The Bicycle is the Answer. What was the Question?

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

Yes, after the National Bike Summit, Ted and I did solve all the world’s problems over burritos.

The answer is: The Bicycle

Now, what was the question again?

Seriously though, I too was impressed by the diligence, sincerity and openness of all of the staffers I met in my meetings on “The Hill.”   It makes it a little harder to lob clever one-liners at them from a distance when you’ve sat across the table and talked face to face while they took copious notes.

And on the whole liberal/conservative thing, maybe the problem is that we are overgeneralizing–on both sides. It’s the logical “fallacy of accident.”

Most construction workers hate cyclists; most construction workers are conservatives; therefore, all conservatives hate cyclists.

From the other side: Some cyclists are liberal; some cyclists are insane; therefore all liberals are insane.

Both of these syllogisms are deeply flawed, even without considering the validity of the labels we use to categorize people. We can do better.

One troublesome argument that seems to be gaining traction is along the lines of, “Why should cycling be a federal issue? Shouldn’t it be a state and local issue?”

Of course that is conservative code talk for, “We don’t want to fund it, because we will get more votes with bigger projects.”

My response would be, True, it should be a local issue, and when all of you ear-marking politicians stop paving every square inch of our local communities with federal highway subsidies, we’ll be happy to take responsibility at a local level. But for now, we just want to level the playing field a little. And after all, for every federal dollar you spend on properly designed cycling infrastructure (and I don’t mean multi-use paths to nowhere), you can ultimately de-fund $10 worth of auto infrastructure. De-fund is a good word to use with Republicans and conservatives.

Andy Clark and Tom Bowden
Separated at Birth: Andy Clarke of LAB and Tom Bowden with Kristi Felts Moore and Lynette Carpiet

An AHA! moment for me was the address by Congressman Earl Blumenaur, D-Ore., at the Thursday evening reception. He got a great response by announcing with great fanfare that he had just gotten an offer from a hard-core Republican anti-cyclist to guarantee hundreds of millions of federal dollars for cycling projects”“with one condition. Blumenaur and his cohort would only have to drop their opposition to drilling in ANWR.

There were was raucous applause when he proclaimed that he turned the offer down flat. Red meat for the howling liberal wolves, I thought to myself. But over the cheering and whooping I heard him say that it was not that we had to preserve ancient moose migration routes, or that cars were evil, or that the planet was about to evaporate from global warming. If I understood correctly, he simply said that the oil will still be there when/if we really need it. And in his opinion, we really don’t need it now.

And I have to admit, he has a point. The ANWR oil isn’t going anywhere.   After he spoke I approached him and introduced myself. I told him about my first post on Commute by Bike, and offered to work with him to bridge the gap between right and left on the issue of cycling. He seemed genuinely interested, and I hope to carry the conversation further.

Another moment came in my conversation with Ted over burritos at Union Station. I remarked that when you step back a little from the staged ideological food fight portrayed in the media, there is not as much difference between the mainstream Democrats and Republicans on many issues–cycling included.

Both sides pander to the extremes, seeking easy victories in the battle of sound bites. But when the lights go off and the cameras are turned away, they often sidle up to the bar and hoist a few cold ones together.

Both sides have their extreme wings. Still the magnifying glass of the media enlarges and distorts our differences and the pols play along, to stay relevant and capture their share of the eyeball market.

Ted nodded and remarked how he wished that all the self-styled conservatives and free-market purists who decry government subsidies to alternative energy technologies would factor in the massive subsidization of fossil fuels represented by our military commitments in the Middle East. Another good point. I could argue, but even the most ardent and idealistic advocates of democratization must acknowledge that protection of the steady flow of oil has a lot to do with our commitment to these high minded values in that region at this particular point in time.

At one point in a briefing session on Wednesday, the constant repetition of the “wear a helmet” mantra got a little too much for me. It was cited that in nine out of ten cases of cyclist fatalities due to head trauma, the cyclist was not wearing a helmet. I posed the question, “If that is a justification for all cyclists to wear helmets, than what about the 99.999% of motorist head trauma fatalities who were not wearing helmets? Shouldn’t we start a campaign to make them wear helmets too?” I continued “I’m not anti-helmet”“I’ve crashed with a helmet and without a helmet”“but helmets are not the only answer, or even the most important answer. As long as we keep on putting so much emphasis on helmets as the most important safety issue, we perpetuate the myth that cycling is inherently dangerous. Cycling is not inherently dangerous, cars are inherently dangerous to cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. But all this helmet focus does is place the responsibility for safety on cyclists, rather than on the root cause of the problem, which is unsafe driving.”

I probably didn’t put it quite that well ““ I was actually shaking a little, anticipating a backlash to my politically incorrect rant. But to my surprise, there was applause and even a few shouts and whistles”“the good kind. It was my fifteen seconds of attention, if not actual fame.

Throughout the event, I can’t recall hearing any hostile comments about helmets, Republicans, or conservatives. Instead I heard strategies and themes designed to appeal to common values: efficient use of public funds; preservation of individual choices; creation of traditional Leave it to Beaver neighborhoods where kids ride their bikes safely to neighborhood schools.

I’d like to think that they had all read my “How to Talk about Cycling to a Conservative“ piece, but as LAB President Andy Clarke remarked, “Yes, enjoyed that. But it wasn’t exactly rocket science now was it?” I couldn’t disagree.

Riding on Friday morning with an Arizona state flag wrapped around my handlebars was the perfect capstone to an amazing experience. Kristi Felts Moore brought several dozen at her own expense to honor Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Kristi handed them out before the start of the ride. For that magical ten-mile ride around the Capital, we were all Arizonians, and Gabby was with us in spirit if not in person. No Republicans or Democrats, no liberals or conservatives rode with us that morning”“we were all just cyclists, riding in honor of a common friend.

So did the National Bike Summit convert me from conservative curmudgeon to bleeding heart liberal? Dream on.

More importantly, I came away with renewed optimism and belief in the strength of our political process. I experienced firsthand how quickly Americans of diverse political beliefs can find common ground when the atmosphere is not choked with rhetoric and ego, and when all concerned can truly say that they share a fundamental and transcendent reality”“a belief in the utterly incontestable goodness of that most elegant of human contraptions: the bicycle.

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