Why did conservatives become anti-transit and anti-bike?

It’d be interesting to track the change in rhetoric around transportation over the past 30 years. At some point, alternatives to cars, specifically public transit and bikes, became unwelcome in the GOP.

One of Austin’s snazzier “rapid route” buses that I take downtown.

I saw the cultural shift on display in Wisconsin in 2010, when Scott Walker made opposition to a planned high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee his signature campaign issue. He made no mention, by the way, of his real priority: busting unions.

Turning down the $800 million federal funding was worth it, Walker argued, even if the money would go to another state because of the several million dollars a year the state would have to spend to maintain and operate the line. Ironically, Walker may not have ended up saving the state any money (without even considering the potential economic damage), since the train company that the previous governor had contracted with to build the system sued for breach of contract and ended up receiving a $9.7 million settlement.

At the time, many pointed out how much it must have pained Tommy Thompson, the Badger State’s Republican governor from ‘86–02, to witness Walker’s self-defeating antics. Thompson had formerly been chairman of the board of Amtrak and was a major proponent of building high-speed rail. Then again, he also used to extol the genius of collective bargaining. Things change.

What changed? My guess is that the shift against transit in the GOP is the result of American politics becoming more tribal and more defined by cultural and regional identities than economic concerns. The Democratic Party has increasingly become defined as the party of city dwellers while the GOP has become the party of rural and suburban America.

From a purely economic perspective, it makes sense that those in rural and suburban areas would be less inclined to support public transit, simply because it’s less likely to benefit them. Mass transit works best in densely-populated areas.

Anti-transit thinking is also informed by the belief, pushed by Henry Ford and every automaker since, that automobiles represent freedom and individualism, both culturally and economically. Rather than riding a government bus or train on a schedule and routes dictated by the government (or a private company, but whatever), you can go anywhere you want, whenever you want in your very own vehicle, purchased with your own hard-earned dollars. Of course, the price of that freedom is not just the $9,000 a year the average American spends to own and operate a car, but the trillions of dollars in taxes we have spent to build the infrastructure those cars depend on. It’s also hard to argue that somebody who spends two hours a day in traffic, staring through a windshield, is freer than somebody who spends their subway commute catching up on some reading or, more likely, browsing their Facebook feed.

But I don’t think that opposition to transit is best-explained by simple economics. It has just as much to do with culture. Particularly the fact that environmental conservation, an idea once championed across the political spectrum and which is intuitive to anybody who appreciates their natural surroundings, is now identified exclusively with the urban, cosmopolitan left. I have a few theories for why that is, but I don’t want to get into it today. Suffice it to say that at some point between Richard Nixon creating the EPA and Donald Trump appointing an oil shill to head it, something changed.

Let’s start with the two caricatures of city dwellers, both of whom serve as useful boogeymen for the conservative movement. First there are the “inner-city” (translation: non-white and poor) welfare queens. Second there are the cosmopolitan elites, who look down their noses at those who live outside the city and always have a new PC term they’re shoving down everybody’s throat.

Biking, for instance, is entirely associated with the latter group, the cosmopolitan elites. Biking advocates and cyclists are probably as much to blame for that as anybody. There’s a very simple economic argument for bikes (they’re cheap and fast) that explains why they are so popular around the world and it has nothing to do with environmentalism or fitness, but for some reason the messaging around biking in recent years has focused almost entirely on those two features. As a result, biking, an activity that most of us enjoyed as kids to get around the streets of cities, small towns or even country roads, is increasingly viewed as a symbol of effete, sanctimonious liberalism.

Biking got the Beav around town.

Public transit, particularly buses, is associated with both urban caricatures: the elites and poor minorities. Due to the car-based planning that took over most American urban areas in the mid-20th century as well as white flight to the suburbs during the 60’s-80’s, the vast majority of those who now make up the base of the Republican Party have had little interaction with public transit. In many suburban or exurban areas, transit either doesn’t exist or is so limited that it is only used as a last resort for those who can’t afford cars. As a result, suburbanites see riding the bus as a degrading experience to be endured by the poor and avoided by everyone else. However, in recent years, as progressives have begun championing public transportation, particularly rail, for environmental purposes, transit has also become a symbol of cosmopolitan liberalism. Trains or even increased bus spending are described by conservatives as hair-brained social engineering aimed at dismantling the car-based, and therefore American, way of life.

Former Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman was one of the best displays of the cultural contempt for car alternatives. The ad he ran in his unsuccessful re-election campaign featured him playing the caricature of an elite who rides a bike to work, aggravating motorists as he passes. He even puts on an effeminate voice while he’s on the bike.

I think the way forward for transit and bike advocates is not necessarily to stop talking about the environmental and health benefits of alternatives to cars, but to put a much stronger emphasis on the economic benefits they offer to EVERYBODY (except car manufacturers and road builders). They are a cheap alternative for those who cannot afford a car and the more people who use them, the less traffic is left to deal with for the real ‘mericans still stuck in their cars.