Are bicycles the latest weapon of neoconservatives?

Posted on July 18, 2014
by Dave Cieslewicz, Executive Director

Source: Wisconsin Bike Federation

Bumper stickers for the far right.

Bumper stickers for the far right.

Call it bike rage. The simmering conflict between some cyclists and some drivers seems to have boiled over a bit this summer.

No less a revered source than the USA Today produced a long story about the issue. And even the usually sensible National Public Radio host Scott Simon took a shot at bike riders on Twitter when he found some bizarre way to link urban bike commuters to Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal.

On Monday the Bike Fed’s other Dave will publish a blog post packed with local and national studies that suggests people might actually be more law abiding when they ride bicycles than when they drive cars. Be sure to check back here for that, but so far this summer, in my own unscientific research, I have observed countless people in cars cheating on yellow lights and sometimes just blatantly blow through red ones. Red light running by cars has become an epidemic. If there’s rage to be had, it should be over that because a couple thousand pounds of glass and steel moving at forty miles per hour through a red light can do a whole lot more damage than a twenty-five pound bike traveling at ten or fifteen.

Now look, I’ll be the first to admit that there is plenty of irresponsible biking that goes on out there, but I am not convinced that it exceeds the amount of irresponsible car driving. Last week in just one edition the Wisconsin State Journal reported that three drivers had been charged with their fourth, fifth and (get this) ninth drunk driving citations, respectively, but certainly not respectfully. And Wisconsin remains the only state in the nation in which first offense drunk driving is not a felony.

So given the more or less equal amounts of irresponsibility on the part of both drivers and cyclists and given the fact that dangerous driving will cause a whole lot more mayhem than bad bicycling, what accounts for all of the venom directed at bikers?

A good theory is that it has little to do with biking at all. Bikes have become a symbol and neoconservatives pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Dorothy Rabinowitz in New YorkDan Maes in Colorado have made them a weapon in the culture wars. Politicians like Toronto’s now infamous Mayor Rob Ford have taken that political football and run with it all the way to public office. I guess it starts with bicycle lanes and then before you know it everybody’s got health insurance and we’re all sitting in cafes watching soccer matches or news shows about the good work the UN is doing around the world. Oh, wait, maybe that is actually happening.

By portraying everyone on a bicycle as entitled, urban hipsters or elite super athletes, they appeal to their conservative base, most of whom live in suburbs, exurbs or rural areas where single occupancy vehicles abound. One way or another the far right wants to portray bicycle riders as somehow un-American. It is shocking what a difference a few decades make, while our parents generation embraced gas rationing during times of war and driving alone was considered unpatriotic, today the far right sees no reason to encourage people to conserve.

People who saved gas, car-pooled, and took transit used to be considered patriotic, and it was un-American to drive alone.

People who saved gas, car-pooled, and took transit used to be considered patriotic, and it was un-American to drive alone.

In that USA Today article Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said it best: “In some cases, a bike has become a ymbol for some folks of so many social, historical, racial, demographic and mobility issues that have been packed over so much time and space. At that point, the debate is not about bikes anymore.”

So what to do about it?

Well, let’s all start by taking a deep breath. I will admit that when I am driving I find myself getting irritated by bad cycling behavior. When that happens I breath deeply and remind myself that at that moment I am in charge of deadly force. I have a special responsibility behind the wheel to look out for other motor vehicles, and people walking and bicycling. Others may act badly but my job is to stay cool and focused. The computer piloted driverless car may someday take care of this problem, but for now it’s good to remind ourselves that driving should not be an expression of our emotions.

And when we ride bicycles, we need to be on our best behavior because people in cars are watching. I make it a point to stop at red lights even when there is no traffic, to signal my turns, to stay off of sidewalks where that isn’t allowed (mostly downtown) and to otherwise just be courteous on the street. Maybe the best thing we can do to cool the tension is just to take the thirty seconds and actually come to a complete stop when the rules call for it.

Bill Maher’s, When You Ride ALONE You Ride With Bin Laden: What the Government Should be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism

Bill Maher’s, When You Ride ALONE You Ride With Bin Laden: What the Government Should be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism

And finally, there’s a public policy solution as well, which is more safe bike infrastructure. By building more dedicated bike paths and clearly marked and protected bike lanes we are providing better facilities for both bikers and drivers so that we each know our space and we can live in harmony.

But one way or another this needs to be worked out not just in Wisconsin but in the whole country. The explosion in cycling is no fad; it’s the future. Bicycle commuting is up sixty percent nationwide. Bike lanes and other bike infrastructure is being added at a rapid rate and Millennials are biking a lot more than Baby Boomers.

