Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. He bought his first serious bike, a Raleigh Competition, in 1982 and hasn't stopped riding since.
It will take a 'grass routes revolution'
While listening to Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, right after his bit about limiting our children's TV viewing, I thought to myself wouldn't it be far-sighted if he followed up with an announcement that the bicycle would be an integral part of his energy and transportation plan? I didn't hold my breath waiting. He didn't mention the bicycling, and I don't expect him to do so in the future, not when the TV cameras are rolling anyway. It's not something the average American wants to hear.
On the other side of the aisle, McCain announcing that the bicycle could solve some of our problems (pollution, congestion, obesity, high energy costs) is about as likely as me winning the Tour de France next July. Republicans at the Republican National Convention waived signs demanding "Drill Now" and the crowd chanted "Drill, baby, drill." Not exactly the kind of crowd that wants to trade SUVs for bicycles.
Weeks earlier, Obama suggested that millions of gallons of gas could be saved if motorists got regular tune-ups and kept their tires pumped to regulation pressure. McCain quickly scoffed at Obama's statement and mocked him, even though what the Democratic senator said was true. Later, McCain recanted. Regular vehicle maintenance and full tires do save gas. A lot of gas when you consider this country has more cars than people.
No, it doesn't shock me that neither presidential candidate will suggest Americans ride bicycles to solve some of our transportation problems. Saying so would amount to political suicide. Most of us, it seems, still think we can drill our way out of $4 a gallon of gas. We live at a time when practical solutions get mocked and empty slogans and pipe dreams pass for wisdom and action.
That said, we can't wait for the federal government to fire a magic bullet. More of us need to start thinking about our bicycles as a means of transportation, along with a lot of other alternatives as a way out of the seriously oily mess we find ourselves in. It's pretty clear that we the people will have to lead the change. Neither political party has the understanding or the backbone to pull this off.
If the Republican leadership scoffs at the idea of increasing motor vehicle efficiency, you can only imagine what they think about bicycles. And the Democrats won't mention bicycling for fear of being jeered by Republicans and ultimately losing votes. That leaves us on the fringe, like the protestors in the "free speech zones" blocks away from both national conventions.
When it comes to American energy policy, the bicycle is one of the unmentionables, right up there with "conservation" and "sacrifice." Since World War II, both Republicans and Democrats have thrown billions of dollars at automobile-dominated infrastructure. They have catered to the automobile industry and big oil, fashioning a society utterly dependent on fossil fuels. The current occupants of the White House are oil men, and one of the current vice presidential nominees is an oil woman.
In the 2004 presidential election, I remember watching a news piece about Kerry astride a road bike (a custom-made Serotta, if I recall correctly). Bush and his mountain bike, a Wisconsin-made Trek, has been in the news several times. (The latter has a penchant for crashing, it seems.) Both politicians ride their bicycles for recreation and not transportation. In fact, the official Bush administration policy doesn't even consider the bicycle as viable transportation.
A little over a year ago, Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said on PBS that projects like bike paths and trails "are really not transportation." Apparently my neighbor up the street driving his blue Hummer H3 to work is legit, while I'm a noncommuter pedaling to work on my Surly. I have no idea if Peters believed what she said or was just regurgitating Bush administration policy. Regardless, her comment mobilized cyclists and generated an outpouring of negative responses. She should have known better. Bicycle and foot traffic account for 10 percent of our trips in this country, yet we get only 1.5 percent of the federal funding. Even if it is a pittance, at least the feds give us a bone now and again, so somebody there must think that walkers and cyclists do have a slight bit of legitimacy.
Early in Bush's first term, we could buy gas for about $1.20 a gallon. We all know the price of a gallon has more than tripled since then. One would think that our next president would start to take the bicycle and alternative energy more seriously. But the chants of "drill, baby, drill" echoing through the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, don't give me much hope and confidence.
Energy cost prognosticators suggest drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would lower oil prices in 12 to 15 years by 40 cents to a $1 per barrel - just pennies per gallon. But what's the difference between $3.80 and $3.78 per gallon?
It's no news bicyclists have been marginalized this presidential election season (as in the previous dozen or so). We have no cadre of highly paid lobbyists hobnobbing in D.C. advancing our interests. Yet this lack of access to government has prompted a political response. Some cyclists have joined committees or coalitions at local and state levels where the powers that be are more receptive to bicyclists.
Others have taken their fight to the streets. A group from Madison, for instance, rode their bikes to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, a self-titled "grass routes" caravan (see pnc2rnc.org). Critical Mass has long used the bicycle as a vehicle of protest, even making news during the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004. Their headquarters was raided in a pre-emptive strike by the police just before the convention started quashing the group's hopes for action in St. Paul.
Others, like me, put stickers on our bikes and ride them to work and on errands: "One Less Car,", "Bikes Not Bombs,", "No Blood For Oil,","Cars R Coffins" and "Ride a Bike - Start a Revolution."
I particularly like that last one. It has to begin at the individual level, because it's obvious that it's not going to come from the top down. The bicycle has always been, and will probably always be, a "grass routes" kind of vehicle.