Follow up: How to talk to a conservative

Editor’s Note: In Bicycle Times #11, we published “Bridging the Gap: How to Talk About Cycling to a Conservative," an advocacy column by Tom Bowden. In Issue #12 we printed a letter critiquing that column from Mark Kaepplein of Arlington, Mass. Below you will find Bowden’s point-by-point response to that letter.

Mark writes: “I’m writing about the article in Bicycle Times Magazine entitled ‘Bridging the Gap: How to Talk About Cycling to a Conservative’ by Tom Bowden. The fundamental problems with reaching conservatives include funding and practical reality.”

Tom Bowden’s response: You may consider it imaginary or impractical, but my article comes from someone who loves cars and bikes, and speaks from actual experience as both a driver and a cyclist. And I don’t wear Lycra to work.

“Cyclists’ funding model is now lobbying government for handouts.”

Response: Cyclists wouldn’t need much funding at all if not for cars. No, we are seeking fairness and rationality, actually. I pay lots of road taxes and gas taxes, and I think my suggestions for how they might be spent are entitled to the same weight as yours. It’s not as if all cyclists own zero cars—I’d be surprised if even 1% of riders—of all types—are carless. If that were true there would be no Yakima, Thule or Saris bike racks (sorry if I left anyone out). Let me direct you to the following sources of support for the proposition that automobile user fees don’t come close to covering even the direct costs of roads and highways, let alone the externalities, like 30K plus auto fatalities every year:

Plus, as Ted Johnson of Commute by Bike so aptly pointed out to me at the National Bike Summit this past March, if we weren’t so dependent on automobiles, maybe we wouldn’t have hundreds of thousands of brave young Americans serving multiple tours in the Middle East (like my brother).

“This is most unpopular with fiscal conservatives.”

Response: Yes—primarily the ones who don’t look objectively at the facts.

“Canals, railroads, and some roads were built with private funding.”

Response: And with the power of Eminent Domain, which commandeered or appropriated huge tracts of land for rights of way, creating effective monopolies in these critical transport modes—until a Republican by the name of Theodore Roosevelt (also early member of League of American Bicyclists, by the way) broke up the monopolies with anti-trust laws. And the earliest roads in the U.S were paved for cyclists.

“User fees in tolls and fares paid for the investments, maintenance, and operation.”

Response: Partly, but by no means exclusively—not even close. See my point above.

“Things are worth what people will pay for them.”

Response: Agreed—but where is the free market for bike lanes, or roads for that matter? These types of infrastructures are typically created and paid for mainly by general or specific taxes, or by user fees once they are built. I’ll wager that many cyclists would gladly pay an appropriate user fee for safe bike facilities. Even most conservatives admit that a free market for roads would not work very well, unless we want to pave everything.

“People pay road, bridge, and tunnel tolls.”

Response: And those people include cyclists—those who own cars and even those who don’t. In Richmond, we have a bridge (known as the "Nickel Bridge") that collects tolls from cyclists. And not all bridges—not even a small fraction—have tolls. Perhaps they should.

“They pay for bus, subway, rail, boat, and plane tickets.”

Response: And yet all of those modes are subsidized in greater or lesser amounts—directly, like Amtrak, or indirectly through issuance of tax-free municipal bonds—with the cost or the foregone tax revenue passed on to the taxpayers at large.

“People pay to build and use roads with gas taxes, though these have not kept up with inflation. Nobody seems willing to pay a toll to ride a bike path or lane.”

Response: If I pay my share of gas taxes and road fees and higher taxes due to tax exemptions for municipal bonds, why shouldn’t I and other cyclists to suggest a better and more efficient use of those funds? Again—where do you get the idea that none of the cyclists you dismiss as spandex commandos own cars?

“If you want bike lanes on roads and bridges, pay to widen them or build your own.”

Response: Give me a tax exempt bond issuing authority and the power of eminent domain and I will—but why do that when we already have those mechanisms set up for existing roads, which can be adapted at modest expense (we’re talking paint and signs, mostly) to shared use?

“Don’t steal lanes from the motorists who paid for them with gas taxes.”

Response: Steal? Who’s stealing from whom? Car-centric thinking is stealing my right to choose the most appropriate means of transportation. And of course, the libertarian side of the right side of my brain says the government is stealing from us all.

