Is Bicycling Political?

Old photo chosen for the red, white and blue

WBEZ asks this question and Julie Hochstadter answers.  For those of you who are not from Chicago, brief introductions: WBEZ is my beloved Chicago Public Radio, Julie is co-owner of The Chainlink and all-around awesome woman.

Julie’s take on the question: basically, bicycling is a political statement even if you don’t intend it to be because you’re doing something out of the norm.  Also, you’re saving the world.  ;)  But bicycling is also fun, practical, safe and fast.

I cannot embed the story, so read and listen here. The audio is only 3 minutes long.

What do you think: is bicycling political?

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67 thoughts on “Is Bicycling Political?

  1. Jim says:

    Cycling as a political statement is not the primary motivation.

    Ask any five year old.

    To be fair Julie said she rides for many reasons, as do we all.


    • Dottie says:

      Yes, of course, but the question is only “Is bicycling political?” not whether politics is one’s primary motivation for cycling.

      Also, there’s a difference between an action being “political” and someone making a “political statement.” An activity can be political based on its relationship to other issues that are inherently political, which does not require any intent on the part of someone engaged in that activity.

      • dukiebiddle says:

        Yes, but in the NPR piece Julie Hochstadter was conveying how her friend from Taiwan thought cycling in America was a “political statement” by default. Not that it was political.

      • Jim says:

        Julie uses the terms political statement and political interchangeably; in response to her words so will I.

        I understood your question perfectly and answered it appropriately. Being apolitical calling the act of cycling political doesn’t compute.

        “Julie’s take on the question: basically, bicycling is a political statement even if you don’t intend it to be because you’re doing something out of the norm.”

        To clarify, she said:

        something about an personal political statment when confronting an irate motorist.

        that her Taiwanese friend said cycling in the US was making a political statement.

        She intersperses non-political reasons for cycling in between:

        it makes her happy.

        it’s fun.

        parking is easy.

        For Julie, then, cycling is more than political.

  2. BikingBrian says:

    I play chess, which is not the norm, does that make my chess playing a political statement?

    I commute by bicycle to work mainly for fitness and enjoyment. I’m tired of people assuming that I am doing it just to make a statement.

    • Dottie says:

      Considering all that is inherently wrapped up in bicycling* (versus playing chess) such as oil, war, global climate change, appropriation of transportation funding by the government, etc., the analogy does not quite work.

      I understand how you would get tired of people assuming that you’re bicycling to make a statement, but I think Julie’s point, which I agree with, is that bicycling is political, whether you want it to be or not. Likewise, I think driving an SUV is political, although I doubt most who do so see it that way (including my parents).

      *That is, transportation bicycling in place of driving.

      • I get that it’s making a statement, but I guess I’m not sure what statement I’m making. That is, sometimes I ride my bike, sometimes I drive my truck, sometimes I drive my car and once in a while I take a bus somewhere. Is my statement that I use a lot of different vehicles? Or that I’m not “committed” to cycling or that I have a bunch of stuff to haul around or that some days I’m a cyclist and other days I’m one of those car drivers?

        • Dottie says:

          Maybe your statement is that you are looking beyond the norm that our society pushes on everyone (driving) and determining through rational thought which transportation options work best for you in different circumstances. :)

          But I’m not saying that every bicyclist is making a statement, only that the action is political due to all the baggage that goes with the world of transportation.

  3. Steve A says:

    I’m with BikingBrian.

  4. DeborahS says:

    Biking shouldn’t be political, but in reality it often is because (here where I live at least – Bath, UK) so little thought and provision is made for it. So as people trying to go about our daily lives using our bikes to go places, we are faced with difficult choices: mix it with the heavy lorries, coaches, cars etc, or ride on the (ample and empty) pavement? let our politicians get away with spending masses on ‘traffic schemes’ that ignore cyclists or lobby for equal and even better provision? go meekly with the mass and give up on cycling because it is too dangerous or challenge that reality and carry on cycling against the odds?

    Like it or not, most of the choices we make throughout our day have political implications (with a ‘small p’).

    Carry on with the wonderful blog friends – always beautiful, and often inspiring!

  5. I second Deborah – it’s personal, but depending on context, also political. I live in Manchester, UK and there is some attempt at provision for cyclists but not enough. Judging by some of the stuff motorists shout at me from passing cars cycling is political here.

