How do you radicalize bike riders?
I wasn’t always a wild-eyed anti-car bike radical. I, and probably thousands of other people like me, were just people who liked to get around by bike. I had no particular “bicycle idealogy.” I accepted that our transportation network was built for cars and made myself fit in by cooperating with traffic and making myself small. My thinking and my practices, however, have changed over time, mostly for self-preservation.
But first of all: Conservatives, liberals and progressives. Which of these groups do you identify with?
I’ve been participating in a series of online book club discussions with Anthony Ryan on Jason Henderson’s book Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. To help break things down, Professor Henderson creates a loose categorization of the three sides of this battle: the Conservatives, the Progressives, and the Neoliberals.
Henderson devotes an entire chapter to these ideas, but to grossly simplify:
- Conservatives value individual responsibility over social responsibility, but that individual responsibility includes responsibility to family, religion and country. Classically, conservatives favor government policies that encourage and promote this kind of thinking (recent Koch Brothers funded propaganda notwithstanding). Support for low-density development and automobile dependence stems from this ideology in ways further described in Henderson’s book. A number of conservative cyclists follow this blog. You see cycling not as an evil, but as an expression of independence and personal responsibility. We even have paleoconservative think tank wonks like William Lind recommending bicycle planning as a conservative value.
- Progressives view the world through “empathy based values.” Personal responsibility includes the idea that we should be collectively responsible for those around us. Government is necessary to ensure social equity. In terms of transportation, auto dependence enhances inequity in multiple ways (cars as symbols of wealth, highways disproportionately destroy lower income neighborhoods, externalities affect lower income more than higher income classes, etc). Outside of the West Coast and U.S. Northeast, we call Progressives “communists,” “leftists,” etc. Henderson is a self identified Progressive. Ryan (my book club friend) also identifies himself mostly as a Progressive.
- Neoliberals believe people acting in their own self interest will maximize the benefit for everybody else. Distance is a hindrance to the development of capital, so neoliberals seek to eliminate the “distance tax” on goods and service through high density development and effective transportation, which today means mass transit. The studies showing that bike lanes and more pleasant pedestrian boulevards benefit local shops are born of this neoliberal ideology. I think I probably identify most closely with this idealogy.
Ryan never considered political and online activism. He was just a guy who rode his bike to get around. He’s one of those guys who complains quietly about scofflaws who run lights and considers himself a safe, law abiding cyclist. He wears a helmet and doesn’t understand people who ride drunk at night without lights.
He was biking to the dentist in San Francisco when he stopped at a red light in the vicinity of Castro and Market when a 50 year old former attorney in a car harassed him. She wanted to make a right turn on red and she leaned on her horn. The driver then gets out her car, physically pushes Ryan to knock him from his bike, gets back in the car and jams pedal to the metal to surge around Ryan and his fallen bike.
He managed to get photos of the car and driver and filed a police report. After he tells this story, “Voila: anti-car bike nut.”
My story is a little different, but it also involves harassment. The first was when some teens assaulted my son (age 10 at the time). He was riding his bike from school when a passing group of teens intentionally doored him from their moving car. Yes, you read that right.
And then my daughter (then age 8) fell down while riding down a residential street. It took her a minute to collect herself and get back up, but some middle aged jackass in a large black pickup truck honked at her and revved his engine. I couldn’t believe this sociopathic maniac harassing a little girl!
Other episodes like that have radicalized my views about cars and the people who drive them as well. I used to be just a guy who biked to get around and believed strongly in “sharing the road,” cooperation, and all the other nice things you learn when you’re in kindergarten. I’ve always been a New Testament turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy, but touch my children and I want Old Testament retribution.
But I digress? Where do you fit in Henderson’s ideological taxonomy?
The star of today’s story, Anthony Ryan, writes about how neoliberal urbanists and progressives can find common ground in the urbanist agenda. He expresses doubt that “conservatives in the US can be won over to some of the core tenants of urbanism.” Andrew Burleson, however, teaches us a history lesson on urban development and transportation and concludes:
These changes dramatically reshaped our lives. The fact that they happened over a long enough time horizon that they now seem “normal,” doesn’t mean they are historically tried-and-true. The more you dig into the history of American cities and city planning, the more you find todays “norms” to be the result of social engineering on a massive scale. That’s not the kind of stability and continuity that Conservatives are interested in.
Jarrett Walker (the “Human Transit” guy), suggests neoliberal urbanists might have some goals in common with tea party small government activists.
The “tea party” US House members who currently dominate the news are unlikely allies of urbanists. But on one core idea, a band of urbanist thinkers are starting to echo a key idea of the radical right: Big and active national government may not be the answer.
Crazy, right? But with cities replacing big government design guides with those more suited to city streets, maybe it’s not such a crazy idea after all.