By John Greenfield
It’s the last day of Chicago’s Bike to Work week but gale-force winds and buckets of rain make the evening commute feel like life during wartime. Still, a crowd has pedaled to the Claudia Cassidy Theater to hear ex-Talking Head David Byrne talk transportation at the forum “Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around.”
The lanky singer’s recent work to push pedaling includes championing New York’s Summer Streets events—which shut down roadways to cars to create safe space for non-motorized play—designing artistic bike racks and his new book, “Bicycle Diaries,” tales of his two-wheeled explorations of cities all over the world.
Local green transportation bigwigs have joined him for this stop on his national speaking tour: Luann Hamilton from the Chicago Department of Transportation, Jacky Grimshaw from Center for Neighborhood Technology and Randy Neufeld, co-founder of Active Transportation Alliance, now serving as director of the SRAM Cycling fund.
At 58, Byrne is soft-spoken and dignified with a shock of silver hair, a far cry from his hyperactive, uber-nerdy stage persona with Talking Heads. The singer shows a slide of auto-centric development photographed from his hotel window: highways, garages and parking lots. “It’s really depressing,” he says. “There’s no life there whatsoever.”
But Byrne’s optimistic that civilization is doing a U-turn these days, evidenced by vibrant street life in Ferrari, Italy. “Everybody bikes there,” he says. “Old, young, grandmas and fashion models.”
The singer shows various bicycle parking facilities from around the world, like a crazy tower of bikes in Shanghai, and bicycle racks in car spaces in Portland, Oregon. “The bike station in Millennium Park is impressive,” he says. “You can shower there. You can even shower with your bike, if you feel really close to your bike.”
Hamilton outlines the City efforts to promote cycling, including $100 million spent on bike facilities and programs since the early nineties. The audience cheers when she announces that CDOT will be testing automated bicycle rental, a system that’s wildly popular in Paris, with 20,000 rental bikes. Chicago’s program will start small, with 100 bikes at six Loop locations.
Grimshaw says Chicago’s widespread train and bus lines and bike- and ped-friendly street grid make it easy to get around town without a car. She scorns expressways as “the sewer pipes of our transportation system.”
“Bicycling in Chicago has certainly succeeded as far as the ‘brave hipster’ demographic is concerned,” argues Neufeld. “But making streets safe for kids of eight and seniors of eighty should be the goal for urban cycling infrastructure.”
He lists ten ideas for improving cycling, including schemes to slow down cars, bike lanes that are separated from auto traffic by barriers and closing a major street to cars on a weekly basis, a la New York’s Broadway. Flashing a slide of 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon in unfortunate bike garb, Neufeld says, “Talk to your alderman about bicycling—and better fashion.”
A spectator asks if Byrne thinks American troglodytes can be coaxed out of their dens and onto bicycles. “Cycling is not as uncool as it used to be,” he responds. “People are realizing they can go out to dinner and a show on a bike, and shop owners are starting to understand that bikes are good for business. I think we’ve reached a tipping point.”