The bike is not a symbol of anything. It’s just a bike. Don’t get mad. Go with the flow.

And be sure to check back here on Monday when Deputy Dave will overwhelm you with facts and figures that you can use to refute claims that people on bikes are scofflaws.


Here are some of the COMMENTS left after the publication of this article:

Withheld says:
July 18, 2014 at 10:43 am
Dave – I am so disappointed by this blog post. It has the tone of divisive, political vitriol, not the tone of empowerment, encouragement, and cooperation that the “other Dave” does so well. Antagonism between drivers and cyclists is a real problem, but to blame it on political beliefs and on a small handful of people is narrow-minded, unlikely to lead to practicable solutions, and an irresponsibly gross over-simplification.

You suggest some ways to improve your own behavior behind the wheel and on the bike, but you offer no solutions for improving broader driver-cyclist relations. Why not give some talking points for conservative and liberal cyclists to share with their non-cycling conservative friends the next time the topic comes up? Why not use your position to remind liberal and conservative cyclists of the passion they share in common rather than exacerbating their political differences?

I know you realize that a substantial number of Bike Fed members are conservative. Riding a bike is an apolitical activity, and cycling actually fits very well with the conservative ideals of fiscal responsibility and individual liberty. I just don’t understand why you would risk shoving conservative cyclists out of the tent with a post so lacking in constructive content.

Brian says:
July 18, 2014 at 12:47 pm
I’m in agreement with you, as this article is politically charged. I believe the problem between drivers/ bicyclists is about even, I’d bet bicyclists & drivers break the law just as much as one another.

Mark Framness says:
July 18, 2014 at 10:01 pm
Yeah, I don’t recall signing onto a set of political beliefs in order to ride my bike. This is exactly what I was afraid of when I saw I was joining up with a group headed by Mayor Dave, I’m in the break-away now.

Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director says:
July 21, 2014 at 7:19 am

To be fair, I must admit that I “the other Dave” wrote the headline for Dave C’s post and added the rationing posters from WWII to suggest that conserving used to be considered patriotic and so should cycling. We agree riding a bicycle is truly a conservative thing to do. The post above called out both neoconservatives as well as a member of the “liberal” media who perpetuate the misperception that people on flout the law more on bikes than in cars. That said, in response to your request for some constructive talking points, we published today’s blog What to say when people complain about bikes. It not only gives you suggested responses to typical complaints, we included the traffic engineering studies that prove people on bicycles are no more likely to break the law then people in cars. Give it a read and let us know if you think this is more helpful.

Withheld says:
July 21, 2014 at 10:49 am
Thanks for the response, Dave. I’m a big fan of yours, but I’ll tell you – I’m disappointed to learn that you contributed that headline and the poster images. My issue is with the political slant of that article. It was totally unnecessary. Yes, some conservative talking heads have said some really stupid things about cycling. But we conservative cyclists are smart enough to realize how stupid they were.

Unfortunately, the level of political discourse in our country seems to reach a new low every day. To be successful in its mission, the Bike Fed needs to rise above the muck and speak respectfully to people of all political leanings, on behalf of all cyclists.

I will grant that this post probably would have gotten fewer reads without the political angle, but it would have advanced the Bike Fed’s mission much more successfully. Ironically, the author used the same political sensationalism he criticizes Rush Limbaugh for using.

I think we can all agree we need less political vitriol and more reasoned, respectful debate. You’re one of the few who can do that really well, Dave. I hope you’ll stick to it, and I hope your boss can muster the humility to learn from you.

Brian says:
July 18, 2014 at 12:43 pm
The anti-vehicle bias in this article has reared its ugly head again. Heres my take on why motorists dislike bicyclists,
1. bicyclists needing to stop their dangerous risk taking behavior is a big one. When I see them riding on a highway, I cringe. If something happens the bicycle advocacy groups are going to blame the motorist like always, not the dangerous risk taking of the bicyclist. Bicycles don’t belong on highways. I don’t care how much I hear “SHARE THE ROAD” or some other way to diffuse/deflect from the dangerous issue. If bicycles really fall under the same rules of the law as motor vehicles, bicyclists wouldn’t be getting special user laws, like the vulnerable user law.

The next problem I have, bicyclists seem to think they have no accountability, all the burden is put on the motorists, when the bicyclist has none what so ever ( sounds like a special privledge to me) they seem to think they can do what they want.

I am not anti-bicycle, I just want them prohibited from highways/rural roads, which upon doing research a lot of the tragedies that have happened that the bike fed has made a big deal over have seemed to all happened on none other then HIGHWAYS.



Let’s Stop the Bickering!