By Matt Davis
With Bicycle Diaries, former Talking Heads singer David Byrne has written a remarkable book about bicycling all over the world. New Yorker Byrne embraced the pastime in the early 1980s, before it became a cause célèbre for smart-growth advocates in cities everywhere — over the years he's taken a folding bicycle on tour to cities like Sydney, Manila, Istanbul, and Buenos Aires.
The book's obvious charm for most Portlanders is in getting to geek out with an international celebrity who just happens to be actively interested in the impact of sensible transportation planning. For instance, Byrne describes riding through Detroit to the suburbs as "a time line through a city's history, its glory and betrayal," including eerie pictures of busted-up old buildings that made me want to fly there, rent a bike, and blog about it tomorrow—without feeling like a total dork, because hey, a rock star told me to do it.
Byrne's eclectic, energetic spirit imbues the book with depth in addition to affirming the eccentricities of would-be bike advocates everywhere. When he's riding his bike around the Philippines researching a musical about former First Lady Imelda Marcos, for example, readers can see how the experience of getting around differently has enriched Byrne's renaissance intellect over the years. He would have missed plenty from the confines of a limousine.
Byrne also does a good job of chronicling his own evolution into a bicycle advocate — designing bike racks in New York, interviewing the city's visionary Transportation Director Janette Sadik-Khan, and hosting panel discussions in association with the New Yorker. It feels a lot more genuine and grassrootsy than Bono suddenly screaming "drop the debt!" from his Central Park penthouse.
The book is such fun to read that I can forgive Byrne the occasional naïveté that comes with having millions of dollars and nobody around to call bullshit for decades. Not all of us can just call up Fatboy Slim and collaborate, and plenty of other doors are closed to us hoi polloi. Still. The underlying message here is that while bicycling may be a political movement, it can also be liberating and fun at the same time. I'm hoping Byrne's book now heralds bicycling's offbeat entry into the American mainstream, just as his wacky persona hit the big time thanks to our parents' taste in pop music.