Actually Joravsky, Chicago Bicyclists Aren’t Single-Issue Voters

Chicago Critical Mass cofounder and affordable housing developer Michael Burton campaigned for  mayoral challenger Chuy Garcia in the last election. Photo courtesy of Burton
Chicago Critical Mass cofounder and affordable housing developer Michael Burton campaigned for mayoral challenger Chuy Garcia in the last election. Photo courtesy of Burton

Recently my Chicago Reader colleague, political commentator Ben Joravsky, had an interesting conversation with Dave “Mr. Bike” Glowacz, author of the excellent guide “Urban Bikers’ Tips and Tricks,” on Joravsky’s WCPT-AM radio show. Joravsky, who said that he often bikes himself, argued that “so many” local cyclists have slavishly supported mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel simply because they built bike infrastructure and have claimed to be avid cyclists. The pundit said this is “one of my pet peeves about bicyclists.”

“It doesn’t matter what a mayor does,” Joravsky said. “You give a bike rider a bike lane and you own them for life, sort of like the Chicago resident in general with garbage cans. You give a homeowner a garbage can and that homeowner will be voting for the aldermen forever, no matter what kind of a scoundrel he or she may be.”

Glowacz (who is, disclosure, an old friend of mine from the bike scene) countered that mayors winning votes by building bike infrastructure isn’t any different than them appeasing any other constituency. He brought up the South Red Line reconstruction and Emanuel’s policies in favor of magnet and charter schools as examples of the mayor throwing a bone to particular demographics.

Joravsky’s viewpoint on the matter seemed to be heavily influenced by a single encounter he had in the early 2000s:

A biking enthusiast came up to me at a bar and he was very drunk and he said, “Give me a good reason why I should vote against Mayor Daley. He opened up bike lanes. I’m happy.” How do I deal with that? How do I argue [against] a point like that?

Glowacz replied that Joravsky should be used to dealing with one issue voters. “I expect more from bikers because you presume that bike riders would be more open to saving the environment,” Joravsky responded. “The city doesn’t have the best environmental policies. You’d think the bikers would be more liberal, be more about saving our public schools from going bankrupt.”

Ben Joravsky and Dave Glowacz
Ben Joravsky and Dave Glowacz

That’s when Glowacz made the excellent point that, while that’s the stereotype, people who ride bikes actually aren’t a monolithic community. He added that, as a bike advocate, he has struggled to change this perception over the years. “People want to see bike riders [as being] of a certain demographic and a certain political leaning. That’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to accommodate bicycles in society, because most people don’t see themselves as bike riders, but anybody could be a bike rider.”

Joravsky conceded the point that not all cyclists are progressives, noting that billionaire venture capitalist Ken Griffith, a major supporter of Republican governor Bruce Rauner, recently donated $12 million to Chicago for Lakefront Trail separation.

On the other side of the coin, some of Chicago’s most important bike advocates are to the left of Mayor Emanuel and have supported his opponents. This is in spite of the fact that they appreciated Emanuel’s successful efforts to build 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, launch the Divvy system, and open the Bloomingdale Trail, all within his first term.

Plenty of politically progressive people I know, many of whom live in Logan Square, have been active in advocating for more bike facilities, fewer traffic crashes, and better transit through their involvement with groups like the Active Transportation Alliance and Chicago Critical Mass. Yet most of them supported, and some of them campaigned for, Emanuel’s challenger Cook County board member Chuy Garcia in the last election.

Emanuel’s bike policies were one of the few aspects of his administration that Garcia generally didn’t have a problem with. But the challenger argued that the city should be more cautious about installing protected bike lanes and implementing road diets, saying that he’d only install the lanes “where there’s good support for building [them].” And, in contrast to the mayor, he opposed the city’s red light camera program, the CTA’s proposal for bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue, and the plan for a train flyover north of the Belmont Red Line station.

While the aforementioned progressives may have believed that Emanuel had better transportation policies, they voted for Garcia because issues like education (most of them have kids in the Chicago Public Schools) and affordable housing were even more important to them.

