Bikes and the candidates, round one: Obama, Paul, Romney

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In the last Presidential election, looking for bicycling connections with any of the candidates led only to that photo of Mr. Obama riding with one of his daughters on city streets, helmeted, earnest, and a little dorky, especially in comparison with then-current President Bush, who liked to lycra up and go for adrenaline-producing mountain bike rides.

This year, of the Republican candidates, Ron Paul has been the most explicitly linked with bicycling. This fall he held a press conference on his bike to showcase his daily habit of riding recreationally around Houston, Texas. More recently in the campaign, he responded to a challenge about his age (he’s 76) and health with the invitation “Let’s do a bicycle ride!”

From an ideological perspective, Mr. Paul seems, of all the Republican candidates, most likely to support policies friendly to transportation bicycling. The economic case for bicycling is particularly strong from a libertarian perspective. But again, Mr. Paul rides for his health and might not be predisposed — or find it politically feasible — to question the transportation status quo.

The only candidate who is known to have regularly used a bicycle for daily transportation is Mitt Romney, during his years as a missionary in France. In that time, he also was involved in a tragic car crash.

Bicycles are the standard, iconic vehicle of LDS missionaries, which does lead to great potential for the embrace of bike transportation in heavily LDS communities. But Romney’s commentary about his time in France isn’t hopeful on that tip. He told ““I said to myself, ‘Wow. I sure am lucky to have been born in the United States of America,’” Romney said. “I began to appreciate the freedoms and the gifts that come by virtue of having been in this country.””

Romney may see a value in bicycle transportation as a means of progress out of poverty; but it’s just as likely that he views it as a symbol of all that U.S. policy should focus on leaving behind. His focus is on business and management, and bicycling has yet to enter the mainstream as a serious national economic issue. A closer look at his record as Massachusetts governor should yield some insights, but my suspicion is that active transportation issues have not been much on Romney’s radar.

Four years ago, Mr. Obama’s photo was met with a brief eruption of snickering about his decidedly un-chic outfit, but the main impression the photo leaves is that he can’t do this very often — or at least it can’t have been very fun, what with the bike’s nearly flat rear tire, its knee-bustingly low seat, his uncomfortably high waisted jeans, and the pothole in the foreground.

It’s too bad Trek didn’t seize the PR moment to offer some tips on comfortable urban riding. Ford successfully grabbed a news cycle during that campaign by calling Obama out for driving a foreign SUV. This time around, I hope the bike industry doesn’t miss the chance to make a statement about bicycle transportation. As that urban riding photo foreshadowed, President Obama has not been obstructive, and has in some ways been actively supportive, of bicycle transportation. Which makes it all the more important not just to try to guess at how the current crop of candidates feel about bicycling, but to make sure they understand it.

  • Read my case for bicycling as a conservative issue here, and follow-up thoughts here.
  • For more in-depth discussion and data about bicycling and the economy, you can find my Bikenomics zine here.