7 Reasons Conservatives Should Embrace Bikes

There’s a certain bar in my city that is famous for being right-wing. It’s an old family joint in a run-down corner of downtown. The people are surly but friendly, and the inside of the place is half-covered with right wing bumper stickers ridiculing Obama, bashing immigrants, and promoting guns. (Interestingly, there is also a large collection of union membership stickers.) On the other hand, they make the best coney island hot dogs in the city, and I enjoy going there once in a while for a snack and a change of perspective.

I found myself there last week polishing off a coney with cheese and onions.  I paid my bill, went outside, and as I was unlocking my bike, the patriarch/owner (also the cook) comes out to the sidewalk to smoke, and begins gently ribbing me about riding a bicycle. “Sure takes you long time to get on  that thing,” he said as I was unlocking it, and arranging my bag. “I still have my bike from when I was 12 in my garage.”

Actually, the whole exchange was friendlier than I thought it'd be, but it still got me thinking about why conservatives (in general) seem to have such a disdain for bicycles. Why is that?

[Michele Bachmann promising $2 gas if she gets elected.]
If you stop to think about it, real conservatives should embrace bicycles. Here are a few reasons why:

Bikes are cheap – When I think about a “conservative,” I imagine someone who’s judicious, skeptical, careful with their money.

Well, bicycles are a great way to save money. On average, cars cost over $8,000 per year $9,000 per year to own and operate. When you start talking about two- or three-car families, that adds up. If a bicycle lets you start cutting back a car or two, that would seem to be a sound financial decision.

But, more than that, bicycle infrastructure is a great way for the government to save money. Conservatives are always talking about "wasteful government spending," but for some reason don't view freeway and road infrastructure as part of the problem. A single stoplight costs more than $3,000 per year to maintain and operate. (And huge projects like the unnecessary $600M+ bridge to rural Wisconsin being built right now in Michele Bachmann's district should make fiscal conservatives cringe.) Bike lanes and trails are extremely cheap and last a long time, one of the best values for government spending you'll find.

[No caption needed.]
Free from (foreign) oil – Go ahead and ask me: Hey Bill, What's the price of gas?

Trick question! I have no idea. I might visit a gas pump once a year.

I'd say that most conservatives don't like the thought of buying energy from overseas, particularly from places like Venezuela, Russia, or Saudi Arabia. Well, real energy independence comes from riding a bicycle. Zero % foreign oil. You can't beat that with all the drill rigs in all of Sarah Palin's dreams put together.

The Ultimate in Personal Responsibility – Another conservative mantra is the notion of personal responsibility. Each of us should be "held accountable for our actions." Each of us should "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps" or whatever.

Well, bicycling around the city is literally pulling yourself up with your bootstraps. (It's actually pushing yourself forward with your feet, but its pretty much the same.) Find another form of transportation (other than walking) that contains more personal responsibility. When I'm riding a bike, nobody or nothing is going to get me to the top of that hill except for my own limbs. The bicycle takes the conservative metaphor of individualism and independence and literalizes it, makes it real.

You Can Fix it Yourself – Another conservative narrative is the "fix it yourself" mentality. (Here in the Twin Cities, one local radio blabber calls this "garage logic.") The idea is that real conservative people (men) have their own tools, and can fix and tinker with their own machines, and don't have to depend on anyone else.

Well, its becoming more and more difficult to repair your own car. Nowadays, most of them have computerized black boxes that require proprietary tools. They have incredibly sensitive fuel injection systems or computers that nobody can fix themselves. (Thus the conservative nostalgia for American muscle cars of the 50s and 60s.)

On the other hand, you can still take a bicycle apart with a few key wrenches. Most everyone who rides a bicycle has basic knowledge of how to fix a flat, and many bicyclists can disassemble their handlebars, cranks, brakes, or pedals. It's very common to build your own bicycle out of individual parts. Bikes display a DIY culture that conservatives ought to embrace.

[Anti-bike lane protest signs from LA.]
You're Out in the Elements – Hunting is another right-wing trope that has a bit in common with bikes. If you went up to a deer hunter and said, "Isn't it cold sitting in a tree for hours each November? Why would you do that?" they'd rightfully mock you. Hunting is part of a macho conservative culture that celebrates the idea of overcoming the elements and not whining about it.

But for some reason, the same rules don't apply to everyday life, to walking or biking. The same people that will sit for eleven hours in a deer stand or ice fishing shack will whine about a lack of air conditioning in their cars.  Conservatives will routinely say things to me like "Isn't it [windy/hot/cold] riding that thing?" Sure it is, but bicyclists learn to tolerate and even enjoy the changes in the weather. Most of the time, most people riding a bike wouldn't trade the sun on their skin and wind in their hair for the isolated comfort of a car.

Bikes Support Local Business
– Conservatives (like all political parties) love to tout their support for the small businessman, the shop on main street, the old-school store. Well, most people that ride bicycle support small businesses at high rates. (This is partly because its difficult to access large corporate retail places because of their large parking lots and auto-drenched locations. It's hard to ride a bike to a Walmart!)  Riding a bicycle everywhere, you spend a lot of time on old main streets, old commercial corners. Bicycling fits neatly into the older commercial fabric of small and local businesses. You'd think more conservatives would notice.

Freedom From Rules – Finally, most bicyclists I know have to adopt a libertarian attitude toward how they ride, and how they choose to regard traffic laws. Partly for safety and partly for efficiency, bicyclists have to make their own rules of the road. In some places you'll cruise through a stop sign, or disregard the red light. Sometimes you'll have to go onto the sidewalk or cut through the alley.

