Bicycles in NYC

David Byrne on bicycling in NYC

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Published June 18, 2007 at Journal.DavidByrne.com
By David Byrne 

I have been riding a bicycle in New York City for almost 30 years! For transport, not for sport. At first there were only a few of us. Loners, losers, maniacs and nerds. Some of the members of Talking Heads used to make fun of me and say I was going to turn into Pee Wee Herman — and they weren’t talking about his extensive porno collection. But we knew some pleasures of which other New Yorkers seemed completely ignorant. Pleasures available to all. An exhilarating feeling as the air rushes past and we dodge taxis and New York pedestrians, who still insist on playing in the traffic. A feeling of flying through and around the inevitably stalled traffic. One has to stay alert — if your attention wavers, you’re done for. Who needs coffee? Or a morning at the gym? A ride across town gets the adrenalin going as one heads to work or to the studio in the morning. By the time one arrives for a meeting one is fully awake — blood pumping, on alert — having often just had 3 near-death experiences. In the hot New York summers, yes, one can tend to “glisten” when one arrives at an appointment, which is not always appreciated, so I had a shower installed in my office. But, if one pedals at a relaxed pace and stays away from the snarled traffic as much as possible (cars and trucks raise the surrounding temperature) one can arrive more or less dry, but with a healthy glow.

Over the decades things have improved in New York for cyclists — a little. Now there is a wonderful bike path up the Hudson that runs almost the entire length of Manhattan. I use it to commute to and from work. Now there are markings on some streets indicating imaginary bike lanes (imaginary because the traffic and pedestrians often ignore the markings) but they are there in spirit, at least. Someday they will be taken seriously, I have no doubt — when gas hits $10 a gallon.

Now Paris is embarking on a bicycle plan that should make New York envious. A collaboration between business and civic affairs than may just work, as both the city and Deceaux can benefit. Bikes as a means of local transport has worked elsewhere; the mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, relieved traffic congestion AND made his city more livable by converting streets to bike/pedestrian use and by adding dedicated bus lanes. Of bike lanes he said, “If an eight year old kid can’t ride on it safely then it isn’t a bike lane.” I don’t remember Paris having very many bike lanes, and the drivers adopt a “survival of the pushiest” approach, as I recall, but that may be changing.

Some years ago I found that if there were a few music or art events happening one evening in downtown Manhattan the fastest and easiest way to hit them all was by bike. While other club, film, restaurant or gallery-hoppers were searching for cabs or pacing subway platforms I would be zooming through the cool night air. I felt a little superior, but also a little lonely — it’s hard to have conversations or meet people on a bike. But you sure can turn an evening into a mini-festival.

After a few years of riding in New York I discovered a folding bike and I began to take it on tour with me every couple of years. I realized I could then explore the city where I’d be performing that evening: Paris, New Orleans, Copenhagen. Sometimes, in Istanbul or Buenos Aires, for example, I was the only one on a bike, so I got some strange looks. In Las Vegas the only people riding bikes are those who, usually due to gambling debts, have lost everything — their home, their car — so bikers are looked on as losers and bums. The lowest of the low. In Vegas I rode through a drive-through wedding chapel. In some other towns such as Rome or Napoli the local car and scooter traffic was somewhat “challenging”. (But if one avoids the 7 famous hills Rome is almost perfect for biking as it’s small, the traffic is slow-moving and the city has not been carved up by motorways.) On my last tour I bought bikes for the others to use if they wished, and some of them did.

There’s a feeling of freedom that comes with cycling in a big city which is very important, as one can feel trapped by the routine of touring, work, or even travel. Trapped in a neighborhood of hotels and offices, or a neighborhood of tourist attractions, one can escape — quickly and instantly — and ride along the levees in New Orleans (pre-Katrina) or through the back streets of Grenada. (In New Orleans I rode to the Decadence Ball, an outdoor affair that admitted guests on two conditions: if they were in costume or were naked. I guess my helmet and odd fashion sense qualified as a costume.) Even if freedom is an illusion the physical sensation of riding does a pretty good job of making it seem attainable for a moment.

This week I am in Berlin. Yesterday my girlfriend and I rode out along the amazing Karl Marx Allee to the Stasi Museum. Here is a camera hidden in a birdhouse — tweet tweet.