Bicycle Diaries Excerpt: New York

This is the second excerpt from the Bicycle Diaries, David Byrne’s bike book and is about riding in New York. We’re traveling now on the Mobile Social Worldwide arriving in London on Wednesday.


New York

I ride my bike almost every day here in New York. It’s getting safer to do so, but I do have to be fairly alert when riding on the streets as opposed to riding on the Hudson River bike path or similar protected lanes. The city has added a lot of bike lanes in recent years, and they claim they now