In a way, to bicycle through the city is to live a libertarian fantasy. The official rules don't work well for bikes, so most bicyclists adopt their own rules. Isn't that what libertarians are supposed to be doing too? 

[Allegedly crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.]
Yeah but...

Of course, none of this really matters. Despite the professed principles of self-relaince and smart spending, most conservatives see bicycles as a vast left-wing conspiracy.

Right-wing politics is deeply tied to the politics of the automobile. In fact, more than anything else, the car ties together the coalition of exurban escapaism, elderly white people, sunbelt autopians, and vast rural industrial economies that forms the fractious right-wing.  In Canada, Rob Ford slaps NIMBY magnets on parked cars while unpaving bike lanes. Scott Walker and Chris Christie campaign against transit. Dennis Hastert, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann trumpet hugely expensive freeway pork projects. Most conservatives probably believe that if God had meant for us to ride bicycles, he wouldn't have given us all Ford F-350s and endless supplies of $2 gas.

Still, it'd be nice if conservatives would get out of their SUVs and try living their values for a change. I'll consider my life's work complete when my local right-wing bar has a bike rack out front.

[Reagan riding a bike.]


Unknown said...
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Matt BK said...

Great stuff! Might help us out up here in North Dakota.

KillMoto said...

LOVE the hunting analogy. My coworker, a Glen Beck drone, loves to hunt deer and ice fish. Hopefully next time I walk in the door on a cold rainy day and he says something, I can strike up a conversation starting on our common ground.

Steve_Boston said...

As a biker on solely pragmatic grounds (it's just the fastest/easiest way to get around for 8 out of 10 trips I make), thanks for these well-reasoned arguments presented in a non-hostile tone. These bike/anti-bike fights can get mighty testy, as witness The Boston Herald's token liberal columnist, who argued today that bikes need to get off the road to improve safety for everyone.

One note about your it's-cheaper argument: AAA released its 2013 estimate of car-ownership costs a month ago, and the cost has crossed the $9K line — something like $9,120 to own and operate a car annually. It's worth noting that those are AFTER-TAX dollars; I find it more persuasive to point out to people that getting rid of a car is like getting a $12,100 raise (pre-tax, assumes 25% tax bracket; your results may vary). That's a huge bump for most people

Anonymous said...

Bill, No one could draft on your stereotype. It is so out of date.

I moved 14 years ago to a small town in rural NC. The men around here are very conservative, mostly Tea Party supporters and the county is 82% registered Republicans. Many of them are deer and turkey hunters.

But road and trail bicycling is a big deal. The young and the old around here own spandex and $2500 bicycles. A lot of these people have family incomes under $40,000 but they spare no expense for their bikes and accessories.

In one of the towns (pop. 2,000) there is a 45-year old Baptist preacher who bought a bike a few years ago and several of his congregation bought bikes to ride with him. These guys are so conservative it is rumored that handle snakes in their church services.

Now I now you are talking utilitarian cycling more so than road biking for sport and fitness. None of these guys that I know of commute, but that is only because most of them work in the city and have commutes of 45 miles over an Interstate.

Get to know conservatives. You may find that they do more biking than liberals.

BTW, I am 64 years old and have been road biking since 1973. My life is conservative but my political views and voting record have been libertarian for a long time. I voted for an accomplished cyclist for President - Gary Johnson.

- Mike

Bill Lindeke said...


That's nice to hear.

Josef Bray-Ali said...

I am glad that you are getting some use out of that image I snapped at the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council's Town Hall on bike lanes in the neighborhood. The anti-bike crowd has all the right rhetoric and all the wrong conclusions. It would be nice if those who considered themselves conservative took a good long look at bicycles as a viable means of transportation - especially for people so famously in favor of "small town" life.

Anonymous said...

you are narrow minded

Anonymous said...

Good analysis, it partially explains why some -not all- Western European right wing governments are actually more pro-bicycle than their left wing opposition. Portugal is a case study for this with a liberal/Christian democrat right doing an interesting road code revision and national bicycle mobility plan...

Anonymous said...

I think it is time to stop making assumptions about people based on their political affiliation. I am conservative and ride my bike for basic transportation. I know many people who are conservative who ride bikes, care about the environment, and are open and accepting of differences in others. I have also been run off the road by an idiot in an SUV with an Obama sticker. I think it is time we learn to talk about what we have in common with others and learn to work together instead of trying to reinforce stereotypes that may not hold true.

Nathan Allan said...

I totally agree that conservatives (and everyone) should embrace bikes; your assertion may have some merit, but where I live most bicycle riders *are* conservative in most senses.

There are and always will be the Big Truck, Bush-loving neocons, but I think those media-pushed tropes don't fit most truly conservative people I know.

BikeBike said...

Can we agree that the term "conservative" as applied to right-wingery is misleading?

A more useful term might be "corporatist" since they tend to support corporations first and real people second.

Bicycling is inherently a conservative activity for sure but to expect Corporatists to get on board with conservative values is quite a stretch.

Anonymous said...

You can scratch the "alleged" from Rob Ford, now. He has admitted smoking crack.

Anonymous said...

Hey--I don't give a damn about the planet, I ride a bike for my country. Every time we step on a gas pedal we are traitors as long as one drop of our oil comes from the Wahabbi psychos in Saudi Arabia.
Starve a raghead--ride a bike!