For significant stretches of the narrative, Bicycle Diaries is not about bicycles. David Byrne, probably best known as a member of the group Talking Heads, uses his experiences exploring cities around the world by bike as a vehicle (pun intended) to convey his thoughts on infrastructure, architecture, art, fashion, politics, and more.
The book is not without commentary on bicycle advocacy, and Byrne’s unique observations are a result of his viewing the world from the saddle of his bike, but Bicycles Diaries, published in 2009, proves to be different from many other advocacy-themed books that offer far less social and political commentary.
Byrne has been riding a bike for transportation purposes for decades in New York City, long before it was hip and before the city began making more serious efforts to accommodate cyclists. He’s anti-spandex: “I’ve never tried it. I do have one pair of semi-baggy sports shorts with a crotch pad.” He has experimented with non-traditional helmet decorations and is not a fan of fancy bikes (at least not for utilitarian purposes). Throughout the book, Byrne expresses feelings of liberation and exhilaration when he is riding in cities around the world, but he also emphasizes that he rides because it is convenient and “not necessarily all that strenuous.”
From less glamorous cities* in the United States to some of the culture capitals of the world, Byrne offers his honest opinion about what he sees, what he likes, and what he dislikes as he travels. He’s a musician and an artist and a writer. He knows an incredible array of individuals from his many endeavors, and the chapter set in Manila centers more on Marcos and politics whereas the chapter set in Istanbul focuses more on art, music and belly dancing. If this book is anything, it’s multifarious.
Without giving away too much of the content, as reading Byrne’s musings in context and in their entirety is the only way to appreciate his humor and his insight, the book is a liberal’s view of just about everything related to urban development and culture in many of the world’s cities. He rides in places that are not often covered by bicycle advocates, like Detroit and Berlin and Istanbul, and his opinions on better known cycling cities like San Francisco and London are his own. In the final chapter, he highlights his own (understated and impressive) advocacy efforts in New York City.
If you are looking to educate yourself on issues strictly related to advocacy and transportation planning, then this may not be the book for you. If you’ve read a dozen books about Portland and have an taste for a bit of cultural, social and political commentary that steps away from cycling advocacy but has been shaped by a life in the saddle, then you will enjoy this book.
*A personal note on my use of the phrase, “less glamorous cities:” many of the American cities that Byrne covers in the first chapter, although they may not be perfect, aren’t as down and out as he depicts them. Pittsburgh and Columbus both made Bicycling’s Top 50. I refer to them as “less glamorous” based on his perspective in the book.