Just as predicted, the drama surrounding New York’s bike share system has pretty much run its course. Granted, the lawsuit brought by some Greenwich Village residents against Citi BIke is ongoing; so are the system’s software bugs and re-balancing issues; and New Yorkers not currently in the Citi  Bike service area are still demanding better access to the system. But as far as national headlines go, Citi Bike has dropped off the front page to handle its business just like any other bike sharing system already running.

As a new kind of public transportation system in New York, Citi Bike instigated its foes, whose collective concerns were, admittedly, fresh and complicated. Some cyclists were unhappy that their regular bike racks were being replaced by high-tech bike share stations. Others lamented the loss of sidewalk space or parking. Still others criticized the Logan’s Run-esque design of the stations and the corporate branding blanketed across the city. These critiques of the new bike share system, however, are a far cry from the popular framing of these programs as bastions of some kind of liberal dream.

Criticism against Citi Bike initially came from everywhere. And a coherent narrative didn’t exist that would help us understand where to compartmentalize this new thing into our mental framework of how the world works. Indeed, some of the important questions that have been more-or-less answered for other transportation modes are just now being debated over bike share. How is it even possible that an activity as individualistic (for the most part) as bicycling can be considered public transit when it has never been before? Should public jurisdictions help fund these bike share systems, or should bike share systems stand on their own financial footing? Is bike share government intervention or instead an application of free market principles?

Talking Heads Roll

Commentators everywhere have had no good answers to these questions. After all, the bike share industry is still new and growing. So, instead, many have decided to cram bike share in general, and Citi Bike in particular, into the Culture War box. And it didn’t take long for a battalion of bloggers from both sides to come out and repeat the same thing—conservatives hate bike share. New York Magazine put together a colorful diagram asking “Why Conservatives Hate Citi Bike So Much.” Like any provocative piece like that, it generated a heated debate in the comments section with many people identifying themselves as conservatives contending that conservatives don’t, in fact, hate bicycling and bike share. Another article from The Daily Beast pleads with conservatives to stop disliking Citi Bike since George W. Bush liked bicycling.

The New York Post and the Wall Street Journal’s Editorial section were more than happy to oblige the conservatives-hate-bike-share framing. Daily griping and groaning filled the page of the Post during Citi Bike’s first few weeks. And who could forget the WSJ’s Dorothy Rabinowitz kerfuffle? It’s as though neither side had ever heard about bike share before that fateful Memorial Day weekend in 2013 when it materialized suddenly onto the streets of New York.

Outside the Culture War Box

Problem is, bike share doesn’t fit neatly into this Culture War box. Unlike perennial hot-button issues like abortion and gun control, bike share programs have been loved and loathed by folks of all political and cultural  stripes. Yes, even—and especially—in strongly conservative places.

The cities of Fort Worth (TX), Tulsa (OK), Oklahoma City (OK), Spartanburg (SC) and Greenville (SC) all have active bike share programs where virtually all of their political leadership is Republican or conservative. Their mayors are Republican. Their governors are Republican. Their U.S. representatives are Republican. And Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in all of these places in the 2012 presidential election. Furthermore, they all launched before Citi Bike even made bike share a National Thing.

Red states have been trumping blue states in the bike share build-out race for years now. More red and purple states have more bike share programs than any blue state. Texas has three; Oklahoma and Tennessee have two, the Carolinas have three; and Utah, Nebraska, Kentucky, and Missouri each have one. The Midwestern states and Texas abound in bike share programs. Between them, at least thirteen bike share programs are operating, many of which have been operating since 2011 or 2012. More are being planned and built in all of these states. And this doesn’t even account for the colleges, universities, private associations and businesses in red states that also have bike share programs on smaller scales.