  6. Dr Paul Martin says:

    It should be as political as motor car use (which is very political, particularly in the US/UK/Australia – with powerful lobby groups to boot) if you want to see any improvement in the world for cyclists. I appreciate many people couldn’t be bothered voicing concerns but unless we do, we will never see the world change… and believe me, it needs to change.

    The question is: Will change be forced upon us or will we take the lead before it gets to that?

    • Dottie says:

      Well said. Even people who ride only for fun and don’t want to be bothered with politics should realize that working within the political system is necessary if we ever want to make bicycling safer and more commonplace (and then perhaps less political?).

      I highly recommend Mia Birk’s Joyride for an inside look into all the political wrangling that Portland’s bike advocates had to do from within the system to get where they are now. (You can read our interview with Mia here.)

      • dukiebiddle says:

        But that is presuming that all cyclists are in political lockstep, even those who choose to not be vocal or like to think they’re not political. But the truth is that even among political cyclists there is no consensus that bicycle infrastructure is a good idea. Many of that silent majority of cyclists may actually disagree.

        Take, for instance, my disinterest in cycling as environmental policy. Are you and Dr. Paul Martin telling me that my cycling actions are in conflict with my environmental political views by contributing to a political agenda with which I disagree?

        • Dottie says:

          Not presuming they’re in lockstep, only that political action is necessary if they want to make bicycling safer and more commonplace. Not saying that every bicyclist wants that goal and not specifying what would make bicycling safer and more commonplace.

  7. dukiebiddle says:

    I notice her friend’s take was that it is, by default, a political “statement,” because it is out of the norm. My only real issue with this is what political statement do people presume I’m making? I’m certainly not of the opinion that what I’m doing is saving the world. If American bicycle modal share went up to 10%, which will never happen in my lifetime, international oil production would remain virtually unchanged. Although, I’m pretty sure everyone that sees me riding presumes that I’m an environmentalist, which I’m not, as I view the entire “environmentalism through personal choices” thing as purely a vanity issue.

    At the same time, they would be right if they presumed I was an advocate for improving urban space through bicycle infrastructure and other New Urbanist infrastructure improvements; but they would be wrong if they made that presumption about the cyclist next to me who hates bicycle infrastructure and just likes to ride fast with traffic. So what political statement, radical or otherwise, can be presumed if nobody knows the political opinion of the ‘statement making’ cyclist in question?

    • Dr Paul Martin says:

      “…international oil production would remain virtually unchanged”

      You need to read – our whole world is only going to get more expensive, bicycle parts included…

      I agree with you about some environmental arguments, for example “Save The Planet”… The planet is going to be just fine. We’re screwed and many animals and plants will go down with us, but the planet is not going anywhere!

      • dukiebiddle says:

        The only way to save the environment is to take up armed struggle to destroy the mechanics of our international economy. Of course, that would cause famine in a massive scale, but there you go. Also, people working to build up international economies, and international health organizations saving people and children by the millions, should be brought up on Crimes Against the Planet charges. Communism should be heralded for stifling the economies over much of the world for nearly a century, regardless of their horrific environmental policies. Meanwhile, we get to feel good about ourselves because we sold that extra car, recycle cans and buy locally. Yay us. But wait a second, buying locally means children in developing countries will starve? Whatever. Look at my compost heap. It’s all vanity.

    • Dottie says:

      The belief that one should make personal choices that are good for the world or, as you say, environmentalism through personal choices, is not necessarily vanity, but a solid philosophy to live by, see Kant’s Categorical Imperative. (I’m no philosophy expert, but I latched onto this one early in undergrad.)

      Although I suppose the ultimate vanity is believing that you’re acting in the way everyone ought to act by universal law. :)

  8. Emily says:

    I agree with the commenters who point out that riding your bike is political (where I live, anyhow) precisely because our roads are mostly designed for cars, not bicycles. One of the primary themes of bike blogs from Denmark and the Netherlands (Bakfiets en Meer, Copenhagen Cycle Chic, A View from the Cycle Path, etc.) is the utter ordinariness of riding a bike there. It’s not a political act, it’s just a typical, practical, and pleasant means of getting around.

