The Liberal and Conservative Struggle Over Bicycle Infrastructure



The practice of bicycle advocacy is inextricably bound to the liberal end of the spectrum. Most liberals support alternative transportation and favor promoting bicycling as means of transportation. They see cycling as better for the environment, as a means of producing a healthier population, and as a way to lessen urban congestion.

Many conservatives, on the other hand, view progressive transportation policies as part of a crazy, socialist, liberal agenda. They see bike lanes, and other bicycling facilities, as only benefiting a small percentage of the population, and therefore oppose them. Conservatives stereotype cyclists as elitists and hippies, even though conservatives ride bikes, as do people from all walks of life.

I have heard conservatives say that they like to ride bikes, but do not need or want bike lanes. They are not opposed to cycling as much as the expenditures that go along with making cities more bicycle friendly. In fact, the concept of integrating bicycling and pedestrian facilities into cities is offensive to them. From their vantage point, streets are for cars and changing anything about them is money wasted on a fringe element who wants to infringe on the rights of drivers.

It’s no surprise to see support and opposition to bicycle infrastructure broken down along political party lines. Cycling benefits society from both a practical and quality of life standpoint. Liberals  favor such activities because they promote the common good, while conservatives oppose any type of social agenda because they don’t believe that government should invest in helping others.

As we move forward to a time when bicycles become an accepted means of transportation, how can we get conservatives to support making the modifications necessary for bicycles to safety travel along the roads?

Pointing out the financial benefits of using bicycles might be a good way to ease conservative opposition to expanding bicycle infrastructure. For instance, bicycles cause less wear and tear on the roads. With more bicycle infrastructure, more bicyclists will use the roads, reducing wear further. In this vein, bicycle infrastructure doesn’t just benefit the small number of cyclists who use bike lanes, it benefits everyone in that the collective cost of maintaining the roads diminishes. As the number of bicycles on the roads increases, the number of cars decreases, resulting in a greater financial benefit for all road users.

The existence of bicycling facilities can also encourage tourism since traveling by bike is a great way for out-of-towners to get a feel for a city. To this end, bike share programs (which conservatives tend to oppose) can make bicycles available to tourists, and bike lanes can make it easier and safer for them to explore the city. The result is more revenue for the city.

Studies have shown that houses located near bicycle paths increase in value, which shows a return on the investment made to build the bike paths. In addition, bicycle facilities are good for business. Many of the trips people make are under five miles, making bike travel a desirable option. By providing bicycle facilities, business districts can take advantage of increased bicycle use to attract more customers.

Bicycling’s health benefits can’t be ignored. Bike riding decreases the rate of heart disease and obesity related illness, thus decreasing the cost of providing healthcare.

With all of these financial gains, which conservatives benefit from, you’d think that they’d be more open to investing in bicycle infrastructure. Why, then, are they so resistant?

What it comes down to is political persuasion. Conservatives see any government expenditure on a public project as a handout to someone. In this case, the handout is to cyclists. They don’t look at the big picture. If they did, they would see how encouraging the use of bicycles benefits society as a whole.

Liberals also don’t see the big picture. Their view is progressive. Bicycling, to them, is the future. It represents a newer, healthier, world, free from urban congestion, full of open spaces and more friendly to people. It is a vision — one which they often become fanatical about. This fanaticism turns off conservatives who like to stereotype liberals as a lunatic fringe.

So, on one had, we have a group who sees change as money spent on someone else. And, on the other had, we have a group who sees change as an improvement on the current world — which is worth attaining at any cost.

The question is: how can these two groups find common ground with respect to integrating bicycles into the transportation landscape?

Maybe the answer lies in moving the subject of bicycle infrastructure away from the political realm. People of all persuasions ride bikes. Children ride bikes. What’s most important is not who pays for the bicycle facilities, but how much we, as a society, are willing to invest in keeping road users safe.

Safety affects everyone whether they are liberal or conservative, young or old, driver or cyclist or pedestrian. This is where we have common ground.

Conservatives may feel that bike lanes are only for cyclists, but they help to demarcate the areas where drivers can expect to see cyclists so that drivers have an easier time avoiding accidents with them. Even though the cyclist is more likely to get injured in an encounter between a bicycle and a car, it is in a driver’s best interest to avoid involvement in such an accident, for insurance reasons. When the driver’s insurance company must pay for injuries or properly damage, the driver’s premiums go up. Averting accidents benefits everyone, and investing in the infrastructure necessary to reduce accidents is a good investment.

