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Pete Buttigieg unintentionally got himself a healthy dose of feedback from Cyclist Twitter.
Politico reporter Michael Stratford tweeted a short video of the freshly confirmed Secretary of Transportation riding a bike home from work through Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood on Thursday, February 25. The video—which, as of this writing, has over a million views—is 11 seconds long and appears to have been shot from a vantage point roughly near the Hubble telescope, albeit with slightly grainier picture quality.
Stratford also posted a ground-level photo. Based solely on this scant evidence, many online cyclists took it upon themselves to let Buttigieg know that his seat height appeared to be low—which Buttigieg himself jokingly acknowledged in a tweet on Friday.
You know what? That’s just fine.
There are two things at work here. One is the unsolicited advice coming from Cyclist Twitter, which is annoying because, well, it’s unsolicited, and it’s often more about the giver than the recipient. Let’s examine the issue at hand: seat height.
I have no idea how long Buttigieg has been riding or how experienced he is. But it’s common for newer, less-confident riders to feel more comfortable with the lower center of gravity a lower seat offers—and it’s far easier to put a foot down when things get wobbly. To them, stability and confidence matter more than ergonomic efficiency. Benno Benziger, the founder of Electra and now his eponymous Benno Bikes, created an entire damn geometry out of this concept, and the popularity of the bikes speaks to how much people like it.
Additionally, unsolicited bike advice, even well-intentioned, can sound an awful lot like gatekeeping to a new rider. You may mean well when you say, “Your seat height is too low!” but that person is likely to hear, “You’re doing it wrong!”
But cyclist Twitter seems very concerned that Buttigieg might get sore knees. He’s likely not going very far. His knees will be okay.
The most important thing about Buttigieg commuting on a bike is that … he’s on a bike. This man leads a government agency with almost 60,000 employees and an annual budget of over $75 billion. Besides the President himself, who was spotted on a bike just a few months ago, there is no single person in the federal government with more influence over cycling than the Secretary of Transportation.
And here’s the thing: we’ve never had a DOT leader who’s potentially so sympatico with cyclists as Buttigieg appears to be.
Ray LaHood and Anthony Foxx, two past secretaries under President Obama, were bike-friendly and followed that up with action. But despite those policy wins, government focus—and funding—remains relentlessly car-centric. Part of that is due to the workings of the federal government; large federal agencies don’t exactly turn on a dime, and neither—in terms of our love of cars—does society. Part of it is Congress, which of course sets the agency’s budget and guides spending priorities.
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But part of it is leadership and institutional culture. And shaping that starts with a charismatic secretary who natively understands cyclists’ needs; who realizes the power of the bicycle to be a force for good: on climate, on public health, and on livable cities; and who engages with the cycling community (Buttigieg is scheduled to speak at the virtual National Bike Summit on Wednesday, March 3).
As pro-bike as they were, Foxx and LaHood rode bikes primarily at photo ops, which are highly controlled situations. They were sympathetic to cyclists, but that’s not the same thing as truly understanding the challenges we face to ride safely and easily.
Buttigieg commuting by bike, as a normal person in normal city traffic, gives him a different, vital perspective. It’s a handlebar view of what it is to be casually menaced by inattentive and impatient drivers, to have bike lanes disappear into a four-lane roadway with a 45 mph speed limit, to swerve around delivery drivers who treat bike lanes as their temporary parking spot.
It helps him learn what really makes cycling safer and more enjoyable, such as having safer place to ride; better and more equitable opportunities through micromobility such as bikeshare (Buttigieg was aboard a Capitol Bikeshare machine) and e-bikes; and a culture of respect for vulnerable road users.
The pandemic created a bike boom, and by all indications, it isn’t fading. It also forced a sudden and massive shift to alternative working environments, and led to spontaneous, widespread support for shared streets for safe recreation. Together, with the climate crisis, it also provides a generational opportunity to make cycling an integral part of transportation infrastructure.
Buttigieg can’t do it alone, of course. But he’s the point man to make it happen. The cycling community has his attention. And the most important thing we can tell him is … that his seat is too low?
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