    Of course, riding a bike in my town is also practical and pleasant, but in a “Hey folks, why haven’t the rest of you figured this out yet!” kind of way. The fact that the grocery store clerk always offers to help me out to my car with my groceries, and then is surprised to hear that I came by bike, is evidence that most people haven’t figured out how simple and enjoyable riding a bike for transportation is. I don’t have to be seeking attention or martyr points (and for the record, I’m definitely not) for people to notice what I’m doing. Getting on my bike is political (whether I want it to be or not) because I’m in the (often neglected) minority.

    Another point I think is sometimes missing from these discussions is that bicycling is not just good for the air and for diffusing the politics of oil, good bike infrastructure brings healthy, practical, economical (and of course fun) transportation options to families with working-class incomes, like mine. I save several thousand dollars a year by not being another mom in a minivan. I don’t have room in my budget for a gym membership (or a babysitter to watch my kids while I’m at the gym), but I don’t need one. I’d like to see better bike facilities in working-class areas like the one I live in, in part so that my neighbors can enjoy these same benefits.

    • Dottie says:

      Great point about bicycling opening transportation options to working class families. On the news last night, where of course they were going on and on about the increase in oil prices, there was a family whose entire second income went to paying for cars and gas. It’s awful that so many communities in America are set up to require people to drive long distances, especially for those who want to live in suburbs where they feel their kids are safer.

      • Emily says:

        What a ridiculous situation that news story describes! Where did you watch the segment? I’d like to track it down so that I can see it for myself.

    • Anne says:

      I like your comment about the grocery store. When I ride to get groceries, I usually bring my helmet in with me. That usually earns a few puzzled looks when I get to the checkout with a big cart full of groceries, including gallons of milk. More often than not, my cargo trailer is a conversation starter.

      I see a few more people riding for groceries than in the past, but we’re still a minority in Beverly and Morgan Park. I feel like shopping by bike is a bit of a political statement in our part of town town. Riding for transportation? Not so much.

      If I see someone else with a trailer at the grocery store, it’s likely to be Jane Healy.

  9. Bill says:

    I ride because I love to ride. I commute because I have the ability to “safely” make it to work and save a lot of money (more and more every day!)

    My personal opinion is that people think you are trying to make a statement because they are trying to justify why they don’t do certain activities.

    I may contemplate political reasons sitting around my desk at work, but once I am on my bike it is solely for the purpose of riding my bike and having fun!

    • dukiebiddle says:

      “My personal opinion is that people think you are trying to make a statement because they are trying to justify why they don’t do certain activities.”

      +1 Because, surely, one would have to have a political agenda to take on such a miserable hardship in their life as riding a bicycle to get around.

      • Bill says:

        Exactly – especially in winter time when it is cold out.

      • Dottie says:

        Ha, yeah, I know a lot of people think that about me. Really, gas and all that had nothing to do with my decision to bike to work, since before I was taking the subway.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          I think my political agenda is that public transportation has cooties and it’s harder to mug my *ss at night when I’m on a bike; because those are the reasons I took up cycling. :)

  10. Dwayne says:

    These days, EVERYTHING is political. Or it seems to be, unfortunately. We live in a country where so many people think that all problems would be solved if more people were like themselves. “If everyone just thought like me, we wouldn’t have these problems!”

    Such as it is with bicycles. “I don’t ride a bike, therefore, I’m against them.”


  11. This reminds me of the argument that because I am a female, practically everything I do is political, whether I want it to be or not. Same basic reasoning.

    The reason it’s so hard to argue against both this and the “cycling is political” statement, is that even an apolitical personal philosophy can be considered a political statement – at least insofar as identity politics go.

    In that sense, “cycling is political” is really a contemporary truism against which it is impossible to argue.

    • Dottie says:

      Ha, I suppose that is true. Although the argument below about people cycling out of necessity not being political is a good argument against cycling being political in that one instance.

      I’ve always been very interested in the “personal is political” idea as it applies to being female and examine every major decision I make within that framework. For example, decisions to go to law school, get married, keep my name, work for a law firm, work for a non-profit, wear make up, write a blog, lots of stuff. I do not make life decisions based on how they look “politically,” but I find it important to be aware of all the ways the personal is political.

