How to talk about cycling to a conservative

By Tom Bowden

Illustration by David D’Incau, Jr.

I’m a registered Republican and I consider myself pretty conservative—so what the heck am I doing, you may wonder, writing about bike advocacy? Simple— I’m a bike commuter, and I chair the Advocacy Committee of BikeWalk Virginia. What I am going to share is essentially the same approach I use to try to make sure our elected officials—federal, state and local—do right by cyclists and pedestrians, and give us our fair share of the transportation outlays that always seem so car-centric.

So, speaking as a right-wing cyclist, here are some thoughts on how to talk to Republicans, Conservatives, Tea Party types, and even Libertarians about the benefits of cycling.

First and foremost: Don’t assume they’re all hostile to the cause!

What makes you think cycling isn’t conservative? Of course it is! It conserves energy, it’s individualistic, and it’s anything but new-fangled. So true conservatives should be receptive. Don’t let campaign posturing turn you away—all elected representatives have cyclists in their districts, and all of them would probably like to claim they brought dollars to their district or state. Remember, “pork barrel” projects and “earmarks” are the words they use to describe the money that goes to the other guy’s district instead of their own. When the dollars flow to their district, it’s “I’m just doing my part to see that the good taxpayers of Cahoolawassee get their fair share of federal tax dollars!” (Translation: I got more federal money returned to my constituents than they paid in taxes). “This bike trail/bike lane/bike factory/whatever, will bring hundreds of jobs to our fine state/city/county!” You’d be amazed how fast a politician from either side of the aisle can smell a parade and immediately get out in front of it, and just how flexible their logic can be.

Key points to keep in mind, and use as needed

Cycling is an exercise (literally) of a fundamental freedom—freedom of movement. in the Constitution, it derives from the “privileges and immunities clause” as interpreted by the Supreme Court in United States v. Wheeler, 254 U.S. 281 (1920). (Fair warning: I am in fact a lawyer). This is why you don’t need a passport to enter New Jersey.

Cycling is efficient. True Conservatives love efficiency! It has been said that a cyclist is more efficient than a bird in flight. Cycling has a glorious history of entrepreneurism! Think: Wright Brothers, Schwinn, and Trek. Lots of senators and representatives probably had paper routes. America invented the mountain bike, BMX and freestyle.

Cycling is patriotic. Americans have won twice as many “Tour-day-Frances” in the last 30 years as the French themselves. The score is 10 to 5—and that’s not even counting Floyd Landis, or subtracting the late Laurent Fignon (who confessed to doping shortly before he died; take him out and it’s 10-3).

Cycling can make a serious dent in our dependence on foreign oil. A huge portion of all petroleum fuels go to automobile transportation, of which only 15% is related to getting to work, while 90% of all trips are less than two miles. Enabling even 10% of those short trips to be on a bike or on foot can make a real reduction in demand for oil imports.

Here is what turns off conservatives

Over-the-top rhetoric. Don’t marginalize your arguments with pronouncements such as: Everyone should ride a bike, give up their car, live green, etc.

Conservatives don’t like other people telling them what they should do. And when you stop and think about it, you probably don’t either—that’s why you ride a bike, right? (To be fair, conservatives have done their fair share of telling other people how to live their lives, but pointing that out will not win you their support.)

Calling drivers “cagers.” Remember: their moms, husbands and wives probably drive cars.

Ranting that oil companies are evil. Maybe so, or maybe they’re just incompetent. But what the heck does that have to do with it?

Anti-car arguments in general. Face it: cars exist and most Americans love them. You’ll get nowhere with a conservative if your explicit agenda (or suspected hidden agenda) is an attack on American “car culture.”

Global warming, climate change or climate disruption. If it’s as bad as Al Gore says it is, it will take more than a few bike lanes to fix it. But more importantly, you don’t need to win that fight (or even engage in it) to make your point. Cycling has plenty of merit without dragging in tangential and controversial issues like Global…whatever the heck they call it this week.

Gushing praise of European cycling culture, e.g. the Dutch, the Danes, or whoever. Conservatives are not inclined to emulate pre-colonial imperialist has-beens—at least not consciously.

Here are some positive things you can do and say

If you must meet a conservative faceto- face, wear a suit! It won’t kill you. Think of it as camouflage—you may find them nodding their heads in agreement even before you open your mouth. Note: some business suits actually contain trace amounts of Lycra and spandex.

Remind them that cycling is cheaper than building more roads. The more cyclists, the more room for cars on existing roads. The more cyclists, the less concrete we need to pour. The less concrete, the more money for deficit reduction, tax cuts—or for bike projects in their home districts. Use numbers. Here are some I find persuasive:

  • A study in one community showed that properties located near bike paths increased in value by 11% more than similar properties not near such facilities.
  • The Outdoor Industry Foundation estimates that the bicycling industry supports 1.1 million jobs and generates $17.7 billion in tax revenue each year.
  • A 3% reduction in traffic can result in a 30% reduction in traffic congestion.
  • Cycling reduces heart disease and other costly health problems—blunting the need for expensive health care, regardless of who pays for it.
  • The total maximum annual cost of bike commuter credit: less than $75 million, even if every existing bicycle commuter got it. Total subsidies to drivers and transit users: $4.4 billion.
  • Cycling generates $133 billion annually in economic activity.
  • We spend $76 billion a year on health care costs related to physical inactivity— bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure can reduce this.
  • Another $164 billion a year goes to health care costs associated with traffic injuries and deaths—caused by vehicles.
  • And another $64 billion a year goes to health care costs of asthma and air pollution.

