By Jordan Michael Smith Published on December 15th, 2013
The bicycle is emerging as a new conservative front in the culture wars.
EVEN BEFORE TORONTO MAYOR Rob Ford became internationally famous for being videotaped smoking crack, he was known as a City Hall version of Bluto Blutarsky of “Animal House”—swearing in public, proudly overeating, guzzling booze. His boorishness is so conspicuous and well documented that it raises the question: Who elected this guy? And why?
The answer, in large part, comes down to transit. Ford is famously pro-car, and his strongest support came from suburbs outside downtown Toronto, where voters drive into the city during the day and return by car in the evening. One political scientist found that the strongest predictor of whether someone voted for Ford in the 2010 mayoral election was the person’s method of commuting: Car commuters were Ford voters; everyone else wasn’t. Ford repaid their loyalty by declaring on his first day as mayor that the “war on cars” was over; he abolished the vehicle registration tax and announced a plan to kill light rail in the city simply because, he said, streetcars “are just a pain in the rear end.”
But Ford reserves special venom for the menace called the bicycle. He is perhaps the most antibike politician in the world. In 2007, he told the Toronto City Council that roads were designed for only buses, cars, and trucks. If cyclists got killed on roads, “it’s their own fault at the end of the day,” he said. He compared biking on a city street to swimming with sharks—“sooner or later you’re going to get bitten.” He once summarized his views in City Hall succinctly: “Cyclists are a pain in the ass to the motorists.”
This all might seem kind of crazy—the rantings of an unmuzzled Canadian demagogue better known for his disastrous personal habits. But in his antipathy for bikes, Ford appears to be part of a trend. Particularly in America, the bicycle is emerging as a new conservative front in the culture wars. In May, Wall Street Journal commentator Dorothy Rabinowitz called bicyclists “the most important danger in the city”; in Colorado’s last governor’s election, a Republican candidate said a local bike-sharing program “could threaten our personal freedoms.” A columnist for the conservative Washington Times declared D.C. bike-sharing programs to be “broken-down socialism”; radio pundit Rush Limbaugh said he “won’t care” if his car door knocks over a cyclist.
Cyclists who have struggled for years to attract political attention might be surprised to hear themselves talked about as an insidious new social force. But they can also see it as a kind of welcome—a recognition that for better or worse, they have, politically, arrived.
IN SOME WAYS, the bicycle seems profoundly unsuitable as a political lightning rod. True, zero-emission transport is a kind of liberal dream, but the bike is also an icon of self-sufficiency, designed for use by individuals who rely on themselves for upkeep and mobility. Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush all were photographed on their bicycles. The bike has managed to stick around for over a century without joining the likes of organic vegetables and the Prius as symbols of holier-than-thou progressive snobbery.
But as health and government officials have begun peddling bicycles as healthy, environmentally responsible alternatives to cars, and cities and towns spend money on new bike infrastructure, conservatives have started to sense a new target. They have begun to deploy “the bike” as a bogeyman in political debates—cast in a role anywhere from physical annoyance to a genuine threat to the American way of life.
The most common target of critics has been the new city bike-share programs, an idea imported from Europe that has turned out to be wildly popular in Boston, New York, and elsewhere.
In an antibike-share video commentary titled “Death by Bicycle,” The Wall Street Journal’s Rabinowitz described New York as “a city whose best neighborhoods are absolutely—begrimed, is the word—by these blazing blue Citibank bikes,” while the reporter interviewing her helpfully offered that the bikes were also a “fire hazard” and observed that “New York is not London, or Paris, or Amsterdam.”
But Rabinowitz’s deeper cavil is that bikes represent an assault on American freedoms. Her description of the bike lobby as an “all-powerful enterprise” might sound a little breathless, but is echoed elsewhere. Dan Maes, a Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2010, declared efforts to boost cycling to be “part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty.” When Rush Limbaugh suggested that injured bikers deserve what they get, it was because they’re victimizing auto drivers by forcing them to yield to others.
Ford acted on his promises to crack down on the biking nuisance, ripping up existing bike lanes in an attempt to help return his supporters to the freer, pre-bike world he promised them. The removal cost the city $300,000, and, according to Canada’s National Post, ended up saving commuters just an average of two minutes each way.
THERE’S AN ELEMENT of demographic realpolitik to the conservative antipathy to bikes. Cyclists—and especially bike commuters—are statistically more likely to be city residents, and thus more liberal than those living in suburban and rural areas.
But as the commentators’ language suggests, the bike fight is really just another proxy battle in the American culture wars. Washington Times columnist Charles Hurt declared D.C.’s bike-sharing program to be favored by “commune enthusiasts.” The program’s red bikes, he wrote, weren’t suitable for manly men, only for “these so-called ‘metrosexual’ males everybody keeps talking about.”
As political ideas fracture along cultural lines, pundits and politicians are finding cyclists to be a convenient new “them” in the eternal us-them struggle. Even if conservatives don’t all agree that riders are metrosexuals, they “see bikers as obnoxious, rude hipsters,” says Sam Schwartz, former New York City traffic commissioner.
Conservative politicians know that simply opposing causes like environmentalism appeals to the base. At the extreme end, this leads to some positions that almost defy belief—“I love that smell of the emissions,” said the former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, while riding a motorcycle—but bikes represent more of an everyday rebuke, a quiet reminder that your car isn’t the only way to get around.
In this respect, Rob Ford isn’t just a mess. He is a visionary—perhaps the first candidate to win an election in part by fanning public annoyance at those reckless, entitled, tax-and-spend bicycle riders. As new bike lanes make their slow incursions into downtown traffic patterns, it’s reasonable we can expect more such victories. It might seem frustrating for bike supporters, but there is one consolation: In politics, you get attacked because you matter.
“There’s been a huge increase” in the number of bikers, says Schwartz, who put in New York’s first bike lane in 1978. “The love affair with the car is over for young people.” After decades of unquestioned, highway-sponsored dominance of cars, bikes are finally becoming—even if just on the margins—something big enough to push against. Just ask Rob Ford. Or don’t. He’ll tell you anyway.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and The Christian Science Monitor.
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