Radicals, conservatives, liberals, progressives, and cyclists

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.

Jason Henderson Street Fight

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.”

Printtemps attacker: divn2it

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.


  1. interesting you should post this…i was recently riding with one of my cycling groups and a guy and i were exchanging conversation around the political state of affairs…he says to me, “i’m not sure how i’m reading you, somewhere between a conservative and liberal?”…yeah, i said…i’m with the growing “disgruntled” party…he agreed and said he was going to join!
    i believe the terms “progressive” and “activist” should be merged to form “pro-aggressive”…also, if you did not see this recent bill moyers program…its worth a watch…
    btw, how come more people are not taking to the streets? oh, that’s right…now they’ve go their tweets!!!

  2. • I understand the need for categorization, but I’ve never felt much affinity for any political label. It’s safe to say I’m not exactly conservative, except of course when something needs to be conserved. The generation before me produced a New Left, defined loosely as not the Old Left (and its Marx-informed factions). My generation similarly found ideology stifling, imagined itself as post-ideological, and adopted the word “progressive” because it was suitably vague. By now, of course, it’s accumulated some baggage, though the word’s conflation with communism is a deliberate misrepresentation by the likes of Glenn Beck (who throws Nazis and liberals and Muslims in for good measure).

    The agenda I’ve personally found most appealing was articulated as the four pillars of the worldwide Green movement: Ecological wisdom, social justice, and nonviolence are reliably progressive (or, when watered down, “liberal”), but the oft-overlooked fourth pillar, grassroots democracy, dovetails very well with individual responsibility and participation, and community-level power taking priority in the public sector. These are classic conservative values, though alliances with conservatives haven’t come of it. (The U.S. version of the Green movement botched this agenda, so I’m really not taking about them.)

    To my eyes the “anti-car bike nut” agenda ought to be embraced by conservatives, since the whole support system for accommodating cars takes much more big government than any other alternative. But instead we find them making common cause with highway lobbyists who will lie about these costs, and they even pay John Forester to regale them with his do-nothing ideology. Cars and carbon are a reliable conservative blind spot.

    Neoliberals have largely embraced BRT, which emerged as a conservative strategy to usurp an LRT renaissance that was underway in the 1990s. I’m not seeing a lot of benefit coming out of this relationship.

  3. The discussion lacks detail about what actually works on the ground to fulfill the following desiderata — perhaps others. To me, her’s what counts.

    * Infrastructure respects the limits of human abilities (e.g., no expectation that bicyclists will have to cross an intersection on a short green light; motorists do not have to look into their right rear blindspot to avoid striking bicyclists when turning right, etc.)

    * Bicycle travel is efficient: bicyclists can safely travel at their preferred speed, including downhill up to the same speed limit as for motor vehicles, and reach as many different destinations within a given time as that allows..

    * Street design maintains the flexibility and adaptability to accommodate foreseeable and unforeseeable technical developments, and mode shifts (for example, electrically-assisted bicycles, with their ability to maintain a steady 20 mph; robocars, and whatever else the future may bring.

    * Street design promotes good citizenship (for example, by not enforcing detours and delays which motivate unlawful and unsafe behavior). .

    * Bicyclists and motorists alike have the skills and state of mind to operate safely.

    * Pricing reflects true costs and preserves efficiency (for example, congestion pricing and time-varying parking fees, to hold down traffic volume to what streets and parking can accommodate).

    * Public transit efficiently accommodates the transportation needs which dense urban centers demand and which private motor vehicles cannot fulfill (relates to Jym Dyer’s comment about bus rapid transit).

    * Laws and law enforcement are equitable. Operators of dangerous machinery are held to a high standard. Vulnerability and defenseless are not confounded so as to render vulnerable road users defenseless either on the road or in the legal system. .