So the notion that Chicago bicyclists are a homogenous group that blindly follows Emanuel’s marching orders is simply, as the mayor would say, “fairy dust.”

  • Anne A

    Well said. Most of us are NOT single issue voters who can be bought with shiny baubles.

  • Rich Evans

    Not all cyclists are crazy about dedicated infrastructure, either. I’m a fairly serious bike commuter, for example, far more interested in road rights, equitable and realistic enforcement of traffic laws, and in being treated, fairly, like a vehicle operator.
    For me, and a growing segment of the biking population, my bike is an efficient, economically viable tool, not a toy.
    I pay about as much for Chicago streets as a Chicago motorist, and MORE than a suburban commuter. That’s right; they’re primarily funded by property, sales and income taxes. Fuel and sticker/plate fees pay a only a fraction of the cost, go primarily to Interstates (from which bikes are banned in Illinois), and are primarily collected from commercial users, who pass those costs to me, as well as motorists.
    While paying about what a motorist does, I consume only a fraction of the street space, parking, and damage/wear/service costs that a motor vehicle does.
    I, and my fellow tax-paying Chicago commuters are a budget bargain. All I ask, in return is that my right to use the streets I pay for, as a vehicle, to get where I’m going, as the law says, be respected and enforced.
    The trails can be a lot of fun, but they aren’t much use to me if they don’t go where I need to go. The bike lanes can be handy, but they, too, often don’t go where I need to, and have some serious and dangerous design flaws. Please don’t expect me to use them when they don’t support my legitimate requirements, and for cryin’ out loud, can you do something about idiot drivers — who I subsidize — screaming that I should “get in the (non-existent) bike lane,” or “get that F%^&g Thing on the sidewalk,” which happens to be unsafe and illegal.
    So no, many of us are NOT moved by pretty trails that go nowhere. I wish were heard better, and wish we were given our due, as legitimate road users who actually benefit our city.

  • yowsuh123

    I’m happy with the progress Chicago has made regarding biking infrastructure. Rich, you sound a bit insufferable.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Let’s keep the conversation civil please.

  • hopeyglass

    You can be happy that some things are being done that will very much benefit some people and realize there’s still incredible disparities in our infrastructure and how things aren’t equitable. God forbid we want a system that does better work for everyone instead of slobbering with praise over some deus ex machina of neo-liberalism showing up and helping improve ONE thing.

  • kastigar

    The Active Transportation Alliance is a group.

    The Chicago Critical Mass isn’t a group. It’s just a bike ride.

  • hopeyglass

    That is fundamentally inaccurate and you should probably ask around to people who have been involved in it for a long time about why that is. John, actually, could prolly edify that.

    Or maybe you meant: “The Active Transportation Alliance is a 501(c)3. Chicago Critical Mass is a group that as used its non-traditional means to push a message of less car usage/etc in a non-structured fashion.” FTFY?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Actually, it crossed my mind that I might get called out on that. I don’t think I’m off-base referring to Chicago Critical Mass as a “group,” since in this city there has been a fair amount of concerted planning involved in staging the rides — they’re not just spontaneous happenings. So I’m not going to bother changing the post, but Bob is technically correct: Critical Mass is an event, not an organization.

  • If Rahm is giving a press conference about bike lanes something big is about to drop the next day, guaranteed. We got some new bike infrastructure and then a whole lot of greenwashing to go along with it. The 606 is excellent but I haven’t seen any concrete steps taken to reduce emissions yet. They definitely aren’t going down. Anyway I don’t know if there is a way to do that without taking a whole lot of cars off the road which is not going to be popular.

  • Chicagoan

    This article was a great reminder of the fact that Chuy almost became our mayor.

    Phew.

  • lindsaybanks

    I’m not a single-issue voter, but an understanding of the city’s transportation system, and how to efficiently move people and make people safe, is a requirement for a candidate that I can get behind. Chuy absolutely blew it on that front. I was truly disappointed by his many comments on all things transportation.