“Cyclists paying entirely for bike paths isn’t necessary, though, because many are mostly used by non-bicyclists: pedestrians, skaters, and runners. Credits from medical cost savings are a potential funding method for cyclists to pay for their roadways.”

Response: Yes indeed—and I pay much higher health insurance premiums to support the sedentary lifestyles of those who not only gird themselves in tons of steel and glass to get around, but seem to think everyone else should, too.

“Bicycles are wonderful, efficient machines without hundreds of pounds of government regulations that make cars less efficient.”

Response: Agreed! Cars are also made inefficient by stoplights and congestion, because they continue burning gas while they are sitting still (with the exception of hybrids). More cycling and less driving eases congestion, making driving more efficient even for non-cyclists.

“However, they are not practical for many transportation needs.”

Response: Maybe they are not practical for all or even most needs. Nor are cars appropriate for all needs, or trucks, airplanes or submarines. Horses for courses, as the saying goes.

“Light motorcycles are popular outside the U.S., have greater capacities than human-powered two-wheelers, and are an ignored option in transportation and fossil fuel challenges.”

Response: Ignored by whom? Cyclists aren’t objecting to light motorcycles. What’s your point? Are you in favor of alternative transportation but only if it burns fossil fuels?

“In my neighborhood, non-recreational cyclists are typically spandex commandos commuting to information jobs where they don’t have to wear business attire or carry much.”

Response: You are generalizing and stereotyping here. We live in an information economy—why the backhanded slight against IT workers? They pay taxes at high marginal rates.

“Women are a minority because a car or public transport doesn’t require fixing their hair, showering, or changing into a folded, wrinkled outfit brought along.”

Response: Minority of what? Cyclists? Where are your numbers? Are you talking about commuters, racers, “triathamoms”? There are a lot more women cyclists than you might imagine, and yes, there would probably be more women on the road if we had a more cycling-friendly road system. And frankly, your comment is pretty condescending towards women. As a conservative I believe in equal rights and equal respect. I try not to base my arguments on tired shibboleths about women and how their choices are dictated by fashion. And didn’t you just make a sideways comment about "not needing to wear business attire?" Do you feel slighted because you have to wear a suit and therefore can’t commute by bike? I am an attorney and I wear suits and ties and I commute by bike. What’s the issue?

I think these women might take issue with your suggestion that cycling and fashion don’t mix.

“Parents have difficulty picking up and dropping off kids at daycare via 1/18/21 speeds.”

Response: I’m sure some do, but shouldn’t it be up to them to decide what is practical? No one is forcing bikes on everyone for every purpose—I own (and pay taxes on) four SUVs and a minivan, and I use them as appropriate. Plus, you might be surprised what is practical and what is not. I have always liked the saying “Don’t interrupt me while I am actually doing something just because you think it’s impossible.”

“No matter the inflated ridership stats collected during bike month promotions, bicycling has limited realistic practicality and potential.”

Response: And so tens (or even hundreds?) of millions of Chinese cyclists aren’t really getting to work every day? What are they—just out for a bike ride? Ten million cyclists in Shanghai alone—one of the most sophisticated cities in the world. In some ways, cycling is the only practical way to get around in ultra-dense cities.

“I’ll also note that the article had many dubious, concocted, unsubstantiated, and misleading numbers and statistics.”

Response: I’ll give you my sources—where are yours?

“The 3% traffic reduction resulting in 50% less congestion claim for example. That is likely only true on roads near or over capacity.”

Response: But…It’s exactly those roads that are near or over capacity that need help. If expansions can be postponed or eliminated, saving great expense, wouldn’t that be something worth considering?

“That describes most urban interstates, and bicycles won’t take traffic off of them because drivers within bicycling distances are not using interstates.”

Response: What is your basis for saying that? Not all users of interstates are driving long distances, and the closer you get to a city, the worse the congestion. That happens to be where bikes become more and more practical. There are even designs for completely enclosed elevated cycleways that use large fans to help the riders along and keep them cool. They can take plenty of one- to two-exit interstate drivers off the road at much lower cost. No one is suggesting we convert the interstates entirely to bike lanes.

“Twisting truth puts off everyone.”

Response: Agreed. But so do off-the-cuff arguments that don’t hold up to scrutiny or research. If you want to delve into the facts, I’d be happy to direct you to plenty of sources. As the saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts.



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