Do Republicans really hate cyclists?

By Peter Suciu, in Roseville, Michigan | Saturday, December 3, 2011 8.00am

In the United States, response to many issues falls along political party lines, including taxes, guns, abortion – and now cycling, according to some commentators.

Mother Jones, the self-professed “news organization that specializes in investigative, political and social justice”, published a story earlier this year with the straight-to-the-point headline: “The GOP Hates Bikes.” In this piece, author Stephani Mencimer noted two cases where Republican lawmakers drove anti-bicycle agendas.

Mencimer cited the examples of Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who had looked to cut transportation funding for bike paths and pedestrian trails, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who had looked to cut spending in the nation’s capital, including outlay on a bike-sharing program.

So, is the Republican Party truly anti-bike, as Mother Jones alleges? John Forester, cycling transportation engineer and bicycle advocate, notes that there are still many traffic laws in America that discriminate against cyclists and “neither party has expressed interest in repealing these laws”. However, he admits: “One can list the issues regarding bicycling on which major American political parties differ."

Many US cities have seen vast improvements in cycling infrastructure in recent years, including better bike paths, and Forester credits this to party lines. “Democrats like greater urban density and centralization – the opposite of the historical trend – because they believe it'll reduce motoring and increase bicycle transport,” he tells BikeRadar. “Republicans have a stronger preference for suburban living, with its decentralization, and wouldn't change for the purpose of increasing bicycle transport.”

This isn't always the case, though – New York City made its greatest strides in becoming a bicycle-friendly city under mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, both Republicans. It would seem that in New York at least, politics and bikes don’t necessarily follow the same path. This is backed up by the case of Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat who now resides in Brooklyn, and his wife Iris Weinshall, who formerly served as NYC’s Department of Transportation Commissioner.

During Weinshall’s tenure she was accused of dragging her feet on cycling efforts and more recently, the pair have publically complained about the bike paths in Prospect Park West. Weinshall actually helped organize a group called Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes, with the aim of removing the bike paths. It would seem the pair suffer from a bit of not in my backyard syndrome.

Mitch Berg, the conservative radio talk show host and avid cyclist, feels the perception of the Grand Old Party being anti-bike is down to two things. "I think it's a little of the ‘Single GOP politician’s statement getting stuck on all conservatives’ bit and a little bit of expanding a facet of conservative opinion, which may or may not be neutral on bikers themselves, that objects to public funding for paying for bike amenities – lanes and the like – out of gas tax receipts.

“I hear that one a lot in the Twin Cities," Berg adds. "Minneapolis – one of the best bike cities in the country – is constantly complaining about being broke on the one hand, and then spends a lot of money on things like bike lanes and ‘bike co-ordinators’ with full-time salaries.” 

Congressman Thomas Petri (R-Wis.) echoes this view. “Plenty of Republicans value the role bikes play,” he says. “What Republicans hate are taxes, which means they don't always race to build biking infrastructure or view it as a local versus federal responsibility. For my part, I've played a major role in building bike paths in my home district. The local reaction to that has been mixed. In any case, the current mood in Congress makes that kind of effort much more difficult.”

Many in Wisconsin do value Petri’s contributions, both at the local and national level. “Representative Petri has had a long history of supporting cycling,” Dave Schlabowske, communications director for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, tells BikeRadar. “While Rep (Earl) Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has been the more vocal supporter, Petri has been a little quieter, with the Midwestern attitude.”

Petri’s opinions on cycling closely mirror those of the Democrat Blumenauer, suggesting that cycling is just one part of an overall healthy lifestyle. “Cycling is more rewarding when you're in good shape, so riding bikes and adopting other healthy behaviors are mutually reinforcing,” he says. “I've participated in walking and biking programs at schools in my district to encourage young people to be active and instill habits that will last as they grow older.”

Rep. earl blumenauer (d-ore.) speaking on behalf of bike access at the interbike tradeshow in 2010:

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) speaking on behalf of bike access at the Interbike tradeshow in 2010

Berg thinks part of the problem is that there's a "partisan fringe" on both sides that politicizes biking. "Some ‘progressives’ see biking as an attack on the ‘consumption’ lifestyle; some conservatives see ‘bike culture’, as manifested by groups like Critical Mass, to be vapid counterculture pretenders," he says. "And conservatives who bike take a certain amount of flak – usually but not always good-natured – from other conservatives because of the ‘counterculture’ image that biking has adopted in urban, Democrat areas like the Twin Cities and Portland.”

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Rep. Petri feels there's also a cultural issue that needs to be resolved. “Cyclists feel safest when there's an actual physical barrier between bikes and cars,” he says. “Amsterdam views that as critical to a successful bike program as opposed to bike lanes painted on a street. New York and some other cities do have some protected bike paths versus just bike lanes.”

The Congressman from Wisconsin adds that given the current budget crisis, it's the public, as much as those in office, who are now not willing to pay for more of that type of infrastructure, adding that it can be difficult and expensive to retrofit streets in congested cities.

But Berg feels there is hope, as people from all walks of life are now riding bikes. “In my daily commute, I see lawyers on $4,000 rides, hipster girls on retro one-speed cargo bikes, urban commuters on bikes they got on Craigslist, the stereotypical ‘guy with his third DUI’ wearing work boots and riding a too-small BMX bike, government workers in khakis on mountain bikes and lots of guys like me in between.”

The truth is that cyclists come in many shapes and sizes, and cycling will likely remain a matter for debate. “I don’t think this should be a bi-partisan issue,” Schlabowske says. “If you like bikes, it doesn’t matter what your party is. The one thing we all agree on is that we like riding bikes and we can all enjoy that together. It's really a bike-partisan issue.”

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