By Eric Olsen
It is a crisp fall day, and David Byrne is worried about helmet hair. Pedaling up the Hudson River bike path, helmetless, the former Talking Heads frontman keeps a leisurely pace as his large brown eyes dart about and take in the world slipping past. He has agreed to let me tag along during his morning commute north from Canal Street to Midtown. Though he is lanky, there is a graceful flow to his movements, born of more than 30 years and many miles riding here and abroad.
Mr. Byrne was recently back from a publicity tour in Austin, Tex., and Seattle to promoting his new book, “Bicycle Diaries” (Viking), which chronicles his experiences and musings bicycling not just in New York City, but also in the world’s great metropolises, including Berlin, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Manila, Sydney and London. While on tour last year, bikes were always close at hand. “We had seven bikes on the road with us,” Mr. Byrne said. “They would fold up and go into the luggage compartment of the bus.”
Mr. Byrne said he began riding in the 1970s, mostly around the Lower East Side, when “there was nobody over there but drug dealers and drug buyers.” Since then, his passion for bicycling has blossomed, as has his interest in the city’s urban renewal.
Mr. Byrne commutes along the Hudson River bike path from his home in Midtown down to his SoHo office. The ride is one of his favorites. He says he adores the breathtaking river views on one side, but he is clearly annoyed by the traffic whizzing past on the other. Asked what more the city could do for bikers, he is unapologetic: “Bury the West Side Highway,” he snaps. “Put the highway underground if you want to keep the damn highway.”
Mr. Byrne said his travels have opened his eyes to what is possible for New York. While the city has made great strides by creating bike lanes and installing bike racks (some of Mr. Byrne’s own design), he said, it has yet to measure up to some of its European counterparts, progressive urban centers like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. He also has a special fondness for places off the beaten track.
“The ones that are incredibly bike friendly are these northern Italian towns — Ferarra, Modena,” he said. “It’s almost like the whole center of the city is closed off. In the centers you see grandmas, and beautiful women, kids, everybody just biking around.”
Mr. Byrne, 57, cuts a dashing figure. His hair is not so much gray as a spiky, incandescent white, part gracefully aging rock star, part phosphorous bomb. He wears white pants, white shoes and a bright orange vest beneath a dark blue jacket. It is hard to picture him in spandex. Even his bike, a hybrid, has personal flair. The handlebars are modified to allow him to sit up more straight as he rides. “Since I’m not riding for sport, I kind of like to see where I’m going,” he said.
Biking for him, he said, is mostly a matter of utility, getting from A to B. He says he plans his route based on where there are bike lanes. But, as you might expect from the man who turned a building into a musical instrument, riding also affords him stretches of reflective time to clear his head.
“Your unconscious is free to kind of mull over what it is you’ve got to deal with that day or whatever creative stuff you’re working on or whatever problems,” he said. “Sometimes the problems get a little closer to being solved by the time you get to where you’re going.”
Now that his band is on hiatus from touring, he thinks about what he can do to nurture Manhattan’s biking culture. Last year, he designed a series of quirky bike racks for city streets. Now, he would like to see the city add new bike lanes, especially in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. He supports a bike-sharing program like those in European capitals. He also contemplates grander schemes, like turning a much bigger area around 42nd Street (not just Times Square) into a pedestrian center, and building a greenway like the Hudson River bike path down the middle of Manhattan. “There’s probably no money for that,” he said ruefully.
As we near the end of the ride, Mr. Byrne admits that New York is making good progress. We’re not Copenhagen yet, but maybe someday we’ll get there: “Little by little,” he says, legs churning. “It’s not going to be something overnight.”