David Byrne: On Bikes and Cities

May/June 2011 | Momentum Magazine | Online here

Listening to David Byrne talk about bikes, you might forget that the man is a legendary musician and world-famous artist, as well as an impassioned cyclist who’s keen to improve infrastructure and get more people on two wheels.

But the former Talking Heads performer is a reluctant advocate, although he is becoming one of the most famous faces of the North American bike revolution, thanks to his online journal and the book it spawned – The Bicycle Diaries. His follow-up tour, Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around, features a set of arty bike racks and stories from his years in the saddle.

“I haven’t wanted to be a real advocate or proselytizer,” he said in a phone interview from New York. “But if I sense that people are kind of ready and willing to try something, later I’ll say, ‘Well yes, this is how you do it, and this is how it’s done, and this is my experience, and the rest is up to you’.”

The tour, which took Byrne to 16 cities in North America and could carry on to South America, also featured local civic leaders, planners and bicycle advocates. It was less about converting people and more about creating a critical mass, he said. “The events tend to bring together people who are sometimes of like mind, but haven’t met yet.”

The number of those like-minded people is growing as cycling becomes more popular, something Byrne attributes to a wider change in attitude. “It used to be considered something that you did as a child or you did as a sport, but there was no in-between,” he said, “and now it’s a little bit more acceptable.”

He should know: Byrne’s been cruising the streets of New York on two wheels since the early 1980s, when he collected his trusty adolescent ride – an English three-speed – from his parents’ suburban home and brought it to the city. He now rides a “new version of an old-school bike,” made by Jamis, when in New York; a Dahon folding bike accompanies him on his travels.

The original decision to ride was made out of convenience – a bike is a fast, cheap way to travel – but since then, Byrne’s motivations have shifted to include the liberation, exhilaration and connection bikes provide.

“I don’t think people are doing it to be more green, or because it’s good for exercise, or something like that,” Byrne said of cycling. “I think those are side-effects. People are doing it because it actually feels good, because it sometimes saves money, and sometimes is the fastest way to get from A to B if you’re not going too far. You have a feeling of self-empowerment, that you’re in charge of when you go, how you go and when you get there.”

Of course, there are things that could help more people make the decision to ride. Infrastructure – Byrne would like to see me more linkages between existing bike paths and routes – and education are a big part of that picture. In order to work, he said, they need to develop together.

“I heard a Danish guy say you can’t just throw a million people out there at once and expect them to know how to do this,” he said. “You’ll have a kind of chaos, you’ll have people having accidents and injuries and all kinds of things going on. You have to kind of bring it in gradually so they learn how to behave when using bike infrastructure.”

But to develop a perfect urban cycling environment, what you really need is a perfect city.

“Ideally, our cities become exciting, sexy and profitable places to live, play and work – that’s the most important part,” Byrne said. “When people have no investment in the places they play or work or live, they act accordingly.”