The Bicycle is the Answer. What was the Question?

Tom BowdenTom Bowden is a bike commuter from Richmond VA, a “suit” – a corporate lawyer with an MBA, and a conservative – You betcha! He is also a board member of BikeWalk Virginia, a pro cycling and pedestrian group in Virginia that raises raises money to promote cycling, walking and active lifestyles. Tom’s lawyerly blogging can be found at

Yes, after the National Bike Summit, Ted and I did solve all the world’s problems over burritos.

The answer is: The Bicycle

Now, what was the question again?

Seriously though, I too was impressed by the diligence, sincerity and openness of all of the staffers I met in my meetings on “The Hill.”   It makes it a little harder to lob clever one-liners at them from a distance when you’ve sat across the table and talked face to face while they took copious notes.

And on the whole liberal/conservative thing, maybe the problem is that we are overgeneralizing–on both sides. It’s the logical “fallacy of accident.”

Most construction workers hate cyclists; most construction workers are conservatives; therefore, all conservatives hate cyclists.

From the other side: Some cyclists are liberal; some cyclists are insane; therefore all liberals are insane.

Both of these syllogisms are deeply flawed, even without considering the validity of the labels we use to categorize people. We can do better.

One troublesome argument that seems to be gaining traction is along the lines of, “Why should cycling be a federal issue? Shouldn’t it be a state and local issue?”

Of course that is conservative code talk for, “We don’t want to fund it, because we will get more votes with bigger projects.”

My response would be, True, it should be a local issue, and when all of you ear-marking politicians stop paving every square inch of our local communities with federal highway subsidies, we’ll be happy to take responsibility at a local level. But for now, we just want to level the playing field a little. And after all, for every federal dollar you spend on properly designed cycling infrastructure (and I don’t mean multi-use paths to nowhere), you can ultimately de-fund $10 worth of auto infrastructure. De-fund is a good word to use with Republicans and conservatives.

Andy Clark and Tom Bowden
Separated at Birth: Andy Clarke of LAB and Tom Bowden with Kristi Felts Moore and Lynette Carpiet

An AHA! moment for me was the address by Congressman Earl Blumenaur, D-Ore., at the Thursday evening reception. He got a great response by announcing with great fanfare that he had just gotten an offer from a hard-core Republican anti-cyclist to guarantee hundreds of millions of federal dollars for cycling projects–with one condition. Blumenaur and his cohort would only have to drop their opposition to drilling in ANWR.

There were was raucous applause when he proclaimed that he turned the offer down flat. Red meat for the howling liberal wolves, I thought to myself. But over the cheering and whooping I heard him say that it was not that we had to preserve ancient moose migration routes, or that cars were evil, or that the planet was about to evaporate from global warming. If I understood correctly, he simply said that the oil will still be there when/if we really need it. And in his opinion, we really don’t need it now.

And I have to admit, he has a point. The ANWR oil isn’t going anywhere.   After he spoke I approached him and introduced myself. I told him about my first post on Commute by Bike, and offered to work with him to bridge the gap between right and left on the issue of cycling. He seemed genuinely interested, and I hope to carry the conversation further.

Another moment came in my conversation with Ted over burritos at Union Station. I remarked that when you step back a little from the staged ideological food fight portrayed in the media, there is not as much difference between the mainstream Democrats and Republicans on many issues–cycling included.

Both sides pander to the extremes, seeking easy victories in the battle of sound bites. But when the lights go off and the cameras are turned away, they often sidle up to the bar and hoist a few cold ones together.

Both sides have their extreme wings. Still the magnifying glass of the media enlarges and distorts our differences and the pols play along, to stay relevant and capture their share of the eyeball market.

Ted nodded and remarked how he wished that all the self-styled conservatives and free-market purists who decry government subsidies to alternative energy technologies would factor in the massive subsidization of fossil fuels represented by our military commitments in the Middle East. Another good point. I could argue, but even the most ardent and idealistic advocates of democratization must acknowledge that protection of the steady flow of oil has a lot to do with our commitment to these high minded values in that region at this particular point in time.