  12. Cecily says:

    There’s a quote I remember from my women’s studies classes back in university. The quote referred to the way that women’s personal issues became politicized in the women’s movement.

    The quote is “The personal is political.”

    Whatever your personal reasons for riding, they become a political action if you’re doing it in the face of stiff opposition, or trying to make it mainstream. Just as women politicized the vote because they were tired of being disenfranchised, and just as African Americans defended their civil rights and set societal change into motion, the act of deciding to ride a bicycle for transport, whether you do it for fun or fitness, is a way of saying to the mainstream “I believe there’s another way, and I’m going to be the change I want to see in the world.”

    • Dottie says:

      I agree with that idea as it applies to both the women’s movement and bicycling for transportation. That is what I mean when I say that the act of bicycling is surrounded by so many political factors, that it becomes political itself (in most cases), but you said it much better and more clearly!

  13. Brent says:

    When I started walking to work fifteen years ago, it was an economic decision, not political. It’s unusual, even now, to commute on foot in Los Angeles, where I live, but we still have sidewalks, and the idea that I was making a statement about the world by using existing infrastructure never entered my mind. Instead, I was just saving myself the costs of driving and parking, and giving myself some extra leisure time in the evening to practice the piano or whatever.

    I restarted my bicycling life three years ago in response to the last oil shock, and I think it was only at that moment, when I saw that I didn’t have a “sidewalk for bicycles,” that the personal became political. While walking made no statement at all, cycling did. The essential difference was location, where they take place, the sidewalk versus the road. As such, I see cycling as political only to the extent that it asks for space from driving.

    “Oh! You’re one of *those* guys,” said a man I met last year, when I told him I enjoyed cycling. I’m not asking for class warfare, I just like riding my bike in peace and safety.

  14. Erin B says:

    Cute bike! What kind is it?

  15. Stephen says:

    For some people, riding a bicycle by choice in an urban area when almost everybody else is driving is a political statement. It certainly is for me.

    Is is fun? Yes, that too. Is it economical? Does it contribute to my personal mental and physical health? Yes and yes.

    Is riding a bicycle in Copenhagen a political statement for most people? I can’t speak for them, but I think probably not because it is simply convenient, cheap, and reasonably safe. But where it is not all of those things, I can’t see that it wouldn’t be a political statement, even if you don’t intend it to be.

  16. Timoohz says:

    For me, at first I was going to say of course it’s not political. We have over 20% modal share, all kinds of people cycle for transport. It’s an everyday thing, so it can’t be political?

    But then I thought maybe it is, a little. I feel there are people who should be ‘converted’ to the idea that even they can use bicycles for transport. So by showing the good example, I’m promoting my idea. And that’s politics, right?

  17. Dr Paul Martin says:

    I agree that selling the ‘environmental’ or even ‘health’ benefits of cycling will not encourage non-cyclists to travel by bicycle.

    What works – what only works – is to make it FEEL safer and be MORE convenient than the alternative (ie. driving in our car-sick worlds). The same applies to public transport I should add.

    I ride my bike because, for me, it IS more convenient. For most drivers though, it is not obviously so and that is the problem.

    Cycling infrastructure is important but it has to be *gold standard* design, rather than the disconnected rubbish we’re used to. No wonder the ‘vehicular cyclists’ dislike it so much. What they really dislike is *bad* infrastructure but they can’t make the distinction.

    They should also not worry about being banned from the roads. Cyclists should be able to ride on the bikeways and the roads – whichever suits (although when speeds start getting high I think avoiding the road is a good idea – but you need an alternative).

    Have a look at the latest post by Hembrow to see how it could be: This Is Not A Cycle Path

    • Angelo says:

      I’m not sure where you are, but I’d have to disagree with some of your comments from experience in the U.S.

      You are correct that vehicular cyclists dislike bad infrastructure but we can make the distinction. I have no problem with paths that connect developments. It’s more convenient to have a shorter route and more pleasant than roads with no shoulder or high speed traffic. However, when I’ve complained about door zone bike lanes planners have told me people that don’t ride bikes very much prefer them (including the planner), and they don’t mind the risk of being doored.

