Bikes and the Presidency

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It’s safe to say that bicycling is not an important issue in this year’s race for the U.S. presidency, nor is it likely to be an issue very much on the winners’ radar in the next four years. But, while half-paying attention to Obama and Romney debate earlier this week, I couldn’t help finding myself far more interested in playing out a fantasy scenario in which bicycle transportation is the hot issue of the day. Not in a whether-or-not sense, but in a which-way sense. It was an especially amusing train of thought once some game folks started to play along.

Earlier this year I took a cursory look at some of the candidates’ history of actually riding a bike, including two-wheeled episodes in the lives of both the current candidates. Now I’d like to tackle something a little more difficult and look at their policy history to see if anything can be gleaned about what sort of president they might be.

Obama is easiest to evaluate because he has in fact been President for four years, albeit four years of partisan gridlock and attempted compromise. Obama has a long history, which the First Lady has taken up since they moved to Washington, of championing preventative health issues, which is one of bicycling’s sexiest and least partisan political umbrellas. And things looked promising at the beginning of this term; he appointed a relatively bike-friendly transportation secretary who had free reign to make a lot of positive noise representing the Obama administration about cycling, nonmotorized transportation, and safe driving. The money followed, with the administration doubled federal spending on bicycling and walking projects in its first year to a still-measly but needed and effective $1.2 billion.

But more recently, things are not looking as hot for Obama’s transportation legacy. The brand new federal transportation funding reauthorization is the worst for bikes in recent decades, gutting funding and allowing states to spend the federal money set aside for bikes on car infrastructure instead. It’s tempting to put the bulk of the blame for this at the door of Congress, which I do. But it still does not necessarily bode well for the President’s chances of choosing nonmotorized transportation as an issue to stick his neck out for if he is elected to work with another hostile Congress for the next four years. On the other hand, if he feels more free in his second term, there is a chance he will choose to prioritize some of the health and livability issues to which he is clearly inclined to be friendly, a goodwill which might just, excuse the phrase, trickle down to bikes.

What about Romney? As Governor of Massachusetts he did support some “smart growth” style development and focused on repairing existing roads rather than building new ones. (As an aside, here’s a fascinating article about his history overseeing the final years of the Big Dig.)

As for what Romney might do as President, that’s harder to tell, since his campaign is based on seemingly a complete renunciation of all his policies as Governor. He hasn’t said much about transportation, except that he would cut Amtrak.

We also have a few hints in the form of whom is financing his campaign: Fossil fuel companies. It’s worth noting that these companies, while they surely are not going to prioritize nonmotorized transportation in their lobbying, do not necessarily see bicycle transportation as competition; many are eager to align their brands with the freedom and sustainability bicycling represents, and supporting bicycle infrastructure is one way that, for instance, oil companies are trying to attract young employees to move to cities like Houston.

Still, Romney has stepped up to the national stage at a time when the line between parties is becoming less crossable and even issues deemed minor — like bicycling — are used to delineate that line even more starkly. The far right clearly dislikes him, and, if elected, he would be in their debt. I predict that under Romney the last traces of anything non-car-specific would be scoured from the next transportation bill and that the federal requirements that constrain local transportation choices would make even the most determinedly bike-friendly cities even more stuck with our freeways than we already are.

In either case, it is unlikely that anyone at the federal level is going to be going out of their way in the next four years to make things easy for people to choose bicycling. It falls upon bicycling advocates, business leaders, and media to push aside the polarizing liberal rhetoric we’ve used to describe cycling for years and instead demonstrate the strong ties between bicycle-friendly policies and the jobs and fiscal solvency this country urgently requires.