Sunday, November 8, 2009

Book Review: Byrne makes sense in "Bicycle Diaries"

David Byrne started using his bike for daily transport in New York in the late 70s and early 80s – long before it was cool. His ride of choice was a simple commuter bike, and he has never joined the Spandex-clad roadies, which he calls “sport cyclists.” Now, Byrne favors collapsible bikes, which he takes with him on his global travels. He has jotted down thoughts inspired by cycling through cities as diverse as Berlin, Manila, Sydney, Pittsburgh, Istanbul, London, Buenos Aires and New York. Those musings are in his new book, “Bicycle Diaries” – a wonderful volume written in simple, conversational, unpretentious prose.

I never knew about Byrne’s passion for cycling, but it didn’t surprise me. Something about his music seemed to fit the bike. When I was in college in the 80s, I used to blast the Talking Heads while riding my rollers in my room. Funny, I recently reconnected with one of my old colleges housemates. He noted my continued love for cycling and recalled my “Psycho Killer” roller sessions.

Byrne says that cycling an hour or two each day keeps him sane. He explains how he got hooked. “I felt more connected to the life on the streets than I would have inside a car or in some form of public transport. … The same exhilaration, as the air and street life whizzed by, happened again in each town. It was, for me, addictive,” he says. I know exactly what he means.

Naturally, Byrne writes a lot about music and art as well as politics, history and even the Stasi in the former East Germany. But for me, he’s at his best when he’s talking about urban planning, transportation and how the modern metropolis affects human beings. He seems to love bicycle-friendly Berlin. But, like me, he wonders if he prefers Berlin’s easy environment – safe bike lanes, respectful motorists – or the more challenging streets of New York, which make you feel more alive and offer more adventure. I have the same constant internal debate about China’s streets. I bitch a lot about the chaos and roughness or the roads, but I also admit it gives my life an interesting texture.

Byrne is happy that cycling is getting easier in New York. He notes that bike traffic increased by 35 percent between 2007 and 2008. Still, he says, the Big Apple can’t be compared with Copenhagen, where one-third of the workforce commutes by bike. I share Byrne’s hope that the ongoing economic downturn will be a great opportunity for people to rethink how they get around, and public transport and bike lanes won’t be scoffed at anymore.

He makes a good point when he says, “A place without sidewalks privileges the automobile, and therefore the richer people in cars have more rights; this is undemocratic.” This made me think of China and how the car is such a good symbol of the social imbalance, the widening gap between the rich and poor. Roads are increasing being reserved for the wealthy and their autos.

Byrne is also right when he notes that “building more roads doesn’t actually relieve congestion – ever. More cars simply appear to fill these new roads and more folks imagine that their errands and commutes might be accomplished more easily on these new expressways.”


  1. I'm with you and DB. After days at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, cycling the 10k home on my chunky, 20 kilo townbike with my laptop in the crate on the front is a great way to unwind. My dilemma is: iPod or no iPod? Weaving through traffic while riding fast the wrong way down one way streets is definitely better done with something loud on the pod, but there's also a lot to be said for listening to the sounds of the street - and hearing your cellphone when the desk calls with a question on a story you filed an hour earlier.

  2. Oh man, after a day at the tribunal, I'd definitely take the long way home. I imagine an iPod would be safe to use in the Netherlands. But in Guangzhou? No friggen way. About the cellyphone. Sometimes it's good to make the desk wait. ;-)