Blue states and cities are just starting to get their acts together. California has two tiny programs in auto-centric Orange County—one test program in Anaheim with three stations and another at UC Irvine with four stations on campus. And it doesn’t get any redder in southern California than Orange County. Liberal San Francisco, on the other hand, hasn’t launched its program yet. And Los Angeles may not even get one this year as hoped. You’d think bike-friendly Portland and Seattle would have had them already. Nope—still in the works. Chicago just launched. And New York City just launched. Compared to  the thirteen bike share programs operating in right-leaning places, only three left-leaning cities—D.C., Boston, and Minneapolis—had bike share programs operating before Citi Bike.

Certainly, this all glosses over the local idiosyncrasies endogenous to each place. The reasons why one town has a bike share program while another does not may have little to do with broad cultural politics. The point is that—save for Dorothy Rabinowitz, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, and the New York Post—conservatives clearly like bike share programs as much as anyone, if not more.

Bike Share’s Conservative Pitch

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard

Earlier this month, Indianapolis announced that it would get its own bike share program in 2014. And Republican Mayor of Indianapolis, Greg Ballard, has been a huge champion for bicycling during his term in office. During his keynote speech at the National Bike Summit in March, Ballard talked about bicycling being good for business and good for attracting new talent to his city. Watch this video to see more about what Ballard is doing to make Indianapolis bike-friendlier.

Also over at the Restless Urbanist blog, there’s a decent list of conservative arguments in support of bike share by a conservative bike share supporter. Some of the conservative arguments include that the systems are often operated by private firms, that these systems fill a market niche left open by other transportation modes, and that bike share is ultimately a net positive for local economies, entrepreneurship and competition.

Along with the list, the Restless Urbanist article argues that the framing of bike share as a culture war clash is due to a politically polarized bicycle advocacy culture. Yet, where it comes to describing where bike share fits into the broader culture,  the loudest voices have ultimately come from media outlets whose geographically narrow focus on New York’s bike share system excluded the reality of the bike share boom preceding Citi Bike. They instead focus primarily on New York City’s idiosyncratic version of contemporary culture.

To some conservative and Libertarian New Yorkers, the Citi Bike program appeared to be another heavy-handed social engineering experiment by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg after he already made efforts to regulate sodas and cigarettes within city limits. Some conservatives and Libertarians will see virtually anything that Bloomberg is involved with as a bad thing. So the allure of framing bike share as a culture clash is strong when focusing primarily on New York’s culture. Without considering the broader context of bike sharing in North America and the world, Citi Bike is easy to throw into New York City’s political turf war.

A New Model Needed

Relative to other viable transportation modes, bike share is new. As a culture, we haven’t figured out yet what to make of it. We hope to fit bike share into our mental model of how culture works. But models are, by definition, estimations of reality. And sometimes those models don’t match reality as much as we hope they would. Does New York represent culture at large? Hardly. But it would like to think so, so it’s often used as a model for us all. Sometimes that may work. But in the case of bike share, the model fails.

The reality of bike share in North America doesn’t tack to the Culture War narrative so easily. In fact, because it fills a motility niche somewhere between walking and busing that other modes have struggled to serve, bike share is one of the few innovations that has defied a quick tack to the traditional agendas. Bike share is like public transportation, but it’s different than riding a bus or a train. It’s like riding a personal bike, but it’s also different than owning or renting one. We’re all still figuring this out. Meanwhile, bike share programs are launching and expanding nearly everywhere. This movement has no time to wait for a verdict from the cultural elite.

With something as transformative as bike share, we need a new cultural model that fits bike share into it. And the old Right vs. Left, Red State/Blue State duality just isn’t working. A new bike share culture is emerging. We need to get ready for it.

  • Jess

    I guess conservatives are beating liberals at what liberals thought was their own game. Bicycling is for everyone. And there’s no good reason not to support better infrastructure for it everywhere.

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  • tooter turtle

    There is no doubt that cities need educated, creative people in order to thrive. And these people see bike infra as an indicator of good quality of life. It is crazy for any city to ignore that. It’s not about blue vs. red. It’s common sense.