At one point in a briefing session on Wednesday, the constant repetition of the “wear a helmet” mantra got a little too much for me. It was cited that in nine out of ten cases of cyclist fatalities due to head trauma, the cyclist was not wearing a helmet. I posed the question, “If that is a justification for all cyclists to wear helmets, than what about the 99.999% of motorist head trauma fatalities who were not wearing helmets? Shouldn’t we start a campaign to make them wear helmets too?” I continued “I’m not anti-helmet–I’ve crashed with a helmet and without a helmet–but helmets are not the only answer, or even the most important answer. As long as we keep on putting so much emphasis on helmets as the most important safety issue, we perpetuate the myth that cycling is inherently dangerous. Cycling is not inherently dangerous, cars are inherently dangerous to cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. But all this helmet focus does is place the responsibility for safety on cyclists, rather than on the root cause of the problem, which is unsafe driving.”

I probably didn’t put it quite that well – I was actually shaking a little, anticipating a backlash to my politically incorrect rant. But to my surprise, there was applause and even a few shouts and whistles–the good kind. It was my fifteen seconds of attention, if not actual fame.

Throughout the event, I can’t recall hearing any hostile comments about helmets, Republicans, or conservatives. Instead I heard strategies and themes designed to appeal to common values: efficient use of public funds; preservation of individual choices; creation of traditional Leave it to Beaver neighborhoods where kids ride their bikes safely to neighborhood schools.

I’d like to think that they had all read my “How to Talk about Cycling to a Conservative” piece, but as LAB President Andy Clarke remarked, “Yes, enjoyed that. But it wasn’t exactly rocket science now was it?” I couldn’t disagree.

Riding on Friday morning with an Arizona state flag wrapped around my handlebars was the perfect capstone to an amazing experience. Kristi Felts Moore brought several dozen at her own expense to honor Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Kristi handed them out before the start of the ride. For that magical ten-mile ride around the Capital, we were all Arizonians, and Gabby was with us in spirit if not in person. No Republicans or Democrats, no liberals or conservatives rode with us that morning–we were all just cyclists, riding in honor of a common friend.

So did the National Bike Summit convert me from conservative curmudgeon to bleeding heart liberal? Dream on.

More importantly, I came away with renewed optimism and belief in the strength of our political process. I experienced firsthand how quickly Americans of diverse political beliefs can find common ground when the atmosphere is not choked with rhetoric and ego, and when all concerned can truly say that they share a fundamental and transcendent reality–a belief in the utterly incontestable goodness of that most elegant of human contraptions: the bicycle.

Sign up for our Adventure-Packed Newsletter

Get our latest touring, commuting and family cycling posts and sales delivered to your inbox!
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

14 thoughts on “The Bicycle is the Answer. What was the Question?”

  1. Ted Johnson says:

    On the Friday ride that concluded the National Bike Summit, a woman came up to Tom from behind and congratulated him on a great summit.

    I asked her, “You’re mistaking him for Andy Clarke, aren’t you?”

    “Yes.” She seemed a little embarrassed.

    Tom said, “I think I could be his stunt double.”

  2. Tom, you give me hope for the moderate wing of the Republican party. Keep it up. The thoughts regarding ANWR are particularly important – We really don’t need that oil today. Reserving it for a really dire emergency has always seemed the conservative thing to do.

  3. Thomas Bowden says:


    Glad to hear it – Thanks for your comment!

  4. matt says:

    Tom, let me thank you for your example and leadership on this issue.

    I often find it uncomfortable when my liberal colleagues assume that as a 13-mile-each-way commuter I share their social and environmental agendas. I routinely get invited to various tree-hugger events that I politely decline.

    For me, cycling is an end in itself whereas many seem to want/need to justify it as a means to some eco-outcome. On occasion I will mention that my car is a hulking V8 sedan just to get people to back off…if they seem too horrified, I then mention that my mileage dropped from 20,000/yr to less than 10,000 once I started commuting by bike

    Best of luck with your advocacy efforts!

  5. Please don’t convert yourself. Don’t even convert others. If you can help get more Republicans to speak out – as Republicans – for bicycling, then you truly will make a difference. That was the hope in my piece (“Tom Bowden commented on my piece!”).

    We don’t need to cross the aisle on this issue. Bicycling will be stronger if Republicans don’t see supporting it as a compromise and Democrats would stop acting like they own the issue. I’m grateful to Democrats like Blumenauer and Oberstar – but do you not agree that emphasizing their party affiliation is like shooting yourself in the foot in front of Republican and Tea Party freshmen?

  6. Ted Johnson says:

    I’m hearing a lot of, “Hooray for the conservative case for cycling!”

    But I’m not hearing any of, “…And I’m going write a letter to my conservative legislator.”

    Hey, conservative cyclists: If you’re reading this, then I know you don’t spend all your time on your bikes. You are now armed with the conservative case for cycling. Bear those arms!
    Click here to go to the advocacy center of the League of American Bicyclists.

    Then maybe leave a comment here letting us know if you did (or why you didn’t).

  7. Bob P. says:

    Great post. I don’t ride to save the planet, I ride because I am fortunate enough to live close enough to work to bike commute. People often make the assumption that I am an environmentalist liberal. But I’m a fiscal conservative riding because I can save money, combine a healthy activity with a commute, and to exercise my right to use the roads as I want to use them.

    I don’t try to convert anyone, I just speak of how much my bike commute has done for me – 20 pounds lighter, and dropped my cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure to normal levels. My congressman and senators have all received letters from me supporting bicycling and walking infrastructure.

  8. Paul Souders says:

    The first part of “Conservative” is “Conserve.” The more of THEIR oil we burn now, the more of OUR oil we’ll have later. Burning LESS oil: that’s like spending less money.

    Tell me again how that’s not “conservative?”

    @Bob P.: Well said.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      THEIR oil? None of it is THEIR oil. Or have I misunderstood the last century of US foreign policy? 😉

  9. Here is my response to an article just published on a blog that I generally respect, Bacon’s Rebellion. The author, Bob Poole, is described as a national transportation expert. I take him to task in response to his characterization of “Safe Routes to School” and “Complete Streets” as “nonsense.” Note that in doing so, I stayed away from the typical issues that he might anticipate in the blowback his article deserves. Feel free to chime in there with more comments, and use it as an exercise in making the necessary points without overt political rhetoric. The article is found at:

    I will stipulate that you have the numbers about right, as far as you go with them. But how does it follow that “Safe Routes to School” and “Complete Streets” are nonsense? Even if the automobile users (of which I am one) literally pay every last dime that goes into road construction of all kinds, why does that mean that roads should be designed in ways that endanger other legitimate users? If I pay my taxes (gas, income, school, sales tax…….) and thereby cover my share of the road expense, shouldn’t I have something to say about how those roads are designed? Is there any reason on earth why, in light of the ever-increasing use of cars for even the most trivial trips, and in light of the rampant distracted driver problem, that streets should NOT be designed with the safety of other legitimate uses and users, as well as the safety of by bystanders, such as pedestrians on sidewalks, and those who most cross the street to get where they are going. Your cavalier comment, taken to its (il)logical conclusion, seems to suggest that because cars allegedly pay for road construction, roads should be designed not only for the exclusive use of cars, but even with reckless disregard for the safety of others generally. It’s not as if automobiles don’t have other costs too – e.g. 30-50K fatalities/year in this country alone. And then of course, there is the environmental question. I am not an acolyte of the religion of global warming, but cars generate many real pollutants (besides CO2 which is not a pollutant, whatever the EPA might think). And one final thought – keep in mind that the first modern paved roads in this country and many others, were constructed and improved at the instance of cyclists.

  10. Tim Potter says:

    Read the compiled version of this post in the June issue of Bicycle Times. What a breath of fresh-air! To finally read a strong, unabashed argument for bicycling from the conservative view point. This piece is going to help me come out of my conservative closet in the local bike community, which, as it is for most bicyclists in advocacy work around the country, automatically assumes we’re all liberals trying to save the planet with every pedal stroke.

    I was assigned the duty of writing a follow-up to our one Republican House member for our state delegation after the Natl. Bike Summit (yes, I was there too and wish I’d had the pleasure of meeting you Tom and Ted! maybe we can start a “Conservatives for Cycling” caucus for next year’s Summit?!). I had been feeling very little enthusiasm to write the letter, but now you’ve given me the necessary ammo.

    Thank you, thank you!
    PS: Do you guys have a Facebook page yet?

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Tim: Our Facebook page is under Bike Shop Hub:

      Thanks for your comments.

  11. Tom Bowden says:

    Tim – glad you liked it. Let’s see if we can’t meet up at the next summit. Maybe there should be forum/seminar featuring prominent conservative cyclists. Let’s start looking now….

Leave a comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


20% off ALL Ortlieb Bag Closeouts! Shop Closeouts

Scroll to Top