Review: Bicycle Diaries


Like most people, I first encountered the words of David Byrne in the form of lyrics. I was standing in someone’s dorm room, listening to “More Songs About Buildings and Food.” Those songs were a revelation. I bought every Talking Heads album that came out after that.

Around the time that album made the Talking Heads famous, Byrne began riding a bike around Manhattan and, eventually, traveling with a folding version. For three decades, cycling has been his preferred mode of transportation. He’s been observing cities around the world from their bike lanes – or, more often, while dodging cars and pedestrians in the street – and has compiled those observations in a memoir titled Bicycle Diaries(Viking/Penguin).

If you’re familiar with the Talking Heads, you’ll recognize the curious and quirky mind behind these tales. Byrne is riffing on the same themes here, but in considerably more depth. He is still into art and buildings; he writes for pages on the modern buildings in Istanbul, “the triumph of both the cult of capitalism and the cult of Marxist materialism.” But he’s mostly interested in people. The book is full of chance encounters and the reflections they inspire.

Most of Bicycle Diaries has nothing to do with cycling, it just happens to be how the author gets around – and it’s important to him. (Last year, Byrne designed a series of bike racks around Brooklyn and Manhattan.) Nevertheless, Bicycle Diaries serves as a handy guide for anyone contemplating the possibility of cycling in the dozen or so cities he writes about.

David Byrne on biking…

…in New York City: “I ride my bike almost everyday here in New York…. The city has added a lot of bike lanes in recent years, and they claim they now have more than any other city in the United States. But sadly most of them are not safe enough that one can truly relax….” (If you have any doubt about this, join him on this harrowing ride through Times Square: David Byrne Bike Cam)

…in Berlin: “I ride my bike along the bike lanes here in Berlin and it all seems so civilized, pleasant, and enlightened… There are little stoplights just for the bikers, even turn signals! … If the New York City streets are wilder and funkier, than the German streets are on Prozac – civilized but slightly less exciting.”

…in Istanbul: “Ride a bike in Istanbul? Are you nuts? Yes… and no. The traffic here is pretty chaotic and there are a number of hills, but on a bike I can get around the central city…faster than one can in a car.”

…in London: “London sprawls for an old city…. As a result there can be some long and strenuous pedals. These don’t necessarily result in making a trip longer than it would be on the tube, but I sometimes arrive a little shiny.”

…in Sydney: “As a place for urban biking, Australian towns are better than most. Sydney is a bit tough—the geography and busy arteries that link the various neighborhoods are not very welcoming – but Melbourne, Perth, and Adelaide I find to be more accommodating.”

…in San Francisco: “San Francisco is philosophically and politically bike-friendly, but not geographically….”

Don’t expect a run-of-the-mill travelogue from a guy who collaborates with Brian Eno and has been known to perform in a tutu. Byrne takes us to some pretty strange places, combining on-the-spot observation with conclusions reached over many years, often while cycling between performances.

He makes a convincing case for taking a folding bike along on your next trip. He also presents a compelling argument for more and better bike lanes in the U.S. In that sense, his book couldn’t be better timed.

Buy here: Bicycle Diaries

Cathleen McCarthy’s take on bicycling in her hometown of Philadelphia appears here.

68 comments for “Review: Bicycle Diaries

  1. October 6, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Great post. I love Cathy’s writing and I look forward to reading Byrne’s

  2. October 6, 2009 at 9:48 am

    The first thing that strikes me is the civility that Byrne displays. I wish that bike enthusiasts in general would try to use this type of language when discussing how to create more bike paths or how to better share the road with cars instead of complaining and condemning all drivers and all attempts by municipalities to make things better for all residents, including pedestrians. Thank you for the review. I look forward to reading the book.

  3. Noriko Bell
    October 6, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Thanks Cathy for the interesting review. Look forward to reading bike travels as written by the mind of David Byrne.

  4. October 6, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Thanks for posting this — I think a few people I know will be getting this book for X-mas now.

