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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

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
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.”

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