week, I have to make the case for neighborhood greenways to my neighborhood council. Ours is a neighborhood which is small, historic and sensitive to change. I would like to reference and quote from your blog post in my presentation in an effort to make a connection between the small town conservative values of my neighbors and the benefits that neighborhood greenways can bring to our little community. But, I have to be very respectful and exact in my language. That’s where I need the help of your conservative readers.

      If there are any readers here that consider themselves conservatives, please contribute what you think is the conservative case for low-stress bicycle infrastructure investments.

  3. J.R. January 2, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    Let’s not forget that much of urban transportation infrastructure was originally installed at the behest of the League of American Wheelmen; if the root of Conservatism is to conserve, then pointing out that the roads were originally laid out by and for bicycles also points out a return to root values.

  4. Erica January 2, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

    I’m pretty far to the left and this could be my cycling manifesto, minus the “bootstraps” buzzword. The only insult here is the idea that leftists don’t value hard work, decry the waste of exurban sprawl, and wish to avoid illness and injury whether or not those things lead to entitlement programs. Guess that goes to show that cycling truly is a bipartisan issue, all stereotypes aside.

  5. Ultrarunnergirl January 3, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    I like your angle. If you told people they weren’t allowed to bicycle, maybe we’d have a lot more people wanting to do it. There’s definitely a subtle resistance to anything seen as “good for your health/the environment” — as if nothing that fit in that category could be any fun.

  6. Alexis January 3, 2012 at 11:11 pm #

    I don’t identify as conservative whatsoever, so my perspective is not the inside one, but I do think the style and focus of this description evokes a classically conservative perspective. It sounds a little like similar romanticizaton of rural American life, which might be where modern/urban conservatives start to find it insulting or oversimplified. But I think if it were written with all the supporting material from your Bikenomics zine between the framing, the framing would work well and resonate with many people.

    If you’re looking to learn more about conservative framing, you might try Don’t Think of an Elephant, by George Lakoff. In the transportation/urbanism category, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns is conservative (I think he identifies as Republican) and I think over lots of readings, Strong Towns gives some ideas in this vein as well. I also read Market Urbanism for a while and it would potentially be a good resource as well. Their Why Conservatives and Libertarians Hate Urbanism is somewhat relevant to the points you’re trying to explore.

  7. Cherilyn January 4, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    I guess I’m having two problems here. One is that the argument you’ve described is insulting or cartoonish, since I’ve heard the Republican candidates talk about decreasing taxes, personal responsibility and fiscal responsibility. I think the only issue for some is that you aren’t speaking as a conservative.

    The second problem I have is this attitude that we can’t talk about an issue because “not all liberals/conservatives believe the same thing.” While this point is bleedingly obvious, it is designed to kill discussion, not foster it.

    I’m not a conservative, but I would also love to hear a diversity of conservative opinions on biking in America. ‘Cuz not every cyclist is a liberal.

  8. Jym Dyer January 5, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    =v= In the spirit of cartoonishness, I take great offense at the phrase “liberal elite,” since the nation’s true √©lite are overwhelmingly conservative economic monetarists (except, of course, when it comes to military spending and corporate welfare).

    Elly’s central points are actually very on-target; the problem is that political labels have baggage — deliberate encumbrances, courtesy of their opponents — so there will always be grounds to take offense. Squabbling over semantics achieves nothing but more encumbrance.

  9. MossHops January 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    Probably best to provide the disclaimer that I would identify myself as a moderate who is unaffiliated with any political party. From my perspective, there are a few concerns that primarily arise from treating conservatives as a monolithic movement with similar goals, philosophies and values.

    The great entertainment that is the Republican primaries shows us that this is obviously not the case. On one had, we have Mitt Romney who is rich, is proposing a tax plan that protects the rich and whose general desire is to keep taxes low for corporations and individuals so that we can (presumably) create a better environment to allow our capitalist system to thrive. From my perspective Romney appears to be a capitalist who is conservative as being conservative politically is in the best interest of capitalism.

    On the other hand, you have Ron Paul the libertarian who seems to value personal freedom above all else. He first and foremost wants the government to be smaller. With a smaller government, US citizens would presumably have greater freedom (due to fewer government restrictions and greater wealth (due to lower taxes). For Ron Paul, he is conservative primarily due to the fact that he values personal freedom above all else.

    For each of these perspectives, the argument for bicycling would be very different. I would suggest however that the argument for bicycles would be stronger from the libertarian perspective (no need for foreign wars for oil, low government expenditures for both healthcare and transportation).

    I can see why conservatives could take offense at the original article. References to wholesome values, instilling hard work, pulling up by the bootstraps and allusions to the “greatest generation” are trite and puffy and belittles that fact that there are more concrete reasons why conservatives might be attracted to the cause. If we actually used facts and figures and created a stronger argument as to why bicycles can help the government “do more with less” we might have something really useful here.

    • Elly January 9, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

      Thanks for this thoughtful response. I’ve done a lot with facts & figures (one example: target=”_blank”) and will continue to do so. This post was an attempt to grapple with the ideology (you can read a bit more about that in my follow-up post: target=”_blank”). I tried to imagine the best of all conservative worlds, and tried to convince myself.

      You’re right, it can’t be tied down to one thing, and the fact that the most successful of the Republican candidates so far is trying to be all things to all conservatives is a sign of how non-monolithic the conservative party has become; but at the same time it’s this divide between liberal and conservative, manufactured as it is, that’s the primary political conversation in our country right now.

      I haven’t posted about the “liberal case for bicycling” yet, because it seems like that’s been made thoroughly everywhere, though maybe I will this week. That too will be liable to the same criticisms as (and perhaps be comically similar to) the conservative case here. I’ll be interested to hear all of your thoughts, at any rate.


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