How to Talk About Cycling to a Conservative

Tom BowdenTom Bowden is a bike commuter from Richmond VA, a "suit" – a corporate lawyer with an MBA, and a conservative "“ You betcha! He is also a board member of BikeWalk Virginia, a pro cycling and pedestrian group in Virginia that raises raises money to promote cycling, walking and active lifestyles. Tom’s lawyerly blogging can be found at

I'm a registered Republican and I consider myself pretty conservative"”so what the heck am I doing, you may wonder, writing a column on a bike advocacy blog? I'm a bike commuter, and I chair the Advocacy Committee of BikeWalk Virginia. What I am going to share is essentially the same approach I will use to try to make sure the Old Dominiondoes right by its cyclists and pedestrians, and gives us our fair share of the transportation outlays that always seem so car-centric. Our General Assembly is about to go into session, and I will be doing what I can to advance a pro-cycling agenda.

So, speaking as a right wing cyclist, here are some thoughts on how to talk to Republicans, Conservatives, TeaParty types, and even libertarians.

Don’t assume they're all hostile to our cause.

Ronald Reagan and Dorothy Lamour on a tandem bikeWhat makes you think cycling isn't conservative? Of course it is! It conserves energy, it's individualistic, and it's anything but new-fangled. So they should be receptive. So don't let campaign posturing turn you away"”all elected representatives have cyclists in their districts, and all of them would probably like to claim they brought dollars to their district or state. Remember, "pork barrel" projects and "earmarks" are words to describe the money that goes to the other guy's district instead of yours. When the dollars flow to your own district, it's "I'm just doing my part to see that the good taxpayers of Cahoolawassee get their fair share of federal tax dollars!" (Translation: get back more than the taxes they paid). "This bike trail/bike lane/bike factory/whatever, will bring hundreds of jobs to our fine state/city/county!" You'd be amazed how fast a politician from either side of the aisle can smell a parade and immediately get out in front of it, and just how flexible their logic can be.

Key points to keep in mind, and use as needed:

  • Cycling is an exercise (literally) of a fundamental freedom "“ freedom of movement. Although not explicitly defined in the Constitution, it is derived from the "privileges and immunities clause" as interpreted by the Supreme Court in United States v. Wheeler, 254 U.S. 281 (1920). (You were warned: I am in fact a lawyer). This is why you don't need a passport to enter New Jersey.
  • Cycling is efficient. True Conservatives love efficiency! It has been said that a cyclist is more efficient than a bird in flight.
  • Cycling has a glorious history of entrepreneurism! Think: Wright Brothers, Schwinn, and Trek. Lots of senators and representatives probably had paper routes. America invented the mountain bike, BMX and freestyle. Thomas Edison may have been the first freestyler!

Here is what turns off conservatives:

  • Over the top rhetoric. Don't marginalize your arguments with statements, like: Everyone should ride a bike, give up their car, live green, etc.
  • Conservatives don't like other people to tell them what they should do. And when you stop and think about it, you probably don't either"”that's why you ride a bike, right? (To be fair, conservatives have done their fair share of telling other people how to live their lives, but pointing that out will not win you their support.)
  • Calling drivers "cagers." Remember: their moms probably drive cars.
  • Ranting that oil companies are evil. Maybe so, or maybe they’re just incompetent. But what the heck does that have to do with it?
  • Anti-car arguments in general. Face it: cars exist and most Americans love them. You’ll get nowhere with a conservative if your explicit agenda (or suspected hidden agenda) is an attack on American "car culture."
  • Global warming, Climate Change or Climate Disruption. If it's as bad as Al Gore says it is, it will take more than a few bike lanes to fix it. But more importantly, you don't need to win that fight (or even engage in it) to make your point. Cycling has plenty of merit without dragging in tangential and controversial issues like Global"¦ whatever the heck they call it this week.
  • Refrain from gushing praise of European cycling culture, e.g. the Dutch, the Danes, or whoever. Conservatives are not inclined to emulate pre-colonial imperialist has-beens "“ at least not consciously.

Here are some positive things you can do and say:

  • If you must meet a conservative face-to-face, wear a suit! It won't kill you. Think of it as camouflage "“ you may find them nodding their heads in agreement even before you open your mouth. Note: Some business suits actually contain trace amounts of Lycra and Spandex.
  • Remind them that cycling is cheaper than building more roads. The more cyclists, the MORE room for cars on existing roads. The more cyclists, the less concrete we need to pour. The less concrete, the more money for deficit reduction, tax cuts"”or for bike projects in their home districts.
  • Use numbers. Here are some I find persuasive:
    • A study in one community showed that properties located near bike paths increased in value by 11% more than similar properties not near such facilities.
    • The Outdoor Industry Foundation estimates that the bicycling industry supports 1.1 million jobs and generates $17.7 billion in tax revenue each year.
    • A 3% reduction in traffic can result in a 30% reduction in traffic congestion.
    • Cycling reduces heart disease and other costly health problems "“ blunting the need for expensive health care "“ regardless of who pays for it.
    • The total maximum annual cost of bike commuter credit: less than $75 million even if every existing bicycle commuter got it "“ Total subsidies to drivers and transit users: $4.4 billion
    • Cycling generates $133 billion annually in economic activity
    • $76 billion a year on health care costs related to physical inactivity "“ Bike/Ped infrastructure can reduce this
    • $164 billion a year on health care costs associated with traffic injuries and deaths "“ caused by cars
    • $64 billion a year on health care costs of asthma and air pollution
  • Cycling is patriotic. Americans have won twice as many "Tour-day-Frances" in the last 30 years as the French themselves. The score is 10 to 5–and that's not even counting Floyd Landis, or subtracting the late Laurent Fignon (who confessed to doping shortly before he died; take him out and it's 10-3).
  • Cycling can make a serious dent in our dependence on foreign oil. A huge portion of all petroleum fuels go to automobile transportation, of which only 15% is related to getting to work, while 90% of all trips are less than two miles. Enabling even 10% of even those short trips to be on a bike or on foot can make a real reduction in demand for oil imports.
  • Make it clear that your are not suggesting that everyone can or will ditch their cars and ride bikes, but just that people who choose to ride should be able to do so safely, as taxpaying citizens worthy of full protection of their individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of that special kind of happiness one gets from riding a bike.
  • If you are bold enough, and can pull it off, you can say catchy things like:
    • "You can take away my bike when you pry my cold dead hands off of my handlebars."
    • "Go ahead, make my day "“ let me ride my bike."

So. Bottom line (and that is what conservatives like to think they are all about): Cycling saves money, saves lives and makes us stronger as individuals and as a nation. Spending money to support cycling is like putting money in the bank"“it pays big dividends at low risk. It's as all American as Mom's apple pie. How much more conservative can you get?

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