Bicycles: the new conservative enemy

The rise of bike-sharing programs has created an unlikely new target in the culture wars

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The spoke club
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In the 1980s, the conservative humourist P.J. O’Rourke wrote “A Cool and Logical Analysis of the Bicycle Menace.” He was joking. In 2013, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz said, “the bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise” and the presence of a bike-sharing program in New York was an example of “the totalitarians running the government of this city.” She wasn’t joking. Rabinowitz’s widely discussed appearance on a Wall Street Journal video, which was picked up by many news outlets and The Daily Show (“Slow down, lady, they’re just bikes!” Jon Stewart exclaimed), did more than draw attention to complaints about the effectivness of the Citibike program, New York’s attempt to compete with the bike-sharing in other cities such as Paris and Montreal. It made people aware of just how hostile some conservative commentators are to bikes.

Rabinowitz was hardly the first conservative pundit to express scorn for bicycles and the people who ride them. One of the most-publicized recent bike-bashers was Don Cherry, who showed up to meet Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in 2010 wearing a loud pink shirt, explaining: “I’m wearing pink for all the pinkos out there riding bicycles.” Popular southern California radio host John Kobylt, an opponent of plans to build more bike lanes in Los Angeles, recently explained that cyclists are members of “a bizarre cult that worships two-wheel transportation, not a traditional God.” And Rush Limbaugh, the leader in conservative radio punditry, has always been willing to tee off on the pesky pedal-pushers: “Frankly, if the door opens into a bicycle rider, I won’t care,” he once said. “I think they ought to be off the streets and on the sidewalk,” where bike riders aren’t actually allowed.

Why would bicycles become a political issue? Partly because things like bike-sharing programs are often placed in opposition to cars and the people who drive them. Lloyd Alter, an adjunct professor at Ryerson University’s school of interior design and the managing editor of TreeHugger.com, says conservatives sometimes associate bikes “with environmentalism and anti-capitalism. Bike riders live in denser places, don’t go to big-box supercentres, lead a suspiciously different lifestyle.” The political splits in cities are often strongest between urban areas and the suburbs or exurbs, and that pits suburb-friendly transportation, mainly cars, against more “urban” vehicles such as bikes and light rail.

So just as conservative politicians such as Ford have often won votes for their support of the automobile against non-traditional transportation, conservative pundits often stick up for suburban car drivers in the culture war, and portray bicyclists as elitists. Kobylt, cited by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf as a practitioner of “the paranoid style in bicycle politics,” told his listeners he fears that cyclists are trying to make him feel like, “I’m second class because I drive a car, or I have a commute to work, or I live in a suburban neighbourhood.” Journalist George Will, a prominent opponent of trains, also mocked then-U.S. secretary of transportation Ray LaHood for his support of biking: “Does he think 0.01 per cent of Americans will ever regularly bike to work?” Will sneered. Alter says that, to some pundits, cyclists are “a powerful force trying to squeeze cars off the road,” and “every advance by the cyclists is seen as an attack on the suburban way of life.”

But just as there are plenty of liberals who drive SUVs, there are plenty of conservatives who contradict the bike-hating stereotype. Nicole Gelinas, a contributor to the conservative urban policy magazine City Journal, published an article about Citibike that, while critical of the program, also tried to counteract some of the stereotypes about it: “Despite fears to the contrary, especially among the elderly,” she wrote, “bike share won’t harm pedestrians.” Still, as bike-friendly conservative radio host Mitch Berg told the Utne Reader, “people on both sides of the political aisle do ascribe political significance to biking.” Or, as P.J. O’Rourke put it all those years ago, “I don’t like the kind of people who ride bicycles.”