David Byrne on Bicycling in NYC


Transportation Alternatives’ Noah Budnick and David Byrne prior to the Manhattan Borough President’s "Manhattan on the Move" conference, October 2006.

Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne writes about his 30 years of cycling in New York City on his website.  Byrne is an avid bicyclist, and an alternative transportation advocate:

I have been riding a bicycle in New York City for almost 30 years!
For transport, not for sport. At first there were only a few of us.
Loners, losers, maniacs and nerds. Some of the members of Talking Heads
used to make fun of me and say I was going to turn into Pee Wee Herman.

Over the decades things have improved in New York for cyclists — a little. Now there is a wonderful bike path up the Hudson
that runs almost the entire length of Manhattan. I use it to commute to
and from work. Now there are markings on some streets indicating
imaginary bike lanes (imaginary because the traffic and pedestrians
often ignore the markings) but they are there in spirit, at least.
Someday they will be taken seriously, I have no doubt — when gas hits
$10 a gallon.

Now Paris is embarking on a bicycle plan that should make New York
envious. A collaboration between business and civic affairs than may
just work, as both the city and Deceaux can benefit. Bikes as a means
of local transport has worked elsewhere; the mayor of Bogota, Enrique
Peñalosa, relieved traffic congestion AND made his city more livable by
converting streets to bike/pedestrian use and by adding dedicated bus
lanes. Of bike lanes he said, “If an eight year old kid can’t ride on
it safely then it isn’t a bike lane.”
I don’t remember Paris having
very many bike lanes, and the drivers adopt a “survival of the
pushiest” approach, as I recall, but that may be changing.

  • Clarence

    Mr. Byrne is also in the 2nd most popular StreetFilm here:


  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    That’s a bit more upbeat than what he wrote thirty years ago in “The Big Country“:

    I see the parkway that passes through them all.
    And I have learned how to look at these things and I say,
    I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Also, about the destruction of his childhood homes in Arbutus, Maryland, the New York Times:

    As he recounts his early life, we’re on a train from New York to Washington,
    hurtling toward the very patch of ground where he grew up. His boyhood home
    no longer exists; it was sacrificed for Interstate 95. “I’ve tried to find
    the woods where I used to play,” he says. “But I can never get my bearings.
    It’s pretty disorienting.”

    and the City Paper:

    When I confess that I was a fellow if somewhat younger Arbutian, I think I see an eyebrow raised in interest. We slip into shorthand geographical references, and it emerges that Byrne watched both of his childhood homes in Arbutus be demolished, one for construction of Interstate 95, the other for a public parking lot.

    “You get to watch your house pushed into your own basement,” he observes. Was that traumatic? “It does give you a feeling that you have to find your security somewhere other than a house in one place.”

  • d

    Don’t forget “Nothing But Flowers,” which imagines a post-industrial, post-car world where the shopping malls, highways, and billboards have collapsed or been torn down and turned into cornfields.

    It plays things backwards, in a way, to make a point; the narrator has been so used to cars, 7-11s, and Pizza Huts that he “can’t get used to this lifestyle. Classic David Byrne.

    Plus it’s catchy.

    The highways and cars
    Were sacrificed for agriculture
    I thought that we’d start over
    But I guess I was wrong

    Once there were parking lots
    Now it’s a peaceful oasis
    you got it, you got it

  • Gwin

    Paris doesn’t have a lot of bike lanes, although it does seem to have plenty of cyclists. Strangely, almost none of them seem to bother wearing a helmet.

    Stockholm has even more cyclists, though — although I imagine the months in which it’s safe to ride a bike are pretty limited due to ice/snow conditions. Not a lot of helmet-wearing there either, but definitely more than in Paris.

  • Ealier than the lyrics cited above, on Talking Heads’ first album, ’77, he sang optimistically in ‘Don’t Worry About the Government’ about highways and the desirable apartment developments where they lead:

    ‘I smell the pine trees and the peaches in the woods.
    I see the pinecones that fall by the highway.
    That’s the highway that goes to the building.
    I pick the building that I want to live in.

    It’s over there, it’s over there.
    My building has every convenience.
    It’s gonna make life easy for me.
    It’s gonna be easy to get things done.
    I will relax alone with my loved ones.

    Loved ones, loved ones visit the building,
    Take the highway, park and come up and see me,
    I’ll be working, working but if you come visit,
    I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important.’

    Optimism about highways? Well, that was a long time ago. At least he knew the importance of friendship.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Some people have suggested to me that the lyrics to “Don’t Worry about the Government” were tongue-in-cheek, and I’m inclined to agree.

  • I was being tongue-in-cheek, too.


Cities for Cycling Launches With Blumenauer, Sadik-Khan, Byrne

Addressing a packed house in Washington last night, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), founder of the Congressional Bike Caucus, posed a Zen-like ‘universalist cyclist question’. (Photo: Cities for Cycling) "How many people, right now," he asked, "are stuck in traffic on their way to ride a stationary bike in a health club?" The quip got a […]

Why Aren’t American Bike-Share Systems Living Up to Their Potential?

As policy director at the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to June, 2014, Jon Orcutt shepherded the nation’s largest bike-share system through the earliest stages of planning, a wide-ranging public engagement process, and, last year, the rollout of hundreds of Citi Bike stations. That makes Orcutt, formerly of Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation […]

1,200 Pack Town Hall for “How New Yorkers Ride Bikes”

Streetfilms’ Clarence Eckerson was at Town Hall on Saturday night for the New Yorker Festival’s "How New Yorkers Ride Bikes," hosted by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Clarence wasn’t allowed to film the event so he published a nice write-up on StreetFilms. Some excerpts: Mr. Byrne, dressed in black and sporting his cool taxi-yellow […]

Queens Chamber Continues Campaign Against Congestion Pricing

Foes of congestion pricing marshalled by the Queens Chamber of Commerce held a press conference yesterday at which several politicians from the borough took a stand against the mayor’s plan. According to a press release provided by the chamber, City Council Finance Chair David Weprin called the proposal unnecessary: "I don’t think City Hall understands […]

Plan B: Reallocating Street Space To Buses, Bikes & Peds

In a piece from the March issue of Outside Magazine that seems especially relevant today, Tim Sohn writes about public space reform in New York City. His article is accompanied by an illustration of what the future of our city could look like: complete streets with dedicated bus and bike lanes, traffic calming gardens, and […]

Look Out Portland, New York, Minneapolis: Here Comes Chicago

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is wasting no time making good on his campaign promise to make Chicago a world-class cycling city. Just 24 days after his swearing-in ceremony, Chicago has its first bike box. The new mayor and his department of transportation head, Gabe Klein, formerly of DC, held a press conference Tuesday at the site […]