      Philadelphia recently installed more bike lanes to the right of RTOL lanes to enter insterstate I-76 (they’ve installed these lanes in a number of places) – advocates insist that bad facilities are better than no facilities, and say that if we insist on bike lanes that are wide enough to be safe we won’t get any bike lanes at all. I find bad facilities have increased motorist hostility enormously toward bicyclists by creating conflicts that did not exist .

      I also disagree with your comment that vehicular bicyclists should not worry about losing the right to use the roads. Saying they should be allowed to use the streets may be legally true but does not convince motorists or police. Surely you’re aware of more laws requiring mandatory use (Florida, local laws in Mass., proposals in WA) – these are necessary because the bike lanes make travel difficult (e.g. left turns, questions on right of way with bike lane to right of RTOL, left hooks), and bicyclists anger motorists by refusing to use such poorly designed facilities (and riding on streets without bike lanes).

  18. welshcyclist says:

    Great colours, but not your best photo! Riding a bike is not a political statement, same as driving a car isn’t, both are a means of travel, enjoyment or even a sporting activity. Analysis not required. Cheers.

    • Dr Paul Martin says:

      If driving a car isn’t political why do politicians make so many promises & concessions for ‘motorists’ (more roads, fuel subsidies, and so on…). [ed. note: keep it civil].

      While it might not be political for a given individual, collectively it certainly is…

      • Matt. says:

        This isn’t exactly correct. A particular act isn’t necessarily political simply because “politics” can weigh in on it peripherally. The act of driving conforms to the provided infrastructure not to mention the cultural and social expectations and norms. It speaks (more immediately) to efficiency and practicality. You and I may see it as wasteful or impractical or ultimately unsustainable (in relation to population or, in it’s current incarnation,in relation to fuel) as it relates to our particular points of view, but this country is organized to the contrary.

        • welshcyclist says:

          [Editor’s Note: Let’s keep it civil, please. No personal attacks.]

          • Matt. says:

            Who is “running amok” with you? This is fact, the united states organizes its transportational infrastructure based on the individual automobile. I live in Chicago and feel it’s perfectly rational to use a bicycle as my primary form of transportation. I also think it’s perfectly rational to use a car as your primary form of transportation if your particular situation calls for it. I don’t think it’s helpful to shout out alarmist, car=death rhetoric. I don’t think it’s a big deal to commute and run errands year round via bicycle but I would never assume that it’s easy for everyone to grocery shop that way in 10 degrees Fahrenheit. [ed. note: keep it civil].

  19. Ariel says:

    I think some people have touched on this above: what if people aren’t making the choice to ride a bicycle? The bike blogosphere seems to focus a lot on people who could afford to drive/take transit/live in expensive areas near work, but instead choose to ride a nice bike/advocate for cycle infrastructure/buy sweet bike accessories/identify as a cyclist. And these things are fine–I do some of them, I like them. For sure, I’m a politicized cyclist. But I also see a lot of people in my neighborhood who are riding to work on ill-fitting bikes in their (blue-collar) work clothes; I have known people who rode bikes because they lost their driver’s license–or couldn’t afford a car. I don’t want to assume everybody riding a cheap bike is an accidental bicyclist, definitely, but I have known people who wouldn’t have considered themselves cyclists and wouldn’t have done it if they could have avoided it. If you don’t see yourself as a cyclist, and you really aren’t doing it voluntarily, is it a political act?

    • Dr Paul Martin says:

      “but I have known people who wouldn’t have considered themselves cyclists and wouldn’t have done it if they could have avoided it.”

      That says a lot about a society… and it isn’t good.

    • Dottie says:

      This. This is one circumstance where I must agree that the act of cycling is not political. It may say something about poverty and the high cost of car ownership and how our society is set up to cater to those with cars, but the act of this person cycling is not political, I agree.

  20. I see the point on why it is political because it is out of the norm, but this is where my mind has problems with abstractions that are not clearly defined.

    Whether or not bicycling is political is mainly defined on how people think of the amorphous term “political”.

    For me, “political”, has become a bad taste in my mouth even though our household is (gladly) more political than most.

    It has gotten to the point where people think I’m trying to change their minds when I tell them I had an enjoyable ride. Hint, I am not.

    I don’t feel like anything needs to change for cycling to fun and enjoyable in most of America. I am talking about the burbs of MD to the ghettos of Philly to the plains of Kansas. I am NOT talking to you Cinci..just kidding.

