The Road to Somewhere: David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries

“Mainstream” may not be the best word to describe David Byrne, yet when a man best known for his role in a rock band writes a book – albeit not completely or for many even sufficiently – about cycling and the infrastructure needed to support it, one is tempted to believe that the issue has gone mainstream.

Though Bicycle Diaries is a great title, this is certainly not the non-motorized version of Che’s famous diaries. It is Byrne’s experience – having carried his folding bicycle on the plane – of cycling in cities such as San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Manila and Berlin, and more so about his reflections on art and artists in those cities.

There is plenty to find fault with in this book. Some of Byrne’s arguments are weak or incomplete. In discussing violence on TV and in video games, he seems to feel satisfied with the fact that murderous scenes did not cause him to become a psycho killer…but of course the question isn’t the effect of such wanton violence on the majority. When writing about an anti-beauty aesthetic – the belief that it is somehow silly, inconsequential or sentimental for art to make people feel good – Byrne fails to relate such attitudes to the horrors of modern architecture that he so poignantly describes elsewhere in the book. If art and theory provide excuses to create inhospitable landscapes, they deserve far sharper critique than his.

The book is a lot more about art, music and people he works with than about cycling, and not all his stories are particularly enthralling. But where Byrne does talk about cycling, he gets it right – and his focus sharpens towards the end of the book. He cycles where he travels, he explains, because one sees and experiences far more: “I felt more connected to the life on the streets than I would have inside a car”. Rates of cycling, he accurately observes, are influenced by the built environment and traffic mix, not by weather and hills.

Byrne devotes decent space to describing changes in his home of New York City, and helpfully suggests good routes. He includes some truly wonderful, place-specific bicycle rack designs that he made and that were actually used by the city. And his description of an event he organized, complete with Jan Gehl, musicians, photos of awful bike lanes, and valet bike parking is enlightening; I for one never knew that David Byrne was helping to make NYC better for cycling.

His vision of the future is compromised by his allowance for cars, yet surely his self-confessed eccentricity would allow him easily to envision streets full of a variety of cycles, some with three or four wheels, with an infinite variety of carriers and carriages attached, the image complete with some trams and lots of pedestrians and people just enjoying the car-free ambiance. Maybe Byrne is more mainstream than even he realizes.

But while I failed to find the book a truly great read or particularly inspirational, as a Talking Heads fan I couldn’t help but love the fact that he has written it. The book isn’t preachy, professional, or academic in the least; he uses slang and casual phrasing. His descriptions of how low architecture has fallen in some religious belts is devastating. And like some other books reviewed on the pages of Carbusters, this one has the tremendous advantage of having the potential to bring some of the unconverted on board – if not to carfree cities, at least to the exciting possibilities of the bicycle as a means of transport and the need for urban transport planners to prioritize cycling. Without efforts to bring on board the unconverted, our work will truly be a “road to nowhere”.

Or to cite the lyrics from that song (road to nowhere): “And we’re not little children/and we know what we want./And the future is certain/give us time to work it out. … There’s a city in my mind/come along and take that ride…And it’s very far away/but it’s growing day by day…” Kudos to David Byrne for helping us (in however limited fashion) take that ride to the city in our mind, that inevitable car-free city.

Reviewed by Debra Efroymson

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