  5. October 6, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Excellent! I’m looking forward to reading it. Love D.B. and also love biking — I used to bike everywhere when I lived in San Francisco. Still have the leg muscles to prove it.

  6. Jill U Adams
    October 6, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I heard David Byrne on NPR over the weekend. Definitely made me want to read his book — and to hop on my bike more often than I do.

  7. October 6, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    I look forward to reading this! I’m a fan, too.

  8. October 6, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Sounds like a fun book. I enjoy bicycling on vacation. Montreal is one of the most bike-friendly cities that I’ve visited.

  9. October 6, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I love when book reviews actually quote the book; nicely done, Cathleen.

    And I’d be a happy cyclist if I won this book in your first giveaway—sounds like an excellent addition to my bicycle book collection!

  10. October 6, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, everybody. You’re going to be surfing the ‘net for folding bikes after you read this book. Catherine, you must have developed some serious thigh muscles in SF – not to mention braking skills. I went inline skating through SF once – ouch.

  11. Susan McC. Walton
    October 6, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    No thigh muscles, no bike & would die if I attempted to inline skate through Kansas much less SF. But I love the Talking Heads & can’t wait to read the book

  12. Jill U Adams
    October 6, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Saw a Twitter post about a folding bike today:

  13. Jill U Adams
    October 6, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Hmmm, the weblink didn’t come through. It’s at, under “Cars and Transportation”

  14. Shannon
    October 6, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    What a good book.

  15. Carrie
    October 6, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    I don’t know what I’d do without my bike. Great review!

  16. October 6, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I enjoyed the review and David’s assessment of the bike lanes in various cities. What a great way to see the world!

    I know I thoroughly will enjoy the read.

    Lori La Chapelle

  17. October 6, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    The book sounds fascinating. I’ve already put it on hold at the library, but there’s a waiting list and I’d love to have my own copy to read on my schedule. Thanks, too, for the link to the harrowing YouTube video.

  18. Alicia Webster
    October 6, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    I would like to win this book because I, too, use an outmoded form of transportation: my legs. I don’t drive (never learned, and I am 40), and have always gotten around on foot. Maybe I should write a book too…lol…Anyway, this sounds really great, so please enter me.

  19. Ann F
    October 6, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    I’m huge David Byrne fan. I would love to read this book.

  20. October 6, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Very glad to know about the book and of course I’d be thrilled to win a copy. DB’s observations sometimes sound so overly polite that I wonder if he’s serious–but I think he is. Another wonderful “bike diary” that’s about a whole trip through Vietnam is An (Andrew) Pham’s *Catfish and Mandala*. Highly recommended, especially for anyone traveling there, even if you aren’t on a bike. And An Pham probably would have really appreciated having a folding bike when his was trashed by Customs in Saigon…

    • The City Traveler Staff
      October 7, 2009 at 12:39 pm

      Martha– I think that deadpan politeness is part of Byrne’s persona… definitely laden with irony. Thanks for the Vietnam by bike recommendation . . . JoAnn

  21. adrienne Gordon
    October 6, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    i really want to read this.

  22. October 6, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Cathleen, I just picked up my copy of this book this weekend. If I win, I’m happy to offer it Ron–or you can draw again. I started reading it this morning. Great stories, great insight so far. I know I learned a lot while riding my bike. I can’t wait to finish Byrne’s book to see all that he’s learned.

  23. Brian N.
    October 6, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Two best ways to evolve and save the world: Ride a bike to work and eat a vegan meal!

  24. Elizabeth Lockman
    October 6, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Would love a copy of this book!!!

  25. October 6, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    Great review–sounds like an intriguing book. I wonder if he wears his “big suit” from his “Stop Making Sense” days as he pedals around. Probably impractical. Would be fun, though.

  26. October 6, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    My husband is an avid cyclist who loves to travel…I’m sending him the link to your post!

  27. October 6, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    I’ve been picturing him in the big suit too! That was just too funny. Makes me want to rent Stop Making Sense.

