Sunday, April 14, 2013

Identity politics and cycling

Councillor Doug Ford's reported response to a plan, recently approved by a city committee, to install a bicycle parking station with showers can stand as a textbook example of identity politics in all its absurd glory:
taking away parking space down here at City Hall that is creating $70,000 worth of revenue, and — ready for this, folks? — they’re putting in showers for the bike riders to come down here, to a tune of $1.2 million.
To get the obvious question out of the way: assuming the bike facility lasts ten years, it will cost about $120,000 a year, plus whatever revenue the parking authority would lose when the lot filled up; that comes to at most $190,000. Since the health effects of sedentary lifestyles increase health care costs by about $10,000 per year per person, the new facility will break even when it attracts twenty new riders: seven percent of its capacity. Putting a bike parking station at City Hall actually makes a great investment. And the words Doug Ford uses strongly indicate he doesn't care.

Whether cyclists get a secure parking station with showers or not, we already "come down to" City Hall and downtown Toronto. I cannot believe Doug Ford has never seen the full racks of bicycles that line the eastern side of Nathan Phillips Square. Describing cyclist as some essentially alien force that the city should resist and exclude defines his supporters: they don't ride bicycles. They are important people with urgent business; they drive cars. Or, since they live in Toronto, they sit in traffic and drum the steering wheel.

This kind of identity politics obviously limits people's freedom. If you share the Fords' belief in a limited servant government, but ride a bicycle, you don't really belong in "Ford Nation". That limits the transportation choices of Ford supporters, and limits the political choices of cyclists. But by limiting freedom, by constructing an identity their followers are invited to conform to, political movements, and the men and women who lead them, bind a core of true believers around them. It makes for a cramped and limited society, but it also makes for devoted followers and at least for a time, it makes good politics.

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