Bicycling was hardly an issue at the top of voters’ minds as they cast ballots in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
But bicycle advocacy groups that keep track of shifts in the political winds and how they affect two-wheeled transport are finding precious little good news in the Republican tsunami that washed through Congress.
“I’m not going to lie — I’m depressed,” Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, wrote on the group’s website the morning after the elections.
Clarke was commenting specifically on the defeat of U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, a Democrat who was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Oberstar, who had represented the 8th Congressional District in Minnesota’s Iron Range for 36 years, lost by 4,532 votes to a political newcomer, Chip Cravaack.
Clarke called the outgoing lawmaker, who is an avid cyclist, “a true champion of bicyclists’ issues in Congress.”
“It’s shocking. It’s stunning really,” said Jim Sayer, executive director of Adventure Cycling Association.
Advocates for cycling and other alternative forms of transportation were also chagrined by the prospect of Rep. John Boehner of Ohio becoming speaker of a Republican-controlled U.S. House of Represenative.
“Boehner has chimed in about bicycling several times in the past few years,” Jonathan Maus wrote on the BikePortland website, which he edits. “In January 2009 he referenced how widening highways would help American families and likened ‘bike paths’ to ‘beautification projects.’
“Back in 2007, when the Bike Commuter Tax Benefit was on the floor, Boehner ridiculed the bill,” Maus wrote.
“After suggesting that the bill’s champion, Earl Blumenauer, recuse himself from voting on it simply because he rides to work, Boehner went into an explanation of how the bill ‘is not going to solve America’s energy problem.'”
Blumenauer, a Democrat from Portland, Ore., easily won an eighth term in Congress on Tuesday, beating GOP novice candidate Delia Lopez.
Another bicycling champion from Oregon who held onto his seat was U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat who represents Eugene. But with Republican control of the House, DeFazio will lose his chairmanship of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, which is under the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The shift in power is also likely to put at risk the Obama administration’s Transportation Enhancements program, under which federal funds are provided to enhance surface transportation projects, including pedestrian and bicycle paths, safety programs and highway beautification.
The Transportation Enhancements program is part of funding for transportation in general, and it has received a hostile reception from Republicans in previous debates.
On March 17, during a hearing by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Republicans heaped ridicule on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood after LaHood suggested that bicycling and walking are just as good ways to get around as cars.
“To laughter, Republican House members suggested LaHood was taking drugs, dismissed the very idea of bike lanes and derided any change to a car-dependent society,” wrote Nick Wilson on courthousenews.com, a news service for lawyers.
Wilson quoted Ohio Republican Steven LaTourette as asking: “What job is going to be created by having a bike lane?” LaTourette, who was elected to a ninth term on Tuesday, suggested at the hearing that environmental sustainability projects have “stolen” $300 million from other programs and attacked LaHood’s encouragement of bicycling, on a personal level. “Is there still mandatory drug-testing at the department?” asked LaTourette, to chuckles from the back of the room, Wilson wrote.
On July 30, 2009, Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona, both re-elected on Tuesday, released a report called “Out of Gas,” which criticized all non-highway transportation spending. The report singled out bicycle and pedestrian projects as an unnecessary luxury and called on lawmakers to use the report along with their red pens.
“Crossing out extraneous transportation spending should be our first priority,” the report said.
Perhaps stating the obvious, Clarke of the League of American Cyclists said of the shift of power in Congress: “I think we move from offense to defense. We’ll have to be vigilant and absolutely on top of our game to make the case that investing in bike/ped projects is good national policy.”
I would venture a guess that many avid cyclists — particularly in red-state Texas, where I live — are also stalwart Republicans. But all too often, it seems, the debate over alternative means of transportation is framed in simplistic terms rooted in rigid ideology.
European nations have fine public transportation — high-speed trains, commuter rail, streetcars and buses. And many Europeans use bicycles to get to work, shop for groceries, take the kids to daycare.
European nations also have comprehensive social welfare programs — universal healthcare, long vacations, paid maternity leave.
That’s considered socialism by many Americans. Ergo, bicycles and other alternative means of transport are lumped together with “socialism” in this simplistic mind-set.
After all, didn’t a Chilean socialist politician, José Antonio Viera-Gallo, once say: “Socialism can only arrive by bicycle”?
One of the silliest arguments during a campaign season filled with silly arguments and claims that strained credulity was advanced by Dan Maes, a Republican Tea Party candidate who ran for governor of Colorado. Maes’s opponent was Democrat John Hickenlooper, who as mayor of Denver put in place a bicycle-sharing program to help move people around the Mile High City. (See Aug. 5 blog post, “Cyclists as U.N. sleeper agents?”)
Those bicycle-friendly policies piqued the paranoia of Maes, who suggested that the bike-sharing program was part of a U.N. plot to erode American freedoms.
“These aren’t just warm, fuzzy ideas from the mayor,” Maes said. “These are very specific strategies that are dictated to us by this United Nations program that mayors have signed on to.”
Speaking at a rally July 26 in Centennial, Colo., Maes was referring to Denver’s membership in the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, an association that promotes sustainable development. More than 1,200 communities around the world — 600 of them in the United States — have joined the group. Denver became a member in 1992, more than a decade before Hickenlooper became mayor.
Maes told The Denver Post that he once thought the mayor’s efforts to promote cycling and other environmental initiatives were harmless and well-meaning. But now he realizes “that’s exactly the attitude they want you to have.”
“This is bigger than it looks like on the surface,” Maes told the Post, “and it could threaten our personal freedoms.” He told the Centennial rally that the bike-sharing program was promoted by a group that puts the environment above citizens’ rights.
In Tuesday’s election, Maes got only 11 percent of the Colorado vote in a three-way race with Hickenlooper (51 percent) and Tom Tancredo of the American Constitution Party (31 percent).
Is Colorado on a slippery slope to socialism?