David Byrne Turns His Book Reading Into Bicycle Advocacy Primer

Former Talking Heads frontman and current bicycling icon David Byrne used his celebrity and the publication of his new book, Bicycle Diaries, to instruct a capacity audience of more than 900 people at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater on the many ways that the bicycle has become a more acceptable and mainstream form of locomotion. Rather than read a single line from his book, he took the opportunity to assemble a panel, including Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) Executive Director Leah Shahum, and Berkeley City and Regional Planning Professor Emeritus Michael Teitz, and show a largely older audience of City Arts devotees a number of photos from his travels, photos contrasting cities around the world where bicycle infrastructure is more than a-nod-and-a-wink, to American cities, where the car is king and any other form of transportation has suffered from neglect or marginalization.

byrnebike.jpgPhoto: Gothamist

The event last night was the kickoff for the 29th Annual Literary Events hosted by City Arts and Lectures, a series decidedly literary and focused on the writer’s craft, with upcoming readings by Margaret Atwood, Nick Hornby, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Chabon. As evidenced by the demographics of the audience and the many negative or hostile retorts about rude and masochistic cyclists blowing stop lights in the question-and-answer period, this was not a typical event organized by the SFBC or city planners, where a talking head or visiting livable streets luminary extols the benefits of the bicycle to a pack of avid cyclists nodding their helmet-marked heads.

One white-haired woman in the audience explained that she wanted to like cyclists, but was on a walk recently with her little dog and they almost got "hit six times" by a crazed cyclist, and there was another time when a bike rider swerved in front of her car and how could they be so crazy?  Another man, with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, asked: "How can we get people who ride bikes to stop at red lights and to stop at stop signs?" Teitz, with a droll British cadence responded: "Bicyclist of the Month: somebody who has been noted for stopping at stop signs…the mayor shakes hands, an award is given….."

Still, Byrne and his guest panelists delivered an entertaining ninety minutes for everyone, no matter how familiar they were with urban cycling.  Each speaker explained how they came to ride bicycles and what a world would look like where the bicycle was an equal transportation partner with cars and other modes (short answer: Copenhagen). Byrne explained that he has been riding a bicycle in New York City for more than 30 years and he has taken a bicycle on tour with him nearly everywhere. In his slide show, full of humorous anecdotes about his travels and his bicycle, he ran through a number of photos and images of master-planned cities as they have been imagined by the likes of le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and General Motors, cities built around cars and naked, empty public spaces, cities devoid of neighborhoods, cities "antagonistic to [their] own citizens."

Byrne lauded the bicycle as utilitarian transport that connects him to neighborhoods: "I ride around on a bicycle as a way of getting around–I don’t race or do those things…. I find that I see things and I stop for things that I wouldn’t normally stop for if I was in a car." He showed a slide of a barbeque joint in Charlottesville, Virginia, with a sign commanding "Get in Here, Eat Barbeque." Byrne: "We did."  Another slide featured houseboat brothels in Utrecht, The Netherlands, beside a street sign depicting mother and child pedestrians. Byrne: "They’re charming, they’re floating… little floating whore houses. There’s a sign that says ‘Hold Your Child’s Hand.’"

In a short video slide, three young children no older than eight played in a band on a sidewalk for money. Byrne: "This is a band that I saw on the streets of New York–really bad band…. If I wasn’t on a bicycle, I wouldn’t have stopped to check it out." His final slide was a Frankenstein bicycle made out of the front wheel of a child’s scooter, a few pieces of plywood, and no seat. Byrne: "Riding a bike doesn’t have to be an expensive thing, you can make them yourself. This one’s a little uncomfortable, but it works."

With little fanfare, Byrne wrapped up his presentation and turned the microphone over to Professor Teitz, who explained that growing up in England, bicycles were not considered recreation, but a fundamental transportation mode complimenting transit and walking. "Nobody in their right mind would have considered using them for recreation," he said. "For recreation you walked three miles across country paths and sat in front of pub and then walked back–actually quite nice."

After a brief history of the bicycle in America, where he pointed out the irony that the demand for quality paved roads resulted from the good organizing of the League of American Wheelmen (now LAB), Teitz asked the audience to imagine how San Francisco might have developed if the bicycle were the fundamental mode of transportation, San Francisco without the invention of the automobile. He suggested that the cabal of bicycle transportation planners and engineers might have figured out how to level some of San Francisco’s steeper hills, or drilled elevators into them so cyclists could take them up to the highest point of the hill and coast down to their homes or jobs.

Teitz then suggested that the real future of urban transportation ought to be fully multi-modal, with space taken from cars and given back to other modes until they are in a suitable balance. He encouraged thinking beyond mere stripes and lines on the asphalt to innovations like the woonerfs, which compel drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to pay attention to each other and negotiate space. "The problem of moving away from a single dominant mode is that it can’t be done with linear thinking…." As evidence that some of the non-linear, creative thinking might be "finally sinking in," he said he recently found an article on woonerfs in the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Magazine.

SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum related a harrowing tale not too long after she first started riding a bicycle in San Francisco, when a driver, who was upset that she was taking a lane of traffic on Masonic, forced her to the sidewalk, then drove up on the sidewalk after her for nearly a block. Shahum only escaped when she came upon another car parked illegally on the sidewalk. She darted between the parked car and the house adjacent, but the maniac pursuing her couldn’t. "I was shaken, I was angry, and I was now an advocate," said Shahum.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu boasted of being the only supervisor who didn’t own a car, said he didn’t get a driver’s license until he was 23 and admitted that he had long been a "bike dork." He was grateful, however, "biking is finally cool," largely because of the work of Byrne, the SFBC, and others who promote bicycle culture. Where friends used to rib him for his post-helmet hairdo, or tell him without a car he couldn’t attract members of the opposite sex and "Muni dates were not very cool," now he said he feels part of a bigger and more sustained movement that will make cities more livable. His only request of Byrne was to create a music video with bicycles to compete with the "hip hop guy and the fly girls dancing around the cool car." (Clearly David didn’t read this post with the world’s greatest bicycle videos!)

More seriously, Chiu said San Francisco has not been cutting edge with bicycle policy, despite the city’s reputation for progressive thinking. He said the city needs to do a better job of enforcing traffic laws to make cycling safer, that the city should design curbside bike lanes, improved bicycle parking on streets and in buildings, and that the city should reconsider the hidden subsidies we pay to maintain automobility and automobile infrastructure. 

We have to think about how to properly value the costs of driving versus cycling…. Our city silently subsidizes the costs of upkeeping our roads, upkeeping our parking. As a city, we need to think about what that means…. Change is not easy. For every change that is proposed, there is a naysayer that will tell you the world will come to an end. With your help, with those of you who care about building our community, who care about building our neighborhoods, who care about protecting our environment, we can transform ourselves, not just one day a year, one day a month, but every single day here in San Francisco.

  • CBrinkman

    So sorry I missed it, we left it too late to get tickets. Did anyone have a good answer for how to stop the cyclists from “mis-behaving”? My response is always more infrastructure, more cyclists. Treat cyclists like rats, some behave like rats.

  • Derek Dees

    …..everything about this article is wonderful. …. excepting the problem. Thank you again David Byrne.

  • zsolt

    Thanks for the summary. I was sad that I couldn’t get tickets, but reading the part about the Q&A I’m actually glad I didn’t go. It would have driven me nuts.

  • rex

    How do we get drivers to stop at stop signs and red lights, or obey the speed limit, or pay attention to the road and not kill people?

  • ZA

    I like Woonerfs! Here are my candidate SF streets for a Woonerf treatment:
    – Clement
    – Judah
    – Taraval
    – Page
    – 17th St
    – Harrison
    – Fillmore

    Your candidates?

  • Troy

    I’m not sure why the real concerns of pedestrians who don’t appreciate near-misses from bicycles are always given the eye-rolling treatment on blogs like this. The concerns are real and bicycle proponents aren’t gaining any friends when riders drive just as rudely as automobiles.

  • Jym

    =v= There was no eye-rolling here. That accusation does bring to mind the emotion-laden misemphasis that underlies this discourse, though.

  • Like rex said, the same thing said about cyclist behavior applies to cars, pedestrians, cabbies, delivery truck drivers, etc. I got into an argument with a friend after lecture when he said he wanted to hear the panelists own up to the behavior of some cyclists. Why? You wouldn’t blame AAA for the behavior of every driver in the country, even those with insurance from a different company, or Walk SF for every jaywalking. Lets try and focus on the part where the Bike Coalition is teaching bike safety to kids and handing out free helmets instead.

    I thought what Proffessor Teits said was they walked “three miles across country paths and sat in front of a pond and then walked back–actually quite nice”, not to sit in front of a pub.

  • @Jamison – just listened to the recording again, cause you got me nervous. It was “pub.”

  • the greasybear

    Troy simply assumes a cyclist must have done something wrong if only a pedestrian claims to have been “almost hit” by the cyclist. We have no reason to make such an assumption, however.

    What does “almost hit” mean? Does it mean a cyclist has acted maliciously or recklessly, as Troy and his ilk imply, by aiming his bike at some hapless and random pedestrian?

    Or might it mean the pedestrian simply failed to look for cyclists, became startled and spooked when one of those cyclists he never sees passed closeby, and projected his own cluelessness onto the cyclist? “He didn’t see me!” Really? How do you know that?

    Cyclists do not intend to hit pedestrians–we’d be hurt just as badly, or worse, in a bike-ped collision. Cyclists also don’t ignore pedestrians, because we cannot afford the luxury of pedestrian-style cluelessness. If we did, we would crash into pedestrians all the time. Yet the statistics simply do not bear out that sort of collision rate.

    “Almost hit” is a pedestrian’s-eye-view of a traffic scenario the cyclist almost certainly saw coming for quite some time–assuming the pedestrian didn’t just fling his body out into the roadway maliciously or recklessly, right Troy? “Almost hit” means nobody was actually hurt.

  • I am a pedestrian, bicyclist, transit passenger, and motorist in San Francisco. I observe that some pedestrians, bicyclists, transit passengers, and motorists are rude, discourteous and appear to willingly endanger themselves or others through their actions. Though I might like to, I sadly assure you I cannot control or alter the behavior of other pedestrians, bicyclists, transit passengers, and motorists even though I am one of them. What I can do is advocate for better infrastructure that will make bicycle/car altercations less likely. I can advocate for better pedestrian infrastructure that will make the streets safer and more pleasant. I can applaud efforts to reduce private car traffic and improve all forms of collective transit. And I can try to drive less and to walk, bike and Muni more. Most of all, what I can do is be respectful of my fellow denizens of the streets and treat them all with courtesy as best I can.

    When I am on my bicycle, I cede the right of way when it is not mine. When I drive my car, I try to plan a few extra minutes into my schedule so I’m not tempted to drive at unsafe speeds or make unsafe turns. And when I walk, I make sure I don’t step in front of moving objects, and I don’t cross against lights. I even wave cars through four-way stops if they’ve arrived at the intersection before me. It’s called taking your turn.

    Courtesy and respect. Infrastructure, infrastructure. Courtesy and respect.

  • I’m with greasybear on this. Many, many times in Chinatown I have near misses and I see them coming a half block away. I see a head bobbing through the crowd and think to myself, “this idiot is just going to stroll into the street.” Sure enough, about 5 ft from interaction, the person steps off the curb right into my path. I have to slam on the breaks, turn the bike and pray for the best. So far I have been lucky.

    On the other hand, my wife walks to work from North Beach to FiDi and almost always comes home with a story of near misses. I trust her judgement as a ped so the biker was probably at fault, but she isn’t out to take every bike off the street because of this. She just becomes that much more aware of her surroundings.

    This just goes to show that “near-misses” aren’t so cut and dry. As long as we have to share the limited public ROW then there are going to be instances that upset one party or the next.

    Which leads me to what Jamison said, you can’t just harp on the SFBC because you are mad at some biker. You should be supporting SFBC because they promote safe biking and programs that teach it.

  • zsolt

    @Troy: I’m not rolling my eyes at people complaining about reckless, rude bikers. I’m rolling my eyes that people are doing it when it distracts from the discussion at hand. Don’t get me wrong — reckless bike riding is a serious and relevant topic, though questions about “near misses” do arise, as Greasy Bear and others pointed out.

    But punting to the rogue biker thing, as it *always* seems to happen when bike infrastructure is being discussed, completely stifles the actual discussion about bike infrastructure.

    See, when a new parking structure is built (for example), the topic that is talked about is whether it will make car driving more efficient or not. Critics such as most people on this site, don’t start relaying their anecdotes such as “but I was almost ran over by a car last weekend” or “car drivers I see never fully stop at a stop sign”. That is pretty much irrelevant to the discussion whether the construction of new car facilities or the policy of encouraging more driving, is good and should be pursued by the city or state or country or not.

    It’s almost as if many people feel that bikers don’t “deserve” more investment in bike infrastructure, until all of them completely obey all traffic laws, at all times. This is a huge double standard, given the enormous subsidies car driving and parking currently receives, despite the number of rogue and reckless drivers and the number of deaths cars cause, mostly by bad or drunken driving. It further cements the entitlement car drivers feel to be given free reign on the roads and relegating everybody else to picking through the crumbs of funds that are left behind by them.

  • rex

    Without embarrassment I roll my eyes. When a 200 lb cyclist at 20 mph causes as much damage as a 4,000 lb car at 40 mph I will care. Seriously, you have a monkey with a gun on one corner, and a dog peeing on a lamppost on the other, which is the more serious problem?

  • The best way to get cyclists from not running stop signs and red lights is to develop planning that treats cyclists as traffic. The “Continual Flow” (http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/006824.html) approach used in The Netherlands is an excellent method, and it was designed by a full-time bicycle planner with considerable city funding for infrastructure. Supervisor Chiu said SF has “7 or 8” such positions when I asked him during the Q&A if the city has a full-time bicycle planner. He was referring to traffic engineers, I believe. Dedicated staff that study, ride and implement bicycle lanes, bicycle stop lights, bicycle ferries, bicycle bridges and bicycle parking facilities, and yes, smooth paths without metal lips and wheel traps, will be the result.

    You can bet that more cyclists will have time and composure enough to then be able to stop at red lights and stops signs, just as they do in The Netherlands.

  • “Walk your bike on the sidewalk”!

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