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David Byrne: Bicycle Diaries

Sometimes you run across books that happen to ring a whole row of your intellectual cherries. I’ve actually had Bicycle Diaries on my shelf for a couple years, slowly fueling the fire of my readerly anticipation all the while. When my interests came into unprecedentedly close alignment with the book’s own, I couldn’t resist de-prioritizing all other projects and pulling it down.

The book resonates strongly with, off the top of my head, at least ten of my current enthusiasms:

  • Cycling as transportation
  • Cities and their structures
  • The effects of mixed human interaction on creative output and vice versa
  • Internationalism and foreign travel
  • Experimental music
  • Unconventional uses of irony
  • The nature of normality
  • Late-seventies/early-eighties alternative pop culture, especially when partially U.K.-derived (as Byrne is)
  • Diarism
  • Meditative practices that aren’t actual meditation

Byrne took up cycling back in the early eighties, a time when it got him strange looks. He observes that, on a bike, “your unconscious is free to kind of mull over what it is you’ve got to deal with that day or whatever creative stuff you’re working on. Sometimes the problems get a little closer to being solved by the time you get to where you’re going.” He even blocks out time on trips for bike-based “random wandering,” which “clears the head of worries and the concerns that might be lurking, and sometimes it’s even inspiring.”

These writings on cycling (and every subject the mind of David Byrne can connect to cycling) reveal that he uses his bike not just for meditative practice, but as a means of transport and a delivery system for urban aesthetic experiences. He mentions several times the joy of gliding around a city on two wheels, gazing out from a perspective above a pedestrian’s and above most drivers’ as well. Observations made prom this perspective provide jumping-off points for chapters on such variously bikeable cities as Berlin, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Manila, Sydney, London, and New York. (Disappointingly, he makes mention of neither Los Angeles nor Mexico City, except in passing references to their non-density.)

Byrne’s love of cycling purely as a means of transit might not sound notable, unless you, like me, have looked around the street and noticed that almost every other rider looks like a crypto-competitor, dramatically bent over and partially kitted out with toe clips, wraparound shades, and maybe specialized pants. I found some measure of validation for my habit of dressing normally on my bike when I read that Byrne does it too (“You don’t really need the spandex”), thought I wonder how far “But David Byrne does it!” will take me as a life strategy. (Pretty far, I bet.)

Noting down how well each city he visits accommodates his cycling and what he thinks they could do better, Byrne takes a bike advocate’s position, certainly, but an advocate of bikes as almost another form of public transportation. This idea doesn’t strike me as especially far out; I use my bike effectively as an extension of the L.A. Metro (because there’s almost always room to take your bike onboard), and I noticed that the bikes of Mexico City’s Ecobici rental system (for D.F. residents only, unfortunately, but very similar to some of the schemes Byrne tries out in his travels) bear the words “Sistema de Transporte Individual,” echoing the subway’s “Sistema de Transporte Colectivo.”

This means he reserves special praise for towns full of carefully thought-out bike lanes, like Copenhagen has. I’ve been happy with L.A.’s bikeability — I find it even easier to get around that way here than I did in Santa Barbara or Seattle — but I do have to devote a chunk of my mental bandwith to getting around or through the next unusual or unpredictable obstacle. I oscillate between the road and the sidewalks (legal to ride on here), take unusual positions within lanes, and use routes that look wonky mapped out. Rarely without a helmet, I take a certain pleasure in this hint of extreme sportiness — as does Byrne — but the image of all those freely biking, utterly unprotected Copenhageners, toddling and septuagenarian alike, gives me pause.

In L.A., such a caliber of bike lane remains, uh, eventually forthcoming, but I choose to deal with the inconveniences and ride this city for the same reasons Byrne rides his hometown of New York and and well beyond, especially the ones to do with experiencing the urban fabric more directly. The natural exposure and flexibility of cycling, so Byrne argues in a way that persuades me well enough, offer the higest-bandwidth connection. But he’s got thoughts on the fabric itself as well.

Many of these thoughts have to do with diversity — financial, racial, aesthetic, industrial, artistic — and the liveliness it generates, the sort of liveliness that presumably did its part to forge Byrne’s creative persona decades ago. “A neighborhood that has many kinds of people and businesses in it is usually a good place to live,” he writes. “If there were some legislation that ensured that a mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhood would emerge when developers move in, it would be wise, because those are the liveliest and healthiest kinds of communities. [ … ] Creativity gets a boost when people rub shoulders, when they collide in bars and cafes and have an tentative sense of community. [ … ] Creativity will be extinguished in New York if random and frequent social contact is eliminated.”

I’ve left my own jury out on the matter of whether legislation is the way to accomplish this, since I get nervous about any solution that premised upon giving politicians and bureaucrats more power. Sure, maybe you’ve got a far-sighted, forward-thinking visionary in office now, but what about the guy who succeeds him? But for all its much-discussed fragmentation, L.A. certainly seems to have more and more neighborhoods moving in just this direction.  I feel excited to see how that changes the sort of culture this city generates over the next decade or so, especially if I can observe it, as much as possible, from a vantage point that isn’t the inside of a car. As Byrne frames it, “the city is a 3D manifestation of the social and personal — and I’m suggesting that, in turn, a city, its physical being, reinforces those ethics and re-created them in successive generations and in those who have immigrated to the city. Cities self-perpetuate the mind-set that made them.”

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