Why is urban cycling turning into a culture war?

Is there a bike culture war going on in the streets right now?

It is difficult to regularly cycle to work and not become a cycling advocate. People want to be safe, and cycling on the transport bike currently entails significant risks. But years ago, the bicycle versus car debate, even with critical mass movements, the global naked bike ride and similar political actions, had a tone similar to other civic debates. There were victories, there were losses, and very slow, icy progress.

Something has changed. There may have been too many victories for some lately, but the fight for safe cycling infrastructure to protect bikes is reaching a fever pitch.

There have been attacks on those campaigning for safe cycling. The rhetoric is unbearably predictable. In Montreal, often seen as North America’s most European city with a progressive take on cycling and cycling infrastructure, thumbtacks were thrown onto bike paths to get across a rather stark point.

At Momentum, the comments and posts, while the vast majority are positive, have taken on the tone usually reserved for more hate-fueled advocacy positions.

“Let’s be brave and take cycling out of the culture wars,” wrote Trudy Harrison, a Conservative MP in Britain, in a recent op-ed. “I encourage every candidate running in the next election to include walking or cycling on their leaflets; it could just attract people who don’t feel addressed at the moment. People want to cycle more. We just have to help them.”

Harrison gets it. More cycling is a win across the board. They are not selfish few, they are selfless few who pave the way for thousands more, for the benefit of millions.

Here are some key reasons why a safety and efficiency issue turns into a bike culture war.

Urban versus rural divide

Urban planning: The pursuit of bicycle-friendly infrastructure in cities is often in line with progressive urban policies aimed at reducing car dependence and improving the quality of life. A study from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) highlights that cities with robust cycling infrastructure see significant public health benefits and reduced traffic congestion (NACTO, 2016). These changes are sometimes met with resistance in rural or suburban areas, where cars are essential due to longer distances and limited public transportation options.

Country: In rural and suburban regions, there is often resentment against city-oriented policies, including policies that promote cycling. According to the American Community Survey (2017), car ownership and dependence on cars are significantly higher in these areas, leading to the perception that investments in bicycle infrastructure are not meeting their needs. It’s an urban debate. Suburban and rural areas tend to be more affordable, but there are also often people who commute to work in the city, which adds enormous costs.

Reality: Due to population growth, the roads will never be sufficient and will never be free of traffic jams. More roads, more cars. This is not up for debate. What can help is a huge investment in public transport and alternative transport, both for personal and business needs. There shouldn’t be trucks clogging city streets. Zero. Electric cargo bikes and the like are already available and this is the way forward.

DHL cargo bike that delivers goods efficiently

DHL cargo bike in London

Environmental problems

Climate change activism: Cycling is promoted as a sustainable alternative to driving, reducing CO2 emissions. Research by the European Cyclists’ Federation shows that cycling produces zero emissions compared to the 271 grams of CO2 per kilometer of the average car. This aligns with the environmental movement, which is typically supported by progressive groups that advocate for policies to combat climate change.

Opposition to environmental policy: Some conservative groups view these environmental policies as economically restrictive. The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that the costs of such green initiatives outweigh their benefits, suggesting that they impose unnecessary economic burdens (Heartland Institute, 2017).

Reality: As with other environmental issues, it is a “pay now or pay later” scenario. We can continue to sell out future generations while the price tag for solutions continues to grow exponentially. Or, as many European countries and some American cities are realizing, we can take advantage of some of the lowest-hanging climate fruits right now and make it happen. Alternative transportation is so easy and transportation in general is a huge source of climate-changing emissions.

cycling advocacy

Projection in Glasgow, Scotland courtesy of Cycling UK

Economic implications

Investments in infrastructure: The development of cycle paths and infrastructure requires significant public investment. Critics argue that these funds would be better spent on other pressing issues. A study by the Reason Foundation (2019) found that while bike lanes can improve traffic and safety in dense urban areas, their benefits are less clear in suburban and rural contexts where car traffic remains dominant.

Impact on companies: Companies that rely on car traffic are often against cycle paths, for fear of loss of parking and reduced accessibility. A report from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (2013) found that while some companies initially opposed bike lanes, many saw an increase in foot traffic and sales after their implementation.

Reality: People who run small businesses, especially small shops on beloved high streets, are real troopers. They often invest their entire lives in these companies and fear any change that could cause disruption. Rightly so. The reality is complete street planning, including more pedestrian areas, and more cycling means more people are likely to stop at shops. Cities make plans for the people who live in neighborhoods, not those who drive through them. This is an economic victory for small businesses.

photo of vibrant street life with bicycles, pedestrians and shops

Dutch street life (Visit Copenhagen)

Cultural identity

Lifestyle and values: Cycling can symbolize different lifestyles and values. For some, it represents a commitment to health, environmentalism and community involvement. A survey by the League of American Bicyclists (2017) found that regular cyclists often advocate for broader social and environmental changes. Conversely, others may view cycling as impractical or elitist, especially in areas where driving is the norm – such as throughout North America.

Political symbolism: Cycling has become a political symbol for some. And the war on the car has become a popular talking point for right-wing politicians looking to garner votes. In 2010, former Toronto mayor, the late Rob Ford, first started campaigning on a promise to end the city’s war on cars. More than two decades later, people including his brother and Ontario Premier Doug Ford are still using the lame slogan to good effect. Progressives often see it as a step toward sustainable living, while some conservatives see the emphasis on cycling as part of a larger liberal agenda. A Pew Research Center study (2014) highlighted how transportation preferences often reflect broader political and cultural differences.

Reality: The reality is that as safer cycling infrastructure is added, the mix of cyclists begins to change more and more. Success means that there is real diversity in the cycle paths. When safe cycling infrastructure encourages a broad group of the population to give it a try and stick with it. That’s when real change takes place.

Idaho stops

New York City

Public space and rights

Space allocation: The debate over the allocation of public space reflects deeper issues about who has the right to use these spaces. A study from the University of California, Berkeley (2015) shows that the introduction of bicycle lanes can lead to significant conflicts over road space, especially in densely populated urban areas.

Rights and safety: Cyclists advocate for safe travel and often clash with motorists who believe cyclists complicate traffic flow. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, 2019) reports that increased cycling infrastructure significantly improves safety for all road users, yet the perception of cyclists as a traffic nuisance persists in many communities. The general argument is that motorists pay for the roads through taxation, why should they share them with bicycles?

Reality: The road space is public space, and public space is becoming smaller and smaller. There will inevitably be too many people not using enough space. The most efficient use of space is the best way forward. More people and more goods can be transported through cities more efficiently using metros, bicycles and cargo bikes. It is undeniable that these choices bring so many additional benefits. Not only that, but in most jurisdictions cyclists pay a lot of taxes, just not gas taxes. In cities, much of the road construction is paid for through property taxes, which we all pay whether we rent or own a home. Everyone pays a lot of taxes. And if taxes are the argument, it should be about the best use of that tax money. Even the most conservative economists would argue that throwing money at the most inefficient people movers is a questionable business practice at best.

Philip Crosby once said, “Slowness to change usually means fear of the new.” And that could very well be the case when it comes to city bikes. But understanding these complex dynamics can help us understand why cycling is becoming more than just a mode of transportation: it’s turning into a symbolic battlefield in a strange culture war. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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