I am one of the nearly 800 bike advocates from around the country who went to Washington, D.C. last week for the National Bike Summit. I took away an important lesson: The Republican Congress is good for bicycling.
A Republican Congress forces bicycling advocates to improve their message, it empowers Republicans who bicycle to take a stronger role in the active transportation advocacy movement, and it fills Congress with new people who are also potential champions for bicycling.
Bicycling’s most vocal advocates have been largely “blue” over the last ten years, and their rhetoric has shown it. They’ve made the standard appeals: save us from rising sea levels and Big Oil, consider Amsterdam and Copenhagen as models, direct spending to make bicycling safe. More often than not, they have embraced Democratic Party language to push for support of federal legislation and were frustrated when their Republican representatives didn’t seem to bite. Despite the fact that the Democratic Party on the whole never fully stepped up to “own” the bicycling cause, it was clear that bicycling’s champions were always Democrats – but that’s changing. And there’s no reason why Republicans today can’t make bicycling their own party issue.
Last year, when USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood jumped on a table for bike advocates, he was speaking on behalf of a Democratic administration – but also as a registered Republican.
At last week’s National Bike Summit, the absence of one of the movement’s heroes, the very “D” Jim Oberstar, was strongly felt and loudly lamented – but among the mostly “R” Bike Summit delegates representing my home state of Florida, there was an audible sigh of relief. One of them told me, “This is the best summit because it didn’t make me feel like I had to deny my politics to join others who are ‘pro-bike.’”
Another one was blatantly surprised that there even were so many non-Republicans participating. “Bicycling is about freedom, business and preserving small-town America,” he told me. “Of course I’m Republican.” He is also a successful small business owner – and came to his first Summit clearly skilled at forming and maintaining the kinds of political relationships that bicycling advocates need, with members on both sides of the aisle.
Cost reductions, profit margins and jobs creation are what rally the Republican Party and in all of these areas, bicycling really shines. Streetsblog readers know that bicycling infrastructure has a far greater return on investment than a typical car-specific roadway. Even if you take away the “associated” benefits (health, increased public safety, etc), cyclists require less space and cause a fraction of the costly wear and tear that their motored counterparts do to asphalt.
This helped motivate the new Republican chair of the Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica, to concede bicycles’ right to the road and promise a place for this mode in a new transportation bill. In Mica’s home state of Florida, there are more than 1,000 bicycle retailers and dealers, employing almost 5,000 Floridians, with gross revenues approaching $400 million. And all of these numbers are growing. (Find your state’s numbers from America Bikes.) Think those bike shop owners are all Democrats? Think again!
While it’s true that Republicans have been less likely to co-sponsor pro-bike legislation, that can and will change as the advocacy movement itself embraces the Republicans within its ranks. It’s a matter of how advocates talk about their issues. Sharrows, for example, are not just symbols reminding motorists not to kill cyclists, they are cost-effective ways to expand the capacity of existing roads, create jobs and promote the success of American small businesses.
And regardless of political party, people who bicycle are realizing that they have a lot to offer politicians. They represent a skyrocketing population of diverse constituents who are easily satisfied with affordable programs that also help countless other interest groups. They include small business owners who can introduce them to their local trails or urban roadways in a new, fun, media-friendly way. And while other interests continue to divide themselves along party lines, bicycling advocates are skipping straight to the point: that bicycling is great for the [insert whichever political party with which you’re most comfortable].
Kathryn Moore volunteers as a writer for TransitMiami.com and as the director of the South Florida Bike Coalition, a regional organization of people and groups who collaborate in support of bicycling.