My family has been bicycling a lot lately. For my lovely wife and me, it has been about losing weight and getting in shape to more smoothly round the curves of middle age. My 12-year-old daughter — still cool with activities with her parents — has graduated to a “grown up” bike (with gears) and is learning about the rules of the road and simple mechanics, skills that we think will serve her well throughout life. For us, bicycling is as natural as cooking and sitting down to a healthy meal together.
We’ve trekked through beautiful places in Maine and never pedal into places where we feel unsafe or unwelcome. The laws of physics are not on a bicyclist’s side, and sharing the road with summer traffic is a small act of courage. However, I never thought of bicycling as a political act. Then I read about the new transportation bill that Congress just passed.
Touted as a rare example of bipartisan compromise in an election year, the $120 billion bill wobbled over the finish line, breathing hard and sweating profusely, after debate on whether a state can redirect funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects toward other highway projects. In case you missed it, states can opt out of funds for dedicated lanes where Dorothy could pedal down a bike path, Toto in a basket, and divert the funds to build a Yellow Brick Road for trucks. Overall, there will be a 30 percent cut in the funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects.
To me, the act of bicycling — moving one’s legs round and round — is neither a Republican nor Democratic activity. How depressing is it that a bill on essential highway spending was nearly scuttled along party lines about bicycling? Only Congress could make politics more exhausting than a slog around Cape Jellison in a heat wave, stuck in low gear. The opt-out for bicycle and pedestrian projects was a partisan demand, even though nonmotorized projects made up a miniscule amount of the $120 billion.
I never thought I’d ask this, but are conservatives engaged in a war on bicycling? To me, bicycling seems more or less a conservative ideal. Someone down on their luck, out of work, could pedal off to find a job rather than rely on government benefits. They wouldn’t even be using gas, thereby lowering demand (and gas prices) for the rest of us commuters. Their healthy lifestyle would result in fewer claims for expensive health care. I don’t get it.
For insight, I searched out the comments sections of several online newspapers that reported on the transportation bill. While I expected most of the consternation to be about the $120 billion price tag of the bill, it was disproportionately — you guessed it — about bicyclists. (Or as one commenter referred to us, “liberal bicyclists.”)
In the end, conservatives’ views of bicycling appear to be as inscrutable as the Congressional Record. While there is no formal declaration of war on bicycling, there is no shortage of hostility. Mostly there is an overarching resentment at slowing down and swerving around bicyclists on Maine roads, who may or may not be Communists pedaling toward a proletarian paradise in Portland. Bike lanes also exist in Europe, where socialists can pedal from one small, godless country to another. Terrorists can silently slip into Maine towns on bike paths. Bicycling is part of first lady Michelle Obama’s plot to get people to eat broccoli and exercise. If we didn’t spend money on bicycle lanes, we wouldn’t have potholes. Bicyclists do drugs. And many bicyclists are illegal immigrants, whom the government should arrest for violating traffic laws (speeding?) and deport.
All of this makes me sad. A kid pedaling down a leafy lane, relatively free of traffic, should be an American ideal, out of the reach of lobbyists and Congress. So here’s my proposal. Let’s make bicycling apolitical by agreeing on seven basic principles:
- The American president most closely identified with bicycling was George W. Bush. Therefore all bicyclists are not Communists.
- Most bicyclists are gainfully employed and are not pedaling to the post office to collect welfare checks.
- Most bicyclists stay so far to the edges of Maine roads that they might as well be picking raspberries, not hogging the road.
- The Supreme Court will never, ever, debate a law mandating that people ride bicycles or face a penalty or tax. The idea is ludicrous.
- Bicycling is not a political statement about climate change and a carbon tax, nor a judgment on the weight of people who drive cars.
- Bicyclists are expected to obey traffic laws and motorists are expected do the same.
- Roads with bicycle lanes or wide shoulders are better roads for everyone.
There are no bumper stickers on bicycles. So ride safe, drive safe and share the road. Otherwise, leave bicyclists out of politics, especially the middle-aged guy in the yellow T-shirt who looks like he needs the workout, trailing his wife and daughter.
Matt Bernier is a civil engineer who lives and occasionally bicycles in Pittsfield.