By Steven Kurutz
In some circles, David Byrne is nearly as famous for riding a bike as he is for making music. The former leader of Talking Heads and current solo artist is an unabashed advocate for two-wheeled travel, and he uses a bicycle as his primary mode of transport in New York City, where he lives. He also brings one with him on tour.
Last year, Mr. Byrne, 58, published "Bicycle Diaries," a travelogue detailing his adventures in such cities as San Francisco, London and Istanbul. The book is a genial mix of Mr. Byrne's bikeside observations, as well as a manifesto for reducing our reliance on cars and making smarter urban-planning decisions. For the recently released audio edition of the book, he picked up his guitar and added music and narration. The Journal spoke with Mr. Byrne last week.
How does the experience of being on a bike differ from traveling by car or on foot?
In cities, it seems to me you have a bit more self-determination. You can stop whenever you want. Things catch your eye because you're just a little above the perspective of a pedestrian. But you can usually stop and investigate something if you want to. I don't know if anybody has come up with anything better that makes you feel like you're floating on your power, through an urban landscape. It's exhilarating.
I'm glad you say in your book that cyclists need to obey traffic laws. I notice that many blow through red lights.
I'm totally with you there. You're not going to get respect if you don't respect other people you share the road with. You see it in Europe. They stop for red lights. They don't ride the wrong way or on the sidewalks. I'm trying to do it because I figure if I'm running red lights someone is going to bust me on some blog.
The America you describe sounds like a crumbling country, particularly when you visit cities like Detroit.
Detroit is an extreme case that everybody else can learn from, maybe. There's a network of highways that criss-cross parts of the city. But, basically, they're designed for you to avoid the city. You get off the highway and you realize how weird and extraordinary a place it has become. I saw raccoons in the city and a flock of pheasants. This is not in the parks; this is in the city.
How do you fix the country's infrastructure problems?
I think some cities we're going to have to say goodbye to. Detroit isn't going to like to hear that. But the infrastructure—the highways, the roads, the schools—is designed for a city of 2 million people and there's, like, a third of the people there now. That's not sustainable. I had a discussion with somebody about the symphony there. The Detroit Symphony doesn't want cutbacks. It's like, have you walked two blocks around Symphony Hall and seen what's there? It's vacant lots and abandoned buildings.
Your songs recently appeared in "Wall Street 2," as they did in the original film. Are you concerned your music will be associated with unbridled capitalism?
I'm aware that the movie, as with a lot of movies, is trying to criticize, but also they end up lionizing the very thing they're criticizing. Certainly in the first one, the Gordon Gekko character was way more interesting than any of the good guys. A lot of people came away going, "I want to be that guy. I don't care if he went to jail." But Oliver Stone is trying to make some kind of criticism or point, too. It's not pure titillation.
Do you plan to explore these ideas in music—say, a concept album about city planning?
Boy, if somebody could write a song about that I'd have to stand up and cheer for them. No. There are some things you just can't write songs about.