Despite advising the president of the United States on all matters of policy concerning how people and goods get around this great land of ours, the comings and goings of the secretary of transportation typically don’t attract much attention. We just assume this person (whose name we often fail to remember) gets driven to work in a big black car like every other government official. And when it comes to infrastructure, unless a bridge falls down or something, most of us are content to complain about potholes and gas prices and leave it at that.
All this changed, however, when Joe Biden appointed Pete Buttigieg as the 19th U.S. secretary of transportation. A bona fide pop-culture figure thanks to his presidential run, “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg is almost certainly the first transportation secretary in any danger of being recognized in a shopping mall. Not only that, but his appointment came in the wake of one of the most fussed-over presidential elections in recent history, and to top it all off, he says crazy stuff like “We can definitely be more of a bicycle country.” So it was only a matter of time before someone hid in a tree and caught him on video “faking” a bike ride—the caption tells us that “Pete Buttigieg used an armored Suburban to bring a bike within a short distance of the destination,” then rode it in for show.
Of course, you can’t really fake a bike ride; if you rode a bike, you rode a bike, and the video clearly shows Buttigieg (eventually) mounting a bike and pedaling away. Granted, the ride does appear to involve both an SUV and a security detail, but if driving to a ride didn’t count then we’d have to come up with another term for mountain biking. Nevertheless, critics seized on the footage in an attempt to brand the pro-bike Buttigieg as a hypocrite, while various media fact-checkers debunked their accusations as false, stating that he did indeed ride to the White House for President Biden’s first Cabinet meeting.
It’s too bad that bikes still get caught up in this sort of media-driven partisan bickering, because there’s really nothing divisive about them.
Even if Buttigieg had, in fact, enlisted illusionist Criss Angel in an attempt to Mindfreak Americans into thinking he’d ridden to a meeting when he really had not, that would not invalidate the idea that riding bikes is a good thing, and that all of us (drivers included) can benefit from infrastructure that makes it safer and easier to do so. At the same time, it’s not surprising that some people pounced on Buttigieg’s ride, given the tendency of politicians to talk the talk without walking the walk (or riding the ride). Whether it’s New York City mayor Bill de Blasio filing lawsuits against the oil industry and telling people not to buy cars while he’s sitting back of his SUV, or climate czar John Kerry claiming he has to fly private planes in order to save the world, we’ve become conditioned to expect that our leaders will do the exact opposite of whatever it is they ask of us, especially when it comes to burning gasoline.
While Buttigieg’s endorsement of bicycling appears to be sincere, and plenty of Americans clearly want to ride, there’s also no shortage of people who remain determined to debunk the idea of the bicycle as a valid form of transportation. Furthermore, Buttigieg kerfuffle aside, political bicycle theater is very real and at times a bit frustrating, even if you’re pro-bike. In the summer of 2019, I rode from my home to a press conference at the Bronx County Courthouse, where various muckety-mucks were scheduled to announce the Citi Bike bike-sharing program’s much anticipated expansion into the borough. As I approached my destination, I encountered several large vehicles blocking the bike lane—the staging area, it turned out, from which said muckety-mucks would “ride” a few yards to the announcement so that the media could capture them arriving by bicycles.
Now, I’m not naive enough to expect my city officials to ride bicycles to every press conference, nor am I averse to a little spectacle. Still, phony rides like this do exude a slightly “bikes are OK for you schmucks, but important people like us need to travel by car” vibe that seems designed to elicit both disappointment and contempt, depending on where you fall on the Bike Affinity Spectrum.
Is it too much to expect our politicians and policy makers to ride places, especially when they espouse the virtues of bikes? One could certainly argue that once you reach a certain level of power and influence, security concerns outweigh matters of efficiency and practicality—and yet British prime minister Boris Johnson commuted by bike for years while he was mayor of London, and the worst he got was the finger. (Presumably, he doesn’t need to commute by bike now that he lives and works at 10 Downing Street, but even today, stay-at-home orders don’t keep him out of the saddle.)
Perhaps it’s not so much a security concern as it is the fear of political fallout or outright ridicule. There are American politicians who have enjoyed recreational cycling (former president George W. Bush’s fat-tire proclivities are well-documented), but when noted Serotta enthusiast John Kerry broke his femur during a ride in France as secretary of state in 2015, he was mocked by Donald Trump. And who could forget the explosive scandal that was former president Obama’s Helmetgate? (Yet Twitter freaked out after Beto O’Rourke rode a bike without wearing a helmet. Go figure.)
Of course the elephant in the room here is that criticism of politicians for riding (or, in Buttigieg’s case, not riding) bikes tends to flow from right to left. (Then there’s the criticism from Bike Twitter, which is something else entirely.) So if you’re a left-leaning politician who throws a leg over a rig, you’re setting yourself up as a weakling, or a hypocrite, or a reckless fool. As the media devotes increasing attention to climate concerns, no doubt we’ll see the left retaliate with the equally disingenuous tactic of flight shaming and driver shaming. In the meantime, if you’re in the public eye, it’s still easiest to do something “normal” like travel by car.
It’s too bad that bikes still get caught up in this sort of media-driven partisan bickering, because there’s really nothing divisive about them. Like water conforms to the shape of a container, riding a bike is compatible with any ideology or lifestyle. As a mode of transportation, it’s the ultimate in self-sufficiency—no bloated bureaucracy necessary to administer it, no crippling dependency on energy sources and utilities and manufacturers and financial institutions—and yet, at the same time it’s both equitable and environmentally friendly. It thrives in wide-open spaces but is also extremely well suited to urban life. You can use a bike to go to an elk hunt or to a protest. And though we often think of cars and bikes as mortal enemies, they’ve managed to coexist for well over a century and will no doubt continue to do so for as long as people need to get around.
The secretary of transportation’s awkward relationship with the bike is a reflection of our own culture’s discomfort with cycling, but hopefully his willingness to keep riding also portends a future in which public officials of all stripes can ride bikes without pretense, and in which their choice to do so isn’t mocked, or even celebrated, but is simply totally and utterly unremarkable.