I’m a hard-core Republican bike commuter (yes, you read that right: hard-core on both scores), and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is my congressman. I remember his first campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates. He came to my Kiwanis Club meeting at 7:30 one morning to introduce himself. Got my vote, then and ever since. Yup, Cantor’s my man in Congress, and I’m not ashamed to say it.
Not that I haven’t had my differences with him, especially on the topic of bicycle infrastructure. So what did I do about it? I picked up the phone and called his office, wrote some letters and spoke my mind, and I always — always — received a polite and genuine reply, even if not the change in his position I was hoping for.
With other Virginia bicycle advocates, I recently visited Cantor’s local office, where we were warmly received and had our issues duly noted by his chief legislative aide. We pointed out some factual errors in Cantor’s recent statements on funding for bicycling and walking projects. I don’t think I’ve heard those mistakes repeated since.
In other words: He’s listening, and when he can’t be there in person, his aides address the issue and brief him on their discussions. Not long after our meeting, when I approached him at a Republican barbecue and mentioned the meeting, he clearly knew about it and thanked me and my friends for our information. He promised more dialogue.
I mention all of this to explain why I have to cry foul over the decision by one of my favorite biking blogs, D.C. Streetsblog, to make fun of Cantor because a recent “60 Minutes” episode showed him riding a bike.
This blog and others suggested the scene showed hypocrisy, given Cantor’s opposition to spending meant to benefit bicyclists. But who knows why he was filmed on his bike. Maybe his advisers thought it would make him easier to relate to. Maybe it was to make him look healthy and vibrant. Maybe he likes to ride a bike. I say we take it at face value, and no matter what his motivation was, riding a bike is good for Cantor, and it’s good for bicyclists everywhere. The bicycling community should encourage this kind of thing, not attack it.
Rather than accuse Cantor of hypocrisy, I would take a different approach. Here are the kinds of things I hope to say next time I see him:
First: Cool bike, dude! Great to see you setting the example on the tube. It really helps the cause when people in your position are seen on bicycles. Thanks!
Then I’d remind him of the economic benefits of cycling — not just for cyclists, but for the community at large. Lower health-care costs benefit all of us. Fewer cars reduces the need for expensive new roads and parking lots, and it means fewer deaths and injuries from vehicle-related accidents. And jobs? Bike projects create jobs, all right — more than 11 jobs per million dollars vs. 8 jobs per million for highways.
Plus, bikes and a safe bike-commuting environment help people get to work even if they don’t have a car. In Richmond, some 18 percent of households can’t afford a car, and 60 percent of households share a single car among several adults. Bikes can help them get and keep jobs. Right now, biking and walking make up 12 percent of all trips in the United States and cost about 2 percent of transportation dollars. Yep, there are plenty of strong economic arguments for bikes that should appeal to thoughtful Republicans. I’ve got plenty more where these came from.
Would this approach make Eric Cantor into a bike advocate? Maybe, maybe not. But I do know this: Without facts and serious arguments, you definitely won’t change Cantor’s mind. And you won’t even get the chance to make your point if all you want to do is try to look clever at his expense.
After all, when you have as strong an economic argument to support bicycling, why would you lead with anything else?
The writer is chairman of Bike Virginia and a member of the board of the Virginia Bicycling Federation.