Packed House Applauds Bicycle Diarist Byrne and Friends

What was billed as a book reading by famed Talking Heads frontman David Byrne on Tuesday evening took on the air of a teach-in on cities and bicycles, with Byrne and fellow cycling superstars Janette Sadik-Khan and Paul Steely White taking turns extolling New York City’s blooming bicycle infrastructure before a packed house at the Union Square Barnes & Noble.

BicycleDiaries.jpgThe occasion was publication of Bicycle Diaries, Byrne’s idiosyncratic meditation on cities, urban form, culture and fashion, distilled through his three decades as touring musician and bicycle tourist. In the introduction, Byrne writes of navigating New York and other cities a velo, as both a smart way of getting around and a means to a fresh vantage point:

This point of view — faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person — became my panoramic window on much of the world over the last thirty years — and it still is.

Byrne "came out" as an urban bike advocate a few years ago
and periodically does events with Transportation Alternatives. Over the years,
too, his artistic focus has branched out from art-rock innovator to world-music
collaborator and design philosopher. Inviting DOT Commissioner Sadik-Khan and
TA head honcho White on stage allowed Byrne to serve his twin impulses of
advocate and curator.

Byrne’s presentation drew on his mordant photos of dreary
cityscapes drained of human activity. “Most of America is like this,” he intoned over scenes of empty boulevards and ghoulish strip malls, mixed with design images from brutalist architect Le Corbusier (“We must
kill the streets”), which Byrne likened to termite mounds. “We’re not termites,” he insisted, invoking livable streets deity Jane Jacobs before turning over the mic to the professionals.

Sadik-Khan’s affectionately titled slide show, “NYC’s
Bicycle Diaries, 2007-2009,” offered a stirring response to Byrne’s plea to
city shapers to stop “separating everyone in separate pockets.” Insisting that streets be
“places of social exchange” as well as of movement, Sadik-Khan located cycling
infrastructure in a larger context of World Class
that includes walkability, better transit and fewer cars. Her
parade of heartening statistics on new bike lane miles, burgeoning cycling
volumes, and fewer pedestrian injuries on bike-laned streets flew by too
quickly to jot down. What lingers is Sadik-Khan’s passionate regard for cycling
as key to a more humane city, and her zeal to grow and defend all DOT has
wrought in her two-and-a-half years at the helm.

White picked up Byrne’s riff in Bicycle Diaries about “the aura of uncoolness and the danger” of NYC
cycling in the punk era, and traced cycle culture’s progression from “freak” to “geek” to today’s nascent “chic.” With cycling
finally entering the mainstream, it’s time, White declared, for cyclists to retire
their outlaw persona and adhere to the pedestrian-friendly street code in TA’s Biking Rules. He also exhorted the crowd to
defend the embattled Grand Street bike lane against grandstanding politicians: “Call
[Comptroller and Democratic mayoral candidate] Bill Thompson (212-608-6555) and
tell him that safety is not negotiable on NYC streets.”

The audience questions — all earnest and mostly from women —
brought out the visionary in Byrne. (From the next seat, my middle-school son
made me promise not to sing out, “My building bike lane has every convenience / It’s gonna
make life easy for me.”) To a recent arrival from Amsterdam (“I’m really amazed
that in a short period of time, so much positive change has been made in the
City of New York… What’s to prevent a new mayor from taking that away?”), Byrne
replied, “If we can get a third of the people biking to work, like in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, it would be pretty hard to turn that around.” To a questioner worn down by internecine cyclist-pedestrian conflict, Byrne offered this: “We’ve gone through eight or ten years of a bully culture — on Wall Street, in politics. I think we’re turning a corner.”

  • Geck

    “I believe that the exhilaration, freedom, and convenience I experience as I ride around will be discovered by more and more people,” he writes in Bicycle Diaries. “The secret will be out, and the streets of New York will be even more the place for social interaction and interplay than they are already famous for. As others have mentioned, the economic collapse of 2008 might be a godsend. A window has opened, and people might be willing to rethink the balance of quality of life.”

    from New York Mag article:
    Sounds about right to me.

  • Clutch J

    Kudos to TA and others for their masterful collaboration with Byrne. Maybe Paul or Noah can get on the horn to bike advocates in LA? You’d think that savvy bike advocates in Hollywood could have images of a different celebrity on bikes sent around the world every week.

  • I’ve been a huge fan of David Byrne’s music since I was a teen-ager (that was a long time ago), and his advocacy for livable streets makes me love him all the more.

    David, don’t ever Stop Making Sense!

  • Alex K

    Congrats to David Byrne and TA for this wonderful event. Music and bicycling are great talents to have (but not mixed)! Right on, David!

  • Went to dis, had a great time, loved three of the four speakers.

    I am convinced that Mike Joachim guy, who admitted his work was financed by the car companies, was financed specifically because it was all so outlandish and infeasible that it’ll make automobiles by comparison look good. (Also, he didn’t talk at all about bicycles.)

    And I don’t think JSK meant to dis him when her first words following him were “Hi, I’m Janette, and I’m going to talk about /bicycles/.” But the crowd went wild anyway. 🙂

  • gecko

    #5 Kaja, Good appraisal of Mitch Joachim’s work and it is an important indication of a pending sea change in how tired the whole car concept now comes off.

    Insurance, oil, and auto industry special interest groups have taken a huge toll on innovation in this country most obvious at MIT which is a major institution of considerable influence in setting the technological track in this country and where Mitch comes from.

    Hopefully the tipping point will soon arrive when the so-called transportation establishment, experts, designers, etc. realize the error of their ways.

    It has been and continues to be a long uphill battle with people like Sadik-Khan leading the charge.

    (Sorry I missed the event.)

  • gecko

    #6 gecko, Correction: Insurance, FINANCE, oil, and auto industry special interest groups have taken a huge toll on innovation in this country most obvious at MIT which is a major institution of considerable influence in setting the technological track in this country and where Mitch comes from.

  • Kaja and Gecko: I omitted mention of Mitchell Joachim’s presentation, partly to save space but also because it deserves its own treatment … somewhere. With its “jet pack city,” “FAB TREE HAB,” etc., I half-thought it was a goof … an hilarious piece of performance art.

    I’ve been digging into the book (Bicycle Diaries). So far it’s gripping / brilliant / beautiful.

  • Jym

    =v= The “outlaw persona” is for the most part imposed by those who fear change and think there’s something wrong with nonconformists. Even in my safety dork days, when I put reflectors on every surface (including the requisite rear-view mirror on my eyeglasses) I’ve been treated like an outlaw simply for being on the road rather than the sidewalk.

    Certainly there are some, particularly certain young males, who enjoy an outlaw persona, but that’s independent of transportation mode. There are entire cinematic and musical genres devoted to outlaw motorists, yet nobody considers this a threat to motordom. Let’s just get as many people on biking as possible and the personas will sort themselves out.

    BTW, this event was the 15th anniversary of the arrests of traffic-calming cyclists in Central Park. They weren’t trying to be outlaws, they just wanted to be able to ride their bikes in the park, safely — a right we now all enjoy. Kudos.


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