  4. The thing that blows my mind is the current and constant traffic on the roadways, especially in this most significant economic downturn in my lifetime.
    I’ve lived in the BA all my life. Up until the 80’s you could drive without hindrance on any road or highway. In the early 80’s, things had changed to traffic backups on hwy 101, especially heading south from San Mateo.
    I remember the tremendous frustration of being stuck in traffic trying to make it to work in Santa Clara (like everyone else). At first I was angry, but over time it turned to acceptance or a “just go with the flow” mentality.
    This is exactly the state of affairs that most live in today. We feel helpless at the hands of an unknown force that brings us to our knees. Once broken, we continue to sacrifice ourselves to the unknown gods that created and control this system.
    What do we do? What can we do? It’s now so complicated (by design), that not even our legislators have a good handle on it all.
    They will succumb to the status quo before making a concerted effort and usually only after being pushed by the masses, to try and fix things.
    Unfortunately, this can tend to make it worse than before because it gives the special interests another “compromise” opportunity to manipulate the laws to suit their desires.
    Every politician is controlled in some way by special interests. Case in point is Senator Mark DeSaulnier, who Chairs the Transportation committee. When you read his biography, you’ll understand why. Once a Union member, always a Union member. He is the one, by his own admission, who has failed to properly serve the masses at the hands of his real “constituents” or special interests. QUOTE, “I have gone through at least FIVE BART contract negotiations in my time as an elected official from the Bay Area—clearly the process is not working. We owe it to the commuters to fix this.” WHAT? You’ve held public office for 20 years and in your 2nd term as the Chair of the Transportation committee! Back in July 2013 he stated: “BART is too important for Bay Area commuters and the continued economic recovery of our region to be shut down for an extended period of time.” An “EXTENDED” period of time! Is that like ONE HOUR? Simple math points this problem out very clearly: ~1,400 + ~1,000 + ~600 = ~3,000 (BART Union members) vs. ~400,000 (Daily BART Riders) = 0.0075% of the people who CURRENTLY and LEGALLY control this system! And he has still done nothing to help solve the overall issue, make it illegal to shutdown this system!
    There is a serious problem in this country. Technology (for the most part) has caused us to remain on the couch, tweeting away at this and that. As though it really means something for our societal good, instead of taking the next step, ACTION! Occupy Wall Street was/is a bust. I commend Richmond for making the first major step in taking our communities back from those who are only concerned about themselves. It’s a start in the right direction, but its taken 5 long years…come on people!!

  5. An argument can have been made for promoting the automobile when A) Cars came from and were built by companies based in Detroit and B) Oil came from Texas or elsewhere in the USA.
    But since the answers to A and B involve the shipment of capital overseas to places where it either does not return, or does so in the form of radicalized anger, then I should hope that conservatives might start paying attention to the system.

  6. I’ve read Jason Henderson’s book and find it is an excellent analysis of the politics of transportation in San Francisco. His 3-way political taxonomy is useful, though even Henderson admits these categories are somewhat mutable and sometimes overlapping. I’d also agree with your sense that simply riding a bicycle for transportation for any length of time opens one’s perception to the myriad ways we’ve subsidized, designed, and privileged a car-based system that is profoundly anti-people, as well as anti-environment. As such, I’m friendly to locally-based solutions that move us away from car-centered living, but I recognize the reality that 70-odd years of massively subsidizing automobile infrastructure is not going to be undone by local, “small government” efforts alone. We’re going to need to subsidize sustainable ways of getting people to work, school, and the like, and this won’t realistically be helped by Tea Party-style know-nothingism. Anyone who’s tried to get something as simple as a bike lane installed knows it’s not going to be done by private efforts alone, or starving government of funds to do such things. What we need to do is work to shift funding priorities, not cut them off.
    Thus, I find Jarrett Walker’s “Tea Party urbanism” deeply troubling. It is at best an oxymoron and at worst blind to the uglier side of the TP ideology: it’s anti-urban and racist tendencies. If we’re going to make meaningful changes to our transportation system, it’s not going to be done by adopting the “Tea Party” moniker, insofar as it will alienate many working people, people of color, and progressive allies. We need to build coalitions and listen to hitherto marginalized communities in our cities in order to create a sustainable transit/bike/pedestrian transportation system that is socially equitable as well as environmentally sustainable (this is, after all, a key insight in Henderson’s book). Talking about “local flexibility” is one thing. Adopting a “Tea Party” label that is profoundly reactionary and divisive, as Walker has done, is quite another.

  7. I’m not particularly fond of political labels as they lead to the assumption that I have a prefabricated liberal/conservative/progressive stock answer for every question. That’s not always true. In addition, I would second what Jim Dyer and John Allen have said (rather than repeat them) regarding both the four pillars and the need for flexible designs that doesn’t fail in the event of a paradigm shift that has not occurred to us.

    What does deeply trouble me is the increased polarization of society in the U.S., both with regard to economic inequality and its inevitable mate, political alienation from the common good (since there is less and less of a consensus on a common good). This is egged on by modern day agit-prop masters, esp. those on the right but not exclusively on the right.

    I suspect stories about former lawyers assaulting cyclists, or pickup truck drivers blasting horns at distressed children, are signs of an alienation that is accompanying economic decline and a desire to point the finger at the “other”. Its easy to see the “other” if you are in a car looking at a cyclist or vice versa. We are encouraged to see not a fellow citizen but an adversary and a stranger. The increasing power and reach of the national security state is another sign that we are so concerned about threats that we forsake our freedoms.

    Progressives, as defined in the above essay, have to remember that working for the greater social good means not demonizing the other guy. Conservatives likewise have to remember the Golden Rule: If a cyclist is down by the side of the road, cross the road and help him up.

    But then, I’m rambling.

  8. When these tales of woe, it reminds me when I was riding motorcycle back in 70’s, the things I head about happing to motorcycles and what happen to me.

  9. The background on the freeway revolts and muni funding struggles was interesting history and context – I moved to California in 2006 so much of that was before I was paying attention.

    Henderson’s description of the ideologies is helpful for understanding the political alliances and battles. Using his descriptions, I’d put myself as part-progressive and part neoliberal. Henderson clearly thinks of himself as a progressive. I think Henderson take on “neoliberalism” is somewhat oversimplified and overly dismissive.

    For example, supporting additional housing is seen as being “pro-developer.” The problem is that apartments don’t grow on trees – developers build them. I think governments should take actions to protect the public realm and promote the public good, including support for affordable housing, stopping subsidies for car storage, charging fees to support transit and public space, etc. But the older environmentalist perspective with blanket opposition to development just gets you sky-high housing prices. Being “anti-developer” allies progressives with the prop-13 aristocracy who want to keep their property values up by keeping newbies out.

    Supporting any sort of transit efficiency is seen as heartless and greedy. I agree that Muni is woefully mis-funded (central subway) underfunded (maintenance, slow pace of improvements), and de-funded (serving as the city’s piggybank with work orders and other shenanigans). But even so, an average speed of 8mph is pathetic, and seeking improvement isn’t a capitalist conspiracy. In one chapter, Henderson argues that wanting muni drivers to be less surly is a sign of elitist privilege. A friend of mine uses a wheelchair, and Muni drivers yell at her routinely. There isn’t progressive social value in that.

    One set of neoliberal tactics is using market prices to allocate scarce goods. Henderson oversimplifies this, describing an ideology in which market prices are the only measure of value and means of allocation. There are some economics professors who think this way. In the San Francisco debate, though, values combine with pricing strategies. It’s possible to support reducing onstreet car parking to further the values of safety and transit efficiency, while also considering pricing as a helpful tool to allocate street space. Having a price on parking encourages people to drive less, own fewer cars, and helps people who do drive spend less time hunting for parking.

    Henderson also mocks the way that “livability” – a safe and enjoyable public realm – has become “commoditized” – a fashionable experience that people with money are willing to pay for. The alternative is lethal n-lane arterials, neighborhoods where you can’t a loaf of bread or get to common space without driving, places where the common spaces are private malls. Walking and bicycling are the lowest cost and healthiest means of getting around; safe active transportation supports social equity. Just because wealthy fashionable people have come to like something doesn’t make it bad.

  10. I’m not sure if you already read it and were influenced by it, but Strong Towns has a very similar breakdown of ideologies. As he points out, there is a way to make these ideas appeal to people belonging to all three groups.

    Personally, I see myself as somewhere between libertarian (a better term than neo-liberal, I think) and conservative. I’m not so much anti-car as I am anti-drive-everywhere. I recognize that often a car really is the easiest and simplest way to get from point A to point B, but quite often, particularly in dense urban environments, it is far from ideal. Having recently moved from the suburbs to the city, I’m now getting around by bike, as well as walking and transit, more than ever before. I still drive occasionally, but I’d probably drive even less if it weren’t for the fact that American society subsidizes cars to such a great extent.

    Bottom line, I believe that if more libertarians and conservatives realized just how expensive the car is when everything is accounted for, and how much we as a society are spending to perpetuate our car dependence, more of them would support expansions in relatively cheap bike and walking infrastructure.

  11. I transcend existing political ideologies. On some issues I am a socialist, others a hardcore capitalist, others a classic liberal, others still a progressive, but most would call me a libertarian, even though I border more to the anarchist.

    Truly, I would call myself a progressive, defined as one who wants progress and contrary to conservatives who want to CONSERVE things (read as preserve, keep it the same). I want progress, radical progress if necessary, perhaps moving forward or perhaps moving backward. Some social issues I want to bump into the future (gay rights for instance) drug policy I want to bring back in line with the Founding Fathers wishes, that is no Federal involvement, stay out of my medical pot. I am a person who looks at every issue and re-evaluates my views based off existing evidence.

    Can we make a political label for people who apply the scientific method to politics?

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