David Byrne: From Talking Heads Frontman to Leading Urban Cyclist

When David Byrne began riding a bicycle in late-seventies and early-eighties New York, he drew funny looks on the street. But the convenience of rolling from neighborhood to neighborhood, party to party, and gallery to gallery on two wheels couldn’t be denied, and now, over three decades later, we find Byrne has evolved to occupy a unique set of parallel careers: singer-songwriter, artist of many media (including but not limited to Microsoft PowerPoint), and urban cycling advocate. Over the past few years, what with sharply rising gas prices and a reinvigorated public interest in how better to use our cities, the world has paid especially close attention to the latter third of Byrne’s work. He’s responded by writing, touring, lecturing, and even industrial-designing (bike racks, that is) in support of the humble bicycle, if not as humanity’s only hope, then at least as a pretty darn personally and socially effective way of getting from point A to point B.

“You don’t really need the spandex,” Byrne writes in his book Bicycle Diaries, whose publication occasioned the above New York Times video profile. He advocates cycling neither as a hard-charging sport nor as an atavistic hit of childhood whimsy, but as a full-fledged means of daily transportation. Not only does he wear regular clothes doing it, but in this video he actually goes helmetless, albeit on the car-free Hudson River Greenway. As expressed in both book and video, Byrne’s thoughts on the exhilaration of cycling through cities — “there’s a sense of floating through the landscape, watching it as it goes by, but you can stop at any moment if something catches your eye” — have kept me on my own bike. I ride it in Los Angeles, a city of clear weather and flat terrain that sometimes strikes me as an ideal cycling environment — until Byrne or someone else bring up European towns, like Copenhagen or Modena, through which tykes, octogenarians, and everyone in between ride regularly and fearlessly. Even North America’s most bike-friendly cities haven’t reached that level yet, but with advocates as creative and unbureaucratic as David Byrne advising them (though sometimes with suggestions as grand as “bury the West Side Highway”), surely it’s only a matter of time.

Related Content:

David Byrne: How Architecture Helped Music Evolve

The Physics of the Bike

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (5)
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  • Shelley says:

    Three cheers for the regular clothes.

  • Kathleen Ryan says:

    But no cheers for the helmetlessness.

  • Cyclist safety is dependent on many more aspects than helmet wearing. I cycle in the Netherlands: almost no one here wears helmets, about 30% of daily journeys is by bike. Number of deaths of cyclists last year? 5. I’d say that separated cycling infrastructure and better cross roads design are more conducive to cyclist safety than helmets.

  • bert says:

    Come ride in China. I don’t wear a helmet maybe a mistake. There are also places in the world that WERE friendly for bike riding, 16 years ago Beijing was like that. Now it’s more and more and more and more cars and less and less and less room for the bikes. I still ride about once or twice a week to do some part time teaching on the side but I’m a big guy so my butt is a but sore after a 1hr ride one way but it’s good for me, the pollution is another story.

    • Andrea Tharp says:

      If you can get a “tractor seat” they’re very comfortable. Not the fastest thing in the world but worth the trade-off if you’re not racing :D

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