When you do talk to conservatives, make it clear that you are not suggesting that everyone should, or even can, ditch their cars and ride bikes; you just think that people who choose to ride should be able to do so safely, as taxpaying citizens worthy of full protection of their individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of that special kind of happiness one gets from riding a bike.

These Points in Practice

I was fortunate to attend the National Bike Summit earlier this month in Washington, D.C., representing Bike- Walk Virginia. I was impressed by the diligence, sincerity and openness of all of the staffers I met in my meetings on “The Hill.” It makes it a little harder to lob clever one-liners at them from a distance when you’ve sat across the table and talked face-to-face while they took copious notes.

One troublesome argument that seems to be gaining traction is along the lines of, “Why should cycling be a federal issue? Shouldn’t it be a state and local issue?” Of course that is conservative code talk for, “We don’t want to fund it, because we will get more votes with bigger projects.”

My response would be: True, it should be a local issue, and when all of you earmarking politicians stop paving every square inch of our local communities with federal highway subsidies, we’ll be happy to take responsibility at a local level. But for now, we just want to level the playing field a little. And after all, for every federal dollar you spend on properly designed cycling infrastructure (and I don’t mean multi-use paths to nowhere), you can ultimately de-fund $10 worth of auto infrastructure. De-fund is a good word to use with Republicans and conservatives.

An “Aha!” moment for me was the address by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, at the Thursday evening reception. He got a great response by announcing with great fanfare that he had just gotten an offer from a hard-core Republican anti-cyclist to guarantee hundreds of millions of federal dollars for cycling projects—with one condition: Blumenauer and his cohort would only have to drop their opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

There was raucous applause when he proclaimed that he turned the offer down flat. Red meat for the howling liberal wolves, I thought to myself. But over the cheering and whooping, I was surprised at what he did not say, and impressed by what he did say. He didn’t say that drilling would destroy ancient moose migration routes, or that cars were evil, or that the planet was about to evaporate from global warming. If I understood correctly, he simply said that the oil will still be there when/if we really need it. And in his opinion, we really don’t need it now.

When you step back a little from the staged ideological food fight portrayed in the media, there is not much difference between the mainstream Democrats and Republicans on many issues— Although not explicitly defined cycling included. Both sides pander to the extremes, seeking easy victories in the battle of sound bites. But when the lights go off and the cameras are turned away, they often sidle up to the bar and hoist a few cold ones together.

Both sides have their extreme wings. Still, the magnifying glass of the media enlarges and distorts our differences and the politicians play along, to stay relevant and capture their share of the eyeball market.

The strategy for the whole summit was to approach Congress with the pitch that cycling is fiscally responsible, and grounded in conservative values of self-sufficiency, thrift and independence. I can’t recall hearing any hostile comments throughout the whole event about Republicans, conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Instead I heard strategies and themes designed to appeal to common values: efficient use of public funds; preservation of individual choices; creation of traditional “Leave It to Beaver” neighborhoods where kids ride their bikes safely to neighborhood schools.

Riding on Friday morning with an Arizona state flag wrapped around my handlebars was the perfect capstone to an amazing experience. Kristi Felts Moore brought several dozen at her own expense to honor Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona. Kristi handed them out before the start of the ride. For that magical ten-mile ride around the Capital, we were all Arizonians, and Gabby was with us in spirit if not in person. No Republicans or Democrats, no liberals or conservatives rode with us that morning— we were all just cyclists, riding in honor of a common friend.

So did the National Bike Summit convert me from conservative curmudgeon to bleeding heart liberal? Dream on.

More importantly, I came away with renewed optimism and belief in the strength of our political process. I experienced firsthand how quickly Americans of diverse political beliefs can find common ground when the atmosphere is not choked with rhetoric and ego, and when all concerned can truly say that they share a fundamental and transcendent reality—a belief in the utterly incontestable goodness of that most elegant of human contraptions: the bicycle.

So. Bottom line (and that is what conservatives like to think they are all about): cycling saves money, saves lives and makes us stronger as individuals and as a nation. Spending money to support cycling is like putting money in the bank—it pays big dividends at low risk. It’s as All-American as Mom’s apple pie. How much more conservative can you get?

Editor’s note

This article originally appeared as two separate blog posts by Tom Bowden on CommuteByBike.com. Statistics such as the ones presented here, and many more, can be found on the website for the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center.

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This article originally appeared back in Issue #11. You can order a copy of this issue in our online store, or order a subscription for just $16.95 and get Bicycle Times content as soon as it’s available.

 

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