  28. Shari D
    October 7, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Sounds like a great read!

  29. Amy
    October 7, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Sounds fun! I own the DVD of Stop Making Sense–think I’ve watched it, oh, maybe 100 or so times? 🙂

  30. Angela J
    October 7, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    I’d like this for the bicyclists in the family

  31. LA White
    October 7, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    David Byrne is my definition of “normal.” Looking forward to reading the book.

  32. Deborah Wellenstein
    October 8, 2009 at 11:02 am

    I loved the video and I look forward to reading this book. Thanks!

  33. Jayne
    October 10, 2009 at 12:13 am

    I love the Talking Heads’ lyrics.

  34. Chuck Darrah
    October 10, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Please enter me. Id love to read this book.

  35. roseh2o19
    October 11, 2009 at 10:40 am

    big Heads and solo Byrne fan – look forward to reading the book

  36. Karen
    October 12, 2009 at 2:53 am

    What an interesting book! I’m going to make a point of finding it and reading it. Love David Byrne and the way his mind works.

  37. Kathy Scott
    October 12, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Looks like a good read.

  38. sarah
    October 12, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    enter me!

  39. Jeff
    October 12, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Please pedal this book on over to me …

  40. Mia J.
    October 12, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the giveaway.

  41. Melissa D
    October 13, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    I’m a lifelong Talking Heads fan and can’t wait to read David Byrne’s book. Thanks!

  42. Becky K
    October 13, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    I love David Byrne’s quirky sensibility and this book sounds wonderful! Thanks!

  43. Renee G
    October 14, 2009 at 12:27 am

    Would love to read this.

  44. Erma H
    October 14, 2009 at 6:45 am

    This sounds interesting.

  45. ky2here
    October 14, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Byrne is a true aesthete. It’s a shame he gets pigeonholed for ‘the talking heads’. I’ll read this and I bet I enjoy it.

  46. Erica G
    October 14, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Count me in!

  47. shawna
    October 14, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Sounds like an interesting book.

  48. Ed Nemmers
    October 14, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Great discussion of this book!

  49. Jenny Gibbons
    October 14, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    I’d love a chance to win this, thanks.

  50. jennifer h
    October 14, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    I am a huge Davide Byrne fan, but have not heard about this book until now. Definitely going to add it to my collection.

  51. Gloria
    October 14, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    I’d love to read this!

  52. October 14, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    I would love to read this! Thanks!

  53. susan smoaks
    October 15, 2009 at 8:45 am

    i would love to win!

  54. Roseann Kies
    October 15, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Looks like a great book to read. Thanks!

  55. kathy pease
    October 15, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Thank you for the AWESOME GIVEAWAY.. Please count me in 🙂

  56. Candie L
    October 15, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    I think this sounds interesting. THank you

  57. Rusty Boulet-Stephenson
    October 15, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    I would love to win a copy of Mr. Byrne’s book.

  58. Kathy
    October 15, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Sounds like a cool book. I love to travel and maybe this would be motivation to use my bike more!

  59. October 15, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    I saw David outside the Angelica smoking a cigarette one day and I was surprised how serene his energy was. I get the same idea from his bike cam link, which is cool. Here’s something worth doing, though, turn the sound down on the bike came and watch this montage of the talking heads in tandem: it’s really cool…

  60. kerri r
    October 15, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Sounds wonderful!Thanks so much for the chance

  61. Tish
    October 15, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    I Love You David for a long long time. You are so talented, I hope I win this!

  62. dawn
    October 15, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    This sounds really good. Thanks for the chance.

  63. DanV
    October 15, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    This looks great

  64. Brian E.
    October 15, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Thanks for the giveaway…

  65. Buddy Garrett
    October 15, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    This book sounds great. I would love to win it.

  66. Nancy
    October 16, 2009 at 4:03 am

    Did I win? did I win??

  67. Dupy
    October 16, 2009 at 10:30 am

    I’d love to read it =)

Comments are closed.