Bicycles, a proxy for the culture wars
Maclean’s Jaime Weinman has a new piece about the weird proxy war that many conservatives are waging on bicycles. If you had been sleeping through the contempt for anything different that has become a defining feature of certain factions of North American conservatism, this would seem like an odd development. You might ask, what on earth could conservatives have against bikes? Aren’t they a typical part of Americana? Wasn’t it Kermit’s preferred mode of transportation?
But, sadly, here we are:
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.
To be fair, this proxy war isn’t the sole domain of the right. As the image above shows, the North American left has often turned the bicycle into an emblem of their side of the culture war. It’s linked to environmentalism, highlights the urban/suburban/rural divides, and has a class struggle element. Nonetheless, it’s the right that has taken this proxy war to ridiculous extremes.
As Mr. Weinman notes, prominent conservative opinioneers deride cyclists. They decry (successful) bike lane projects and they come up with whacked-out conspiracy theories about bikes turning into some sort of powder-blue-bike-helmeted U.N. pod people. In this battle of the culture wars, the side of the crazy is clearly taken up by the right.
It’s a purely reactionary response, grounded in nothing more than animus towards political foes. Cycling, this new (very old, traditional) form of transportation poses no actual threat to conservatism or a traditional lifestyle. The only thing it threatens is the car and the supremacy of drivers.
And this brings us back to the urban/non-urban divide. Cycling, as a primary or prominent mode of transportation, is far more popular in urban areas. Consequently, a number of urban areas are building more accommodations – like segregated bike lanes – for cyclists. Affording them the safety that we all deserve. The non-urbanite, relying heavily on an automobile, may be inclined to see this as an imposition on their preferred (and necessary) method of transportation. Sure, they’re not residents of the area that has bike lanes, they may not even be residents of that municipality, but as stakeholders who are having their privilege threatened, they’re bound to revolt.
Conservative pundits and politicians, rather than being the adults in the room, are the adolescents with the loudspeakers. They attack those hippie/pinko/enviro/unemployed/slacker cyclists as being less deserving of the road. Of course, the changes that are being proposed aren’t giving any special treatment to cyclists; they are just working towards leveling things out.
But still this is an attack. It’s an attack on all that’s good and… something or other.
But the defense of a car-centric road system is merely status quo bias. It’s the way it’s always been (okay, maybe not always, but surely long enough!) so it’s the way it must remain. No sensible person would design a transit system in such a fashion in 2013, but since it’s the one we’re stuck with, it must and forever be the one we’re stuck with.
(Would that such logic be applied to the welfare system.)
So it all comes back to the loss of privilege. For decades, city planning focused on benefiting suburban (or at least non-urban core) neighbourhoods. Major freeways were built. Expansive zoning regulations were applied. Downtowns slowly stopped being places where people lived. They were for offices and little else.
As residents started to shift away from this sort idea – once they started to move back downtown and seek a lifestyle other than the a suburban Wonder Years-style existence – city planners started to slowly take note. City plans began to reflect the wishes of residents, and cities, the actual city parts, became more livable.
As suburbanites began losing their special status, having their preferences imposed on the rest of municipal residents, the lament began. It’s not only bikes and bike lanes. It’s intesnification. It’s affordable housing. It’s mixed-use zoning.
Battle lines have been drawn and conservatives have, for the most part, taken the side of privilege. Their silly stance has led to the silliest of wars. The war on bikes.