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Don't Mess with Bicycles, There is Political Power on Those Two Wheels
Published on September 11, 2013Email To Friend    Print Version

By Henry GrabarSalon.com         
bikes_dream_city_620x412.jpgNew York City Council speaker Christine Quinn swept the big papers; Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller, earned the support of the teachers union.

As for the front-runner in the Democratic primary for New York City mayor, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio? Last week, he won the endorsement of StreetsPAC, a political action committee dedicated to improving the safety and mobility of New York City streets, and, at 5 months old, one of the city’s youngest political entities.

“De Blasio Wins the Bike Vote,” announced the New York Daily News, as if such a thing as the “bike vote” were a known quantity. With major differences between mayoral Credit: AP/Benny Snyder/Vadim Georgiev via Shutterstock/Salon  candidates on issues like education, policing and taxes, are there New Yorkers who will cast their votes thinking of speed cameras and bike lanes?

If so, it would mark the emergence of a surprising political force in the city, though not a new one. Before the automobile was king, bike voters were a formidable political force. Organizations like the League of American Wheelmen (today the League of American Bicyclists) lobbied for the first paved roads in cities across the U.S. At the turn of the 20th century, the League counted over 100,000 members.

In an 1897 report for the American Society of Municipal Engineers on bike paths, L.W. Rundlett, a city engineer from St. Paul, Minn., succinctly summarized the political development of the bicycle:

“Bicycles at first were considered a nuisance on the street and sidewalk, but as the number increased and the public became accustomed to them, this sentiment gradually wore away. Moreover, the number of wheelmen has so increased that they represent quite a power at the polls, and without giving allegiance to any particular party they could easily be able in any local election, to elect to office those who would at least show them justice in establishing rules and regulations for the proper use of the streets and sidewalk.”

The rest, as they say, is history: The political influence of the “wheelmen” was eclipsed and then vanquished by that of the automobile lobby and its constituents, the car owners of America.


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January 13, 2014