David Byrne on bicycles, Atlanta’s sprawl and burying highways

Via Creative Loafing

By Thomas Weatley

David Byrne started using a bicycle for his primary means of transportation in the 1980s. And what began as a simple way of getting around New York City turned into what he considers the best way to explore the world’s great (and not so great) cities.

In the Philippines, he stumbled into what he soon discovered was a bordello. In Detroit, he witnessed the manufacturing Mecca’s harsh decline as he pedaled past abandoned homes, factories and buildings. And in New York, his current home, he once almost collided with Paris Hilton and her ubiquitous miniature hound.

Last year, Byrne chronicled these experiences and observations — along with thoughts about how cities should change to accommodate more cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders — in his book The Bicycle Diaries. Read it and you’ll see he’s not just someone who enjoys casual rides, but is a lover of urban spaces.

On Wednesday, Byrne will join Georgia Tech professor Ellen Dunham- Jones, Glenwood Park developer Charles Brewer and former Buckhead Community Improvement District executive director Scotty Greene at the Tabernacle to discuss his endeavors and the way our cities are changing, for better or worse.

Tickets for the event, which kicks off this week’s Congress for New Urbanism conference here in Atlanta, can be purchased here.

Byrne — who was unable to join us for our first interview idea, a bicycle tour of Atlanta’s hectic, dangerous streets — was kind enough to answer some questions for us via email.

Are you planning on taking a bicycle ride while you’re in town? If so, are you scared for your life?

I’ve taken rides around Atlanta before on previous trips….it’s pretty hairy alright..and hot in the summer. But I discovered the Salt Works once while pedaling around and that was pretty good. This trip is too quick, in and out, so there’s no time for a ride.

You briefly mention Atlanta in the book when you refer to cities that seem like they were designed for cars rather than people. Another time is the lecture where a professor said we topped the list of energy hogs. We are not off to a good start. As someone who’s visited cities all over the world, what’s been your impression of Atlanta? You say that sometimes the least accommodating cities to bicycles are sometimes the most interesting, so we must be fascinating.

Yeah, the sprawl is fascinating — like ogling something bizarre and grotesque….I suspect there are bike trails somewhere and some nice rides here and there as well, but I really ride to commute and get around from place to place, and Atlanta wasn’t made for that. Lots of great people, and some serious types as well. Great music and food.

But the city, well…there are reasons why Detroit is almost gone and why Phoenix is sinking fast and I’d be very surprised if a lot of the homes built in recent years on the fringes of the Atlanta metroplex actually have people living in them. I think the big bad wolf hasn’t come to Atlanta yet, but I suspect he will pay a visit pretty soon.

You could have made your way around New York in the 1980s via transit, walking, maybe even a car. Why’d you choose a bike for a principal means of transportation?

I took the subway now and then back in the day….if I had business uptown…but most of my world was downtown in those days and it was simply more convenient to get around by bike. It’s even easier now. I felt empowered and it felt good. I’ve never had a car here in NY — it’s simply not necessary. I rent one or borrow a friend’s if I go to the countryside.

What was it that made you decide to sit down and chronicle your experiences and observations for The Bicycle Diaries?

I’d been doing it already in my diary and then in my journal/blog and to be honest a book agent and editor said, “You might have a book here.” Of course I spent another year revising and compiling and expanding on what I’d started. But in the beginning there was no decision to write a book. That might have been too scary.

How do you feel about New York’s recent experiments with public spaces? (i.e. closing auto traffic into Times Square, Summer Streets, proposed road diets, similar Times Square-esque proposal for Union Square) If you had a magic wand and could become NYCDOT commissioner, what would you do, be it from a simple fix or a complete overhaul, regardless of cost or design?

Well, as someone who walks or gets around by bike I think Janette is making this city a better place to live, and corny as it sounds, is increasing the happiness quotient. You know, the HQ. She’s moving fast, but still taking it step by step.

If I had a magic wand — ahhh, that’s easy — I’d bury the highways, as they’ve done in some other cities. The West Side Highway and the FDR would both go underground, with parks on top that link the city and its people to their waterfront. Cafes, clubs and recreational stuff too. It would be glorious.

Like you, I was raised in the suburbs. I sometimes have this strange, almost-afraid-to-admit-it soft spot in my heart for the place. Maybe it’s nostalgia more than anything else.

Yeah, I wrote a song about nostalgia for the suburbs when they’re gone….it’s a strange but true feeling.

But I’d never want to live there. In your book you say you sometimes get the feeling. What do you think it is about the suburbs, that way of living and those environments, that people find comfortable?

I think they don’t actually find it comfortable — but everyone is nostalgic for the shitholes of their youth. When we’re young and isolated we don’t know if a place is lousy or not- it’s ours and we are of it, and so we feel a weird closeness. But just as some kids who are abused and beaten think that’s just what growing up is, we ex- suburbanites naturally assume that everyone shared our experience. Many did, but not all.

You note that a neighborhoods’ progress can sometimes seep into adjacent neighborhoods and effect change in entire cities. For this to happen, it’s important that people have the ability to travel, move around, and share ideas. Considering that roads allowed people to do this, just on a much larger scale, why do you think we didn’t see the positive cultural and social benefits of roads as compared to something more appropriate for cities, like transit or bicycle lanes? Was it the lonely nature of riding in cars to a destination in which they’re separated from others? The dead zones that many of these roads helped create? Something else?

Roads do indeed link towns and cities and rural settlements….but in order to make connections and share those ideas you mention you have to get out of the car. And if you only drive to meet people exactly like yourself, you aren’t really sharing ideas, you’re just reinforcing your own pre-existing ideas. The thing about many cities — and getting out of the tin bubble — is that they facilitate random encounters, inspirations and connections. That’s how people, being the social animals we are, flourish.

Cities are enjoying a renaissance, one which would probably have been much more visible had the housing market not tanked.

I beg to disagree there. Seems to me the housing market bubble was not about cities but about getting suckers to take out loans from unscrupulous bankers on houses in the exurbs.

Young people and even some older adults tend to want to live in a place where they can walk, move around, collaborate and not spend their mornings and afternoons trapped in gridlock. What are going to be the obstacles to accommodating these people?

Right now a lot of cities in the US don’t have the infrastructure to support a huge influx- but I suspect it will happen incrementally, that some neighborhoods will get new inhabitants and then will support services like public transportation, schools, bike lanes, and of course cafes and other business will open as well. Maybe various hubs like these will have to become established before they can link up and transform a whole city….

That brings us to what about the people who’ve lived in cities all their lives and want to stick around?

In a lot of U.S. cities the housing projects were built on what is now super desirable real estate, by a river or lake or near downtown. Predictably, as these areas get gentrified the developers want to kick out those inhabitants…but it doesn’t have to be either/or- there should be room for varieties of income and occupations to live in the same neighborhood….

This is a rather broad question, but where do you see want to see cities in 10 or 100 years? Or more precisely, where do they need to be? Urban living and life?

Cities of a certain density are not only inspiring and exciting, they are more green than suburbs as well. They’re going to be more economical to live in before too long. I think just these pragmatic factors alone are going to make cities see a huge resurgence. They’re also great machines for creative thinking — which is important as we don’t really do as much manufacturing anymore…

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