What do conservatives want (from bicycling)?

Earlier this week I attempted to make “the conservative case for bicycle transportation.” Before writing it I spent some time thinking about political discourse in the U.S. and trying to put myself in conservative shoes. And responses have been mixed — completely all over the map, actually.

Two people wrote comments in right off the bat saying they were conservatives and felt belittled and thought my assumptions were condescending. Someone from the left said they were insulted by my implication that liberals don’t believe in the same things. A few people said they thought it was fair, and one person said I was being too generous to conservative ideology. Others think drawing a line between liberal and conservative is divisive and impossible to do cleanly.

To write the piece, I made several assumptions about conservative values for the sake of the article. Most of the issues that get airplay in the divide between left and right are not relevant to bicycling, so this took some thinking. I assumed that conservatives would identify strongly with economic thriftiness, the freedom of individual choice, independence from government, the language of rationality and common sense, strong families, obedient children, entitlement to earned wealth, and a certain generational nostalgia. Then I attempted to frame the arguments for bicycle transportation in light of those values. The critiques of the article have been that not all — and not only –conservatives relate to those values.

So what do conservatives value? If you identify as politically conservative and are a passionate believer in bicycle transportation, I would love to hear from you and give you space here to talk about why.

For now, though, in the spirit of the season, I’m turning to the polls for clues:

One CNN article uses a recent Pew poll to look in-depth at feelings about U.S. exceptionalism on the left and right. One poll found that more self-identified conservatives (63%) than liberals (34%) believe that U.S. culture is superior to that of other countries. The writer draws on other polls to say that there is a difference in why the left and right think the U.S. is the best — for the right, it’s our individual and cultural qualities, you could say our social values. For the left, it’s our system of government and our institutions, and the checks and balances built into them.

This distinction does shed some light on why bicycle transportation tends to be a cause of the left — our built environment has become so car-centric that the institutional fixes needed to make bicycling mainstream again are vast compared with the cultural shift already underway of people making the choice to get on a bike.

To me, bicycle transportation is impossible to separate from the question of what kind of values, community, and yes, even government we have, or want to have. And to many it seems to strike a chord that has very little to do with party lines, and demonstrates many more commonalities than differences between left and right.

But thinking about discourse amongst bicycle advocates, that individual vs institutions division is a major sticking point — and perhaps bicycling really did take its big leap to the left when the vehicular cycling model of bicycle driver education and personal responsibility whatever the hostile road conditions started to give way to the planning model of creating safer streets.

I’m not sure how my argument from a conservative perspective would change based on this — perhaps more of an emphasis on the personal righteousness of bicycling, though the thought of writing such things makes me hideously uncomfortable as this is the epitome of the caricature of the lefty hippie Portland cyclist. Go figure.

Any thoughts? Please share them here — if so many people have so many different opinions on the topic, it must be a conversation worth having.

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4 Responses to “What do conservatives want (from bicycling)?”

  1. Andrew Seger January 4, 2012 at 2:02 am #

    I think your biggest mistake was picturing “conservatism” as one thing. People care about a variety of things and have deeply different wants and desires. Just look at the Iowa caucus results. The top three candidates reflect very different visions of conservatism and yet can all still be Republicans. Libertarians might find the dollars and cents aspect of your arguments while a social conservative might find the idea of Portland’s “20 minute neighborhoods” with strong social bonds appealing.

    For that matter voters generally have no idea what they want or how to go about getting it. Just look at the Williams bike lane debate: the one thing everyone agrees on is slower speeds. Then people gets frustrated when they can’t drive their cars 40mph through Williams at rush hour without all those darn cyclists getting in the way.

  2. MossHops January 13, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    What do conservatives want? I see two possible camps on that score:

    On one hand, there are the conservatives who might be sounding the fiscal alarm much the same way that the left sounds the environmental one. A greenie’s thought toward the single occupant driver of an Escalade might be: You and your environment can not afford the environmental impact of your behavior. You have to change.

    For the fiscal conservative they might say to the same person: You and your country can not afford the economic impact of your behavior, you have to change. The environmentalist frets about the impact to the planet, and the fiscal conservative frets about the impact to the balance sheet. However, both could see common cause in getting more people on bikes.

    The fiscally conservative right and the environmental left can find common ground. studies such as the one below show how this could be done: http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2012/01/improving-air-quality-will-save-money-and-prevent-climate-change.ars

    However, I do believe there is a larger, broader camp of conservatives in the U.S. beyond the fiscal conservatives. This camp is probably “reactionary” in the true sense of the word in that they will support anyone who will not force them to change their current behavior. As their current behavior is driving everywhere and having a community built around the car, I think most arguments (from both the left and right) that propose something (anything) else is a non-starter.

    Maybe that’s a bit more pessimistic than I was hoping for and perhaps it is a bit more of a characterization of the reactionary right than I was going for, but that’s what I have.

  3. Richard Masoner January 20, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

    Whenever I bring the topic of “conservatives on bikes” up, many of my liberal readers say they can’t even fathom the concept of a bike riding conservative who does so for non-recreational reasons. They (you? I? We?) increasingly seem to view support for bicycling as partisan (e.g. Coloradoan Dan Maes’ red bike scare) and utilitarian riding as something only Good Virtuous Serious Greenies can do. There’s probably some kind of tie-in with America’s Puritanical heritage.


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