Liberals may want to see a greener world, but change is always slow. Careful planning, and wise expenditure of transportation funds, might appease conservatives who sometimes see liberals as spending excessively.

Safety and engaging in sound economic practices are areas where liberals and conservatives might find themselves in accord. Focusing on these principles, rather than who is benefiting from whose money, may make the transition to a bicycle friendly world more palatable for all involved.

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6 Responses to The Liberal and Conservative Struggle Over Bicycle Infrastructure

  1. Rebecca says:

    We are fighting against a very powerful group of people, the oil & gas lobbyists who do not want us to use less fossil fuels They control the message that influences how “conservatives “ think. I think it’s a great idea to get out the message on how cost effective bicycles are. I am glad the Transportation Enhancements bill passed. It shows how important it is for us to contact our Senators and Representatives.

    • “We are fighting against a very powerful group of people, the oil & gas lobbyists who do not want us to use less fossil fuels “

      Yes, this is very true. Keeping consumers addicted to fossil fuels is lucrative for the oil and gas industries. That’s why focusing on the cost effectiveness of bicycles could help to sway conservatives. Such a message is consistent with their political views.

      Cyclists should take an active interest in policies affecting bicycle infrastructure because, as you said, when we contact our Senators and Representatives they know we are out there and interested in such issues. Despite monied interests, we can make our voices heard, and spur the growth of bicycle infrastructure, by participating in the political process.

  2. matt says:

    You can’t seriously think that the oil & gas industries are worried about consumption dropping due to bicycle advocacy, or that this is what mostly drives conservative opposition.

    As a conservative who commutes a few thousand miles per year by bike, my view is that bike infrastructure is likely to support a small group of people who generally lean left (sometimes, far left). This is the contrapositive of Democrats handing out massive subsidies to their constituents. Why should GOP lawmakers bother? It won’t win them any votes.

    “But it’s the right thing to do!” you cry. Probably. I personally would appreciate more infrastructure, and I wouldn’t have ever started commuting without what we have. But I stop short of claiming that more bike lanes will solve Boston’s traffic problems, obesity, etc. because it’s just a drop in the bucket. If you really want to change the city, what you need to do is levy London-style congestion tolls. Boom. Big change fast.

    • Matt,

      I do think that the oil and gas industries would prefer to divert funds towards highways and roads to encourage more motor vehicle travel. After all, the more motor vehicle travel there is, the greater their profits. To some extent, they encourage people to oppose expending funds on bicycle infrastructure (because it reduces the amount of money available for road projects) — which is a message that resonates with conservatives.

      As for bike lanes, they are a drop in the bucket, but you have to start somewhere. Your idea of levying London-style congestion tolls would certainly have a greater impact on Boston’s traffic. Unfortunately, such tolls would face a lot of resistance. By taking small steps towards building bicycle infrastructure, we may be able to avoid antagonizing people of different political persuasions, and lay the groundwork for more wide-sweeping changes in the future.

  3. Eoin says:

    Here’s another way of looking at it: Our car culture represents one of the largest sustained government interventions into the economy in our nation’s history. From the costs of road construction and maintenance (which gas taxes and excise taxes don’t come close to covering) to free and below-market-rate municipal parking to traffic enforcement to oil subsidies to auto industry bailouts, to drive a motor vehicle is to be coddled by the American taxpayer. Drivers are the original welfare queens.

    If the costs of driving were actually borne by drivers in proportion to how much they drove and not socialized, we would have far fewer autos clogging up our public ways. Which is really all we need. After all, this town has excellent bicycle infrastructure; the only drawback is that it’s currently being used by cars.

    • “Drivers are the original welfare queens.”

      This is a good line. I’ll have to remember it.

      What you say is true. Drivers take for granted the benefits they reap from taxpayer subsidies. They focus on taxes specific to driving in order to substantiate their claims that cyclists (who don’t pay these taxes) are getting a free ride, when, in actuality, cyclists are paying as much and getting far less in subsidies than drivers. We’ll know we’re making progress when we get drivers to acknowledge the truth about who pays for what and who receives the most in relation to their contributions.

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