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.