Monday, January 24

How to Talk to a Non-Cycling Liberal About Bicycling

Cycling itself is neither liberal nor conservative, and experienced cyclists find they mostly agree on how stuff works on and around bikes, and what to do in various traffic situations. However, non-cycling liberals seem to love to talk about bicycling, even though they (by definition) don’t actually ride bikes themselves.

However, as a matter of fact, cycling is a favored non-cycling liberal theme. Presumably, cycling will save the planet from global climate change. Most non-cycling liberals, however, are conflicted about cycling. Their ignorance leads them to get wrapped up in “us versus them” class warfare, espousing amusing views on transportation cycling, and indulging their overpowering urges towards more government control; the old notion of "better too much than too little." As a result, caution is in order so that you can talk to liberals (or non-liberals) about bicycling truthfully, without appearing on their “fascist enemies of the state” list. This caution should apply to you as a cyclist, whether you are liberal OR conservative.

The fundamental difficulty non-cycling liberals have about bicycling is that while it is the mode of transportation that needs government intervention less than any other (besides walking), it also conflicts with the principle that government is a solution rather than merely a parasitic problem. As a result of the conflict, they fail to realize their well-intentioned efforts usually fail, while some of their crazy schemes go beyond failure and discourage cycling, or even maim and kill cyclists. One should be very careful about pointing this out, even to liberal cycling advocates (who are rarely ignorant of the problems). Instead, you can take advantage of this conflict to meaningfully communicate with non-cycling liberals about cycling without selling out. Just don’t get the notion that any of them will ever purchase carbon offsets from you when you ride your bike to work. I know this from first-hand experience. Non of my non-cycling liberal coworkers wanted to purchase carbon offsets from me, even to the extent that they all go to park one spot closer to the entry door since I didn't use up a parking spot and I arrived at work earlier than they did - resulting in less co-worker CO2 exhalation walking in from the car.

Liberals start out with a victim mentality. Rather than establishing facts, non-cycling liberals presume that cyclists are helpless to operate their bikes without special protection and intervention, and evil motorists (undoubtedly, fat cat bankers and the rich) are actually trying to kill cyclists. They forget our transportation system is dependent on trucks for delivery of goods (including goods for cyclists), and that private motor vehicles provide incomparable point-to-point transportation for moderate (between ten and two hundred miles) distances. Its why liberals like to drive their hybrid cars around, even while bemoaning the traffic. The cyclist as victim mentality leads them to meddle. Because few liberals really ride bikes themselves, they make things worse, arguing for things like door zone bike lanes, side paths that are crisscrossed by driveways, forgetting to get bike racks installed at destinations, and creating routes that randomly start and stop rather than integrating into any conceivably useful transportation element. Liberal politicians have it easier, since they simply pander to their constituents and bring the pork home. The liberal pols aren’t trying to actually HURT cyclists; they just mostly don’t know any better. The only politicians I have seen that looked comfortable on a bike on the road were Ron Paul (R), Betsy Price (R) and Wendy Davis (D). I'll note that Beto O'Rourke gets a pass here, as the only politician I know who had a parent killed while riding a bike, so he ought to know.

Liberal politicians compound things by making laws for cyclists to follow “for their protection.” Helmet laws, safe passing laws, and even mandatory side path laws (like Oregon) are all liberal artifacts that neglect a fundamental principle: “If you want to discourage an activity, regulate it more and claim it’s dangerous.” That summarizes the liberal approach to cycling. I'm not sure that's better than the "let's regulate people more" faction of the GOP that want to simply ban things they don't like, but it winds up having a similar effect of reducing cycling.

Since you won’t get far by talking to non-cycling liberals about meat and potato things like educating cyclists or enforcing valid traffic laws, how DO you influence non-cycling liberals towards a more realistic view? LOOK FOR THE COMMON GROUND. While you won’t reform a non-cycling lefty by this tactic alone, you can plant some solid principles into their blathering nonsense about saving the planet with bikes.  The five principles below will get your pinko friends nodding in agreement, and maybe some will rub off on them. Small government cycling principles that even liberals can accept include:

  • Worse than Benign Neglect – As a cyclist, you will no doubt know of many situations where government intervention has actively made things worse for cyclists. I am sad to report that even redneck poseurs have used the power of the state to make things worse for cyclists, but liberals are notorious for compounding rule upon rule until the poor cyclists have nothing left to do but throw their hands up. Helmet laws are one such example. I wore a helmet on my commute. If I lived in Seattle, I could not legally ride my bike without a helmet, though I could still ride as long as I wore a broken helmet backwards and unstrapped. Whether helmets are a good idea or not is not the issue here, but whether the case is clear and compelling enough (more important than things like health benefits of cycling to cite just one example) to use the power of the nanny state to mandate people wear one. If more ammo is needed, mention to your non-cycling liberal friend that helmet laws are mostly used by police to further stick it to people of color who happen to be riding a bike. If you really want to confuse things, suggest googling "Seattle Bike Helmet Law." This last item really merits another, futher post. Another example where liberal rules are worse than benign neglect are the periodic cases where you’ll get a liberal principal that bans bikes from his/her school “for the safety of the children.” When you cite these examples, MOST liberals will be nodding in agreement with you. If you need to, you can even cite cases of redneck crazies that want to use government to make cyclists stick to the sidewalk or simply restrict the right access to common public ways that has existed throughout the life of our republic. Such troglodytes are an embarrassment to the whole principle of a small, constitutional government. But that is yet another post entirely. Such scum should simply move somewhere like Russia, where they’ll be happy with authoritarian government.
  • Spending on Needed Connections – Another area where you can get your non-cycling liberal friends nodding in agreement is pointing out simple and cheap bicycle and pedestrian connections that make it easier for people to get from place to place without motors. When we were growing up, good walk/bike connections were called “shortcuts.” Due to many years of misguided zoning laws and development that valued the appearance of pastoral purity more than the reality, there are now many places where it is difficult to get around OTHER than by car. While some bike projects are expensive (natural liberal darlings), these are vastly outnumbered by cases where a simple expedient of a bit of critical thought and consideration can improve life for us all. I’m sure you can come up with examples of your own. If you feel REAL DARING, you might mention, in passing, that hundreds of these connectivity improvements can be made for the price of a second-rate recreational multi-use path, or even a door zone bike lane. Shortcuts put real TEETH into the “one mile solution.” One thing you DON’T want to mention – putting AMTRAK out of its misery could fund all the quality bike projects (long and short ones alike) we might imagine and move many more people, while still saving money. Suggesting it’s time for AMTRAK to go will get you shunned - and not just by our current President. Unlike bikes, passenger rail has become entirely a creature of big government. It's sad because I really like trains, and they can make a great complement for a bike commute.
  • Government Dictated Car Parking– A side effect of many years of liberal land use development rules and restrictions is the institutionalization of grossly inefficient land use (ironic, considering cities also invariably want higher density). Cities require lots of parking spaces nowadays, and only recently have these wise governmental bodies begun to consider bicycles. When your friend drives you to the mall in his/her Prius, you will have no trouble pointing out how simply and unobtrusively merchants COULD have accommodated bicycles instead of designing to discourage same to comply with government edicts. Your friend might not ever ride a bike, but will nod knowingly, and might begin to see parking in a less ignorant fashion from behind the windshield (trust me, even liberals don’t drive Yugos any more). In reality, bike parking is less a matter of government intervention than teaching people to see what is already available and how it can enhance their customer base. If you give businesses equal credit for bike spaces as for car spaces, you’ll see a lot more bike spaces.
  • Discriminatory Laws and Police Teaching – Liberals will generally be receptive to the observation that there are many laws that actively discriminate against cyclists. I could do a whole post series on a small sampling of such. What’s more, while I hate to say it, most liberals will also be receptive to the concept that police are out to get cyclists. In reality, police (and even prosecutors) rarely actively persecute cyclists. Instead, bicycles are a minor element of law enforcement duties, most police drive lots of miles in cars, and cyclists are viewed as adults playing with toys; collectively, this leads to a general ignorance of bicycling law and safe cycling practice. NONE of the officers that testified against Reed Bates had any dedicated bicycle law training and none of them knew the principles of how to safely operate a bicycle in traffic.  You’ll get your liberal friend agreeing with you based on his/her prejudice against law enforcement, but you will not have to fudge the truth to obtain the agreement.
  • Smart Cyclists SHOUT OUT – Most liberals will either give you a blank look or recoil in horror at the notion that cyclists should learn to operate bikes safely and within the law (the EDUCATION principle espoused by the Bike League). It simply won’t register that this might be more important than simply adding another door-zone bike lane. Liberals will, however, happily agree that cycling education should be more readily available to people, and that the government is not doing its part in this regard. It is simple truth that schools don’t teach kids safe cycling as a part of PE classes. What’s more, most any liberal will agree that educated cyclists will advocate better. The only thing you’ll need to be very careful of in this regard is in avoiding any suggestion that cyclists are generally anything other than innocent victims, that maybe many people on bikes need the education even more than the average motorist, or that butts on bikes might not be the best idea if those NEW butts are completely clueless. Most of all, you should avoid mentioning that smarter cyclists are much pickier about getting ONLY infrastructure that doesn’t put them in added danger. THAT, my friend, would be good for ALL cyclists.

It isn’t really hard to talk to a non-cycling liberal about bicycling. Most liberals tend to think of bicycling as a liberal activity, so that’ll work to your advantage, as long as you don’t try to claim cycling isn’t dangerous, or that you can go places even if nobody painted special segregated facilities on the road (sometimes it’s actually easier without that paint).


Khal said...

That was a thoroughly enjoyable read, Steve!!! Thank you.

Khal said...

John Allen has actually made a lot of these points as well and I recall a few of his posts about actually designing shortcuts into arterial and cul-de-sac development (which itself is a disaster to mobility). I don't know what John's politics are these days but a lot of this stuff is intuitively obvious to me.

Just as most gun law seems to be written by people who don't know the muzzle from the breech, most traffic and zoning law seems to be written by well meaning but ignorant folks who are not bicyclists or pedestrians but who see the world from behind a windshield. The helmet laws, which inhibit bicycling while not meaningfully reducing injury rates, are one example. And Santa Fe is legendary for bike paths built for park and recreation use but don't go where one needs to go. Not to mention, the acres of excess but mandated motor vehicle parking (see Strong Towns web site).

As Scrooge said, I'll retire to Bedlam.

Steve A said...

I suspect John may be confused about his politics these days, just as I am. I think the country is confused as well, when a life-long Democrat seems to have the Republican Party in his authoritarian grip and when the Democrats excoriate their two most moderate Senate members. I'm waiting for the "DINO" perjorative to appear. Thankfully, cycling principles aren't really partisan at all in reality...

Khal said...

Aye, Steve.That sort of covers it. I've already seen "DINO" and worse in the Santa Fe area.

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