So how dare I suggest that it might be more important to be a fun thing than an Important Thing?
Let’s look at the other example I give: Locavore food practices are entirely discredited in one regard–they do diddly to reduce transportation-related emissions. They may even add emissions during their product lifeline.
Nonetheless, locavores are still out, doing what they are doing, and with very little opposition. And that may be a good thing. Why? Because local food tastes good. There is a market for it. Having access to it is an amenity–that’s why it’s associated with well-to-do people. Well-to-do people: if we have a particular talent, it’s that we know how to get nice stuff for ourselves.
As a by-product of that, there are perhaps some subsidiary social benefits: people may eat some more veggies, and the food supply in places with few other options can get more and better food. There is a competitor to Big Food Corps. But all those social benefits come first and foremost because the thing–the center idea being sold–has inherent, lasting utility to the people practicing it–including those who aren’t sold on the Grand Social Vision.
So for bicyclists, what does that mean? It means that as soon as you start arguing we should invest in biking because of the Big, Important Social Claims–fighting obesity, battling climate change, the whole ball of wax—that means people are going to start questioning you and challenging you based on the Big Social Claims.
Then pointy-headed social sciences types like me will study it. Half the studies will say Big Important Social Claims are true, and the other half will show little effect. Or worse, like the locavore food studies, the results of the body of research will fail to provide evidence the Big Social Claims really work out.
But biking is still fun at the end of it all. It is indisputably fun. Bikers indisputably derive value from their biking. When was the last time you heard the argument go like this:
You: “Biking is great, I really enjoy my commute.”
Opponent: “No, you’re wrong, you don’t enjoy it.”
Never, that’s when. Your and others’ enjoyment is–after all of the noise–the core value that can not be discredited.
It may be the fault of the public policy field itself, this tendency to want to prove or disprove social good. Or it could be the political discourse we have that acts towards any and all public investment like a Puritan elder rebuking sin: if we want to invest in something, we have to act like Everybody Wins.
But what if it’s entirely legitimate to want your cities to have enjoyable things in them?
And if you think that Being a Fun Thing isn’t more important politically than Being an Important Thing, look at stadiums. There is nothing more settled in the policy research than stadiums. Cities always put more money in than they get out. Perhaps there are a few examples somewhere, but in general, stadiums cost taxpayers money. And yes, stadiums get built because powerful coalitions of elite actors want them. But democratic action matters; if taxpayers really hated stadiums, they’d hand those elites their fannies. There’s a reason why we’ve had decade after decade of stadiums and value pricing on freeways (despite being invented decades ago) is just peeking through the public policy clouds.
That reason: a large subset of taxpayers likes to go to football games and concerts, and large subset of taxpayers hates paying for roads.