Wishing Gabrielle Giffords Many More Commutes by Bike

January 11, 2011
Three days ago, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was among 13 people wounded in an attack by a gunman in Tucson that killed six others, including a 9-year-old girl. (At the time of this writing, Giffords is still in critical condition from the gunshot to the head, and doctors are guardedly optimistic about her survival and recovery.)

Gabrielle Giffords
Photo: Tucson Velo

We at Commute by Bike are deeply affected by the attack, and our thoughts are with the families of those killed in the attack, along with the wounded and their families.

Last week I began wondering who are the American leaders who “put cycling into practice as well as pose for photos and propose legislation.”

Although Commute by Bike is based in Flagstaff, Arizona, it was only yesterday that I learned Giffords is one of those rare leaders who commute by bike.

From Tucson Velo:

Giffords says bicycling is a critical part of urban infrastructure. She says she biked a lot while getting her Master’s degree in planning at Cornell and that bike and pedestrian planning is an important part of urban planning.

She loves that Tucson is a top-10 biking city and that the city makes bicycling a priority. Giffords says she supports all types of alternative transportation from bike infrastructure to projects like the modern streetcar.


Giffords rides her bike from her home in Washington D.C. to the capitol building. She says the ride is breathtaking and inspiring.

Giffords represents us, as Americans, Arizonans, and as cyclists. We wish her a full and speedy recovery, and many more bike commutes.

Much has been written already about the political and rhetorical climate that may have contributed to the gunman’s motives. The consensus is that politicians and pundits need to tone it down.

In his press conference the day of the shooting, Pima County Sherrif, Clarence Dupnik said it with extraordinary clarity:

It’s the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business.

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this county is getting to be outrageous.

My thoughts were drawn, once again, to the rhetoric of the debate over cycling infrastructure, referred to as “The Bike Wars” or a “war on cars.” War? Really? With armies, weapons, and battles?

Anyone who commutes by bike knows two things: First, that there are a lot of crazy and unstable drivers out there, and second that with the wrong person behind the wheel, a car can be used as a weapon. When we, the participants in this debate, regurgitate this “war” framing, we need to consider the chances that a crazy motorist might take it seriously. The motorist who believes (because he’s been told so) that cyclists are literally the enemy; that cyclists are threatening his way of life, how is he likely to use his car?

Let’s downshift our rhetoric. It’s not a war. It’s a disagreement over transportation priorities; it’s motorists and cyclists struggling to reconcile their differences and coexist.

As we reflect upon the tragedy in Tucson and mourn this loss, let’s take this opportunity to consider the impact of inflammatory language not only in politics but in all realms where unstable individuals are liable to turn metaphor into violent action.

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13 thoughts on “Wishing Gabrielle Giffords Many More Commutes by Bike”

  1. Richard says:

    Sheriff Clarence started talking before he even knew who the shooter was. Those were his personal opinions and had nothing to do with the shooting (he even says so in the press conference).

    I’m all about biking anywhere I can, and I’m a conservative (I know, I’m not supposed to be both).

    It is too bad what the wacky sheriff said keeps being repeated without the context it was stated in.

    Keep up the good work at Commute By Bike Ted. I enjoy the blog and website.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      @Richard: When Sherrif Dupnik made that statement in the initial press briefing, the suspect Jared Loughner was in custody, and Dupnik stated that he had seen the seven-minute YouTube video believed to have been made by Loughner. (Believed at the time, and later confirmed.)

      You are right that Dupnik did not want to speculate as to the shooter’s motives, but at the same time mentioned the “vitriolic rhetoric”–which to me sounds like he indeed was speculating.

      In my mind, that doesn’t make him wacky; it makes him human. I rather like seeing a 75-year-old lawman speaking so frankly.

  2. Traci says:

    It’s great to hear that Giffords commutes by bike and is a proponent of alternative transportation. We need many more like her in Congress, regardless of political party! As a healthcare professional, I know she has a long road to recovery, but it sounds as if she’s steadily improving. Hope she’s back to cycling very soon!

  3. Representative Giffords is in our minds as our country tries to come to terms with this indiscriminate and undeserved hit. It is hoped that we will all briefly put to the side our burgeoning enmity along republican vs democrat lines. We are all of us of the same country, fellows, and have the same interests and challenges, and are more similar than dissimilar.

  4. chunkymonkeybiker says:

    Cyclists are always in danger on the road or in support of civic events.

  5. Chrehn says:

    We wish the very best to Congresswoman Giffords and the other victims.

  6. Max Power says:

    When James Lee took hostages at the Discovery Channel and claimed to do so to get attention for his concerns about global warming and population growth, no one seriously proposed that we tone down warnings about the environment, nor would anyone have taken such a proposal seriously.

    Mr. Loughner seems to be a seriously ill person. That he chose to fixate on politics is likely random coincidence. He could have fixated on a celebrity or athlete and had his rampage at the Oscars or a sports event

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      @Max: You may be right that Loughner’s is a pathological obsessive, and the object of his obsession might not necessarily have been politics. However, you falsely equate warnings about the environment (which unquestionably motivated James Lee) with political rhetoric that vilifies the opponents, and toys with incitement to violence. It is yet to be established whether or not Loughner was influenced by such political rhetoric. Many commentators are making an assumption that he was. We may never know. I didn’t imply that this was an established fact. (At least I didn’t mean to imply it.)

      If you click through some of the links in this article, you’ll see that the “war” rhetoric in the transportation debate has been irritating me since November of 2010. I regarded it then as hyperbolic and unhelpful in the discussion. Now I’ve been forced to think of it as potentially dangerous, simply because of the conjecture over Loughner’s motives.

  7. matt says:

    second that Richard. let’s not let this site go all political / environmental.

  8. Thomas Bowden says:

    I am moved to hear that Rep. Giffords is a bike commuter. If more of our elected representatives would bike to work together once in a while (and for that matter, more people in general) maybe the rhetoric would tone itself down as we got to know one another better. One of the things I like most about my bike commute is that sometimes I meet someone new, and we instantly find common ground. If we start on common ground, we often find that our differences are not as profound as we might have supposed. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Giffords, the other victims, and their families at this sad and trying time. I pray that Rep. Giffords recovers enough to ride again, and when she does, I’d like to ride with her on her first day back to work. If not, I will happily take her to the Capitol Building in a sidecar attached to my bike.

  9. Matt says:

    What a nice post Ted. Rep. Giffords represents much that is right with this country and Arizona. She is a moderate congresswoman who was able to speak constructively with Democratic and Republican colleagues and constituents. In short, a swell bicycling advocate. Thinking of all of you in Arizona from New York.

  10. Max Power says:

    I’d be inclined to agree with you if I had ever heard of someone justifying an attack on a cyclist by referring to the “war on cars.” I’ve been hit by someone who was simply not paying attention, and been threatened by people who felt that I was in the path of their royal conveyence. Never once has someone shouted “that’s one battle for cars in the war for the road!” as they buzzed me.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      @Max: Do we disagree? I don’t think I claimed that there is any direct evidence that any motorist ever has justified an attack on a cyclist by referring to a “war on cars.” But is that what it would take to show that rhetorical violence has consequences? There are many examples of motorists who have intentionally used their vehicles as weapons against cyclists. (This being a recent and high-profile example.) So, is it helpful to refer to the tensions between motorists and cyclists as a war? I don’t believe so. You can’t deny that there are unbalanced people out there who can’t tell the difference between metaphorical violence and literal incitements to violence. And some of these people have drivers licenses.

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