    I’m not waiting for the cycling revolution. Every ride for me is fun. And NOT political at all.

  21. ridon says:

    i bike mainly because i never learned to drive (does that make it less political? i feel like most people don’t understand it if you’re also a car-owner). i agree with julie in that america places a lot of importance on driving. getting one’s driver license, buying your first car, they’re all significant milestones into adulthood. most of my chinese relatives think my biking as childish and kinda on the loser side. the american dream is all about owning your own car. they don’t know that people of all economic backgrounds ride bikes instead of using their car.

  22. James says:

    For me it is a lifestyle choice. That said, my lifestyle consists of riding my bike as commuter or for recreation and driving my car to shop – Costco/Ikea/larger shops – or to head home to Michigan. I’m as middle of the road politically as one can get, but I never thought of my preferred mode of transportation as a political statement, but more of a convenience and money saving exercise.

  23. Ira Kinro says:

    Is cycling political? No. I looked up “political” in the OED and in the subscription level of m-w. When I ride a bike, it has nothing to do with the form of our government or with partisan politics. I have tons of reasons for cycling, but none of them have to do with Republicans, Democrats, or representative democracy.

    • Dottie says:

      I can understand that, but what about “political” from the more loose idea that the personal is political, as there’s some discussion of in the comments above? Perhaps that is an idea that women are more familiar with, but basically it’s a more broad look at the term “political” that focuses on the impact people’s personal choices have on society.

      • Ira Kinro says:

        I believe the more loose definition of political conflates with cultural. I would keep them separate. Is cycling cultural? Yes. Is cycling political? No.
        I would agree that the political grows out of the cultural, but that does not make them the same thing. My tomato plants grow out of soil, but I would not eat the soil or till the tomatoes.

  24. Stephen says:

    Dottie, it’s pretty clear to me that for many people, the personal is the political, including one’s choice of mode, but that not all cyclists will agree.

    And that’s about par for the course when it comes to bicyclists. Few of them agree on anything other than they like to bicycle.

    Then again, maybe it’s the context. A weekend ride with friends on the greenway or a road trip is not necessarily political, but when I ride to work in work clothes, leaving my car at home, I feel I’m making a political statement. Politics isn’t always about political parties, elections, and screaming matches on TV; it’s about who gets what when. Bicycling for me in the context of commuting to work says “I choose to do this because it’s good for me and the planet, it can be done safely if done correctly, and I want more modal choices (and am willing to speak up for them).” I also ride because of my concern for the state of the planet my daughter will inherit. Is that political? Hell yes!

  25. Thom says:

    Wow – great topic!
    Thoughtful & stimulating ideas! Must be from all the fresh air we get as cyclists.
    Stepping away from the constructs, I’d like to convey this message to the driving public. Possibly printed on the back of a jersey:


    It’s the old supply/demand thing.
    Would people get it?
    Would they be grateful?
    Would I be identified as a Neo-Con or Lib?
    Would I be run over?

  26. bongobike says:

    Bicycling is not political. Unfortunately, many people want to make it so (in both camps, for and against cycling). In fact you can make eating and going to the bathroom a political act. Personally, I hate how everything gets politicized in this country, but I guess it’s in Americans’ DNA…

  27. Julia says:

    I think the sheer volume of comments here shows how political it can be!

  28. […] at the politics of cycling from a female perspective. The National Bike Summit is now underway in Washington DC; one of these […]

  29. At this point for me a part of it is political. In my opinion, many policy choices are make in the name of oil and maintaining a car culture. I realize that we are not likely to totally ween ourselves off oil but I get frustrated with the notion that decision are made assuming that I (an American)cannot function without a car. Many American do function without a car because they have to. Getting around can a tough for people who have no other option but to make do without a car because so much of our urban planning and development caters to the car culture and sprawl. At first going down to one car seemed like a sacrifice but I ended up getting a lot out of slowing down and getting out of the car. I am upfront when asked about the good things I experienced from bike commuting (health, contact w/ nature, reconnection to childhood enjoyment) but tend not to harp on the political side to using a bicycle.

  30. […] Let’s Go Ride a Bike: Is Bicycling Political? […]

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