I was expecting a turnout befitting a rockstar when I showed up at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square a couple weeks ago for an event celebrating the publication of David Byrne’s book, The Bicycle Diaries. The book is an account of the former Talking Head’s three decades worth of cycling adventures in cities around the world. And, indeed, the 4th floor was packed by the time I arrived, relegating me to a standing room spot somewhere back in the self-help section. (Hence the blurry photo above.) But as I looked around at the assembled crowd, it seemed a group that cared more about the urban transportation issues than they did about Byrne’s celebrity – which was, I expect, exactly what the musician/artist/author, longtime bike commuter and urban cycling advocate had in mind.
In lieu of a standard author’s reading, Byrne had convinced his publishers and Barnes & Noble to organize a sort of urbanist “be-in”, a discussion on the theme of “Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around.” His discussion partners: Mitchell Joachim, architecture professor at Columbia and Wired-anointed visionary; Paul Steely White, director of cycling advocacy group Transportation Alternatives; and Commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan.
As the speakers were being introduced – the format would be four mini-lectures and a Q&A – I took a closer look at the crowd: messenger bags, cycling caps and helmets, chunky glasses (A 25-year-old in Corbu-style frames? Really?), Rhodia and Moleskine notebooks (quad-ruled, of course), rolled up pant legs, chains locked around waists, even a couple collapsible bikes folded at their owners’ feet. An audience of urbanism nerds and city cyclists.
“Manhattan,” Byrne led off, referencing E.B. White, “is both an island and a fantasy.” In suggesting a tension between the concrete and the ethereal city, the quote was perhaps more instructive than Byrne intended. Because while he seemed to have a foot in both camps, the night, and the rest of the panel, represented an implicit argument over the priorities of urban discourse, pitting the fantastical and grandiose (Joachim) against the pragmatic and incremental (White and Sadik-Khan).
Byrne talked the audience through a slide show that was equal parts Urbanism 101 and tour of his idiosyncratic mind. “I forgot to mention,” he deadpanned, a few minutes in, “I’m not just talking about bicycles.” By that point, he’d already gone from E.B. White to Frank Lloyd Wright and was heading towards Buckminster Fuller, Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, Corbu, and GM’s plan for an ideal city from the 1939 World’s Fair. He also offered a reading list that made clear his sympathies: Twenty Minutes in Manhattan by Michael Sorkin; Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities; and The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander. His denunciations of Moses and Corbu reinforced the point: for Byrne, like Jacobs, the streets, teeming with life and offering up the unexpected, are the beating heart of the city. And the bicycle, as he said, is the perfect vantage point, “faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person,” a “panoramic window” onto the world.
Hardly anyone left as Byrne ceded the podium to Mitchell Joachim. Dreadlocked and dressed in black, he gave a practiced and entertaining presentation that betrayed a comfort with standing in front of a full room and talking. I believe he touched on bicycles once, glancingly, but he stuck mostly to what he does best: suggesting big, unconventional thoughts at a rate of about six per minute, drawing the crowd along with him on a tidal wave of words. It was a sort of greatest hits of his big ideas: the foldable, shareable CityCar; the jet pack city (“Jersey City to Wall Street in 19 seconds!”); blimp buses; meat houses; buildings grown from trees; buildings built of trash. Fanciful, thought-provoking stuff, but the crowd seemed unenthused.
Janette Sadik-Khan was next, and her opening line was a small triumph. “I’m gonna talk about bikes,” she said, and the room erupted with applause. The main event had arrived. “It’s fun to talk about jet packs and meat buildings, but….” Joachim’s grand schemes have a place, she seemed to be saying, but not in city governance. Her focus was on her department’s effort to address the dual purpose of city streets as conduits of movement and the locus of “social exchange” while also figuring out how to make the city’s transportation infrastructure work for an ever-growing population (set to increase another million by 2025). She slotted biking into a larger plan that calls for improved walkability, fewer cars, and better public transit and larded her talk with stats on the growing number of city cyclists, the declining incidence of pedestrian and cyclist injuries, and the mushrooming network of bike parking, bike racks, bike lanes, and bikes. (The 9th Ave. bike lane, when mentioned, garnered its own round of applause.) “It’s a new playbook for anyone who does business on the streets of New York,” she said, and more bikes on the street are an integral part of her vision for a better city. Noting that they hope to double bike-ridership in NYC by 2012 and triple it by 2017, she ended with a prediction: “I think we’re going to see increased recognition of New York City as the number one cycling city in the United States.” The crowd liked that one.
“Isn’t Janette great?” Paul Steely White asked rhetorically on taking the podium. “It was just a couple years ago that biking was freakish,” he said, “And then it kind of went to geek territory, then geek-chic, and, now, chic.” A graph showed that as ridership has gone up, cycling casualties have dropped drastically, a trend White attributed to incremental changes: increasing awareness due to the increasing volume of cyclists and the improvement and expansion of biking infrastructure, primarily. White kept the audience in a pragmatic state of mind by reminding them that their nascent cycling paradise of green-striped bike lanes could be taken away at the whim of the next mayor, pointing out that democratic mayoral candidate Bill Thompson has called for Sadik-Khan’s firing and for the removal of some bike lanes. “Call Bill Thompson,” he exhorted the crowd, “and tell him that safety is not negotiable on New York City streets.”
The audience seemed to agree with White, as the first four earnest questions were all for Sadik-Khan. The second, by a woman from Amsterdam who said she gets “doored” on New York’s streets far less frequently now than she used to, had to do with the impact of politics on the new, bike-friendly New York: What’s to prevent a new mayor from taking that away? she asked. Sadik-Khan made a pitch for a third Bloomberg term. “I can’t speak to what another administration will do, but we have a very robust transportation plan that we’ll keep going forward with, and cycling’s a big part of that.”
Byrne jumped in, suggesting that cycling had reached a “critical mass” in New York that would make it harder to roll back gains already achieved. And, in response to a later question, he got the last laugh of the evening with a parable on the manner in which behaviors shift in a city like New York. “When I first heard they were going to try to get everyone to pick up their dogshit,” he told the crowd, he didn’t believe it would work. “Lo and behold, there’s no poop on the streets. But at the time, did you really think it would work?”
As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
Tim is a freelance journalist based in New York and a correspondent for Outside Magazine. Recent stories have taken him from New Guinea to Alaska and from BASE-jumping lessons to the Navy SEALs obstacle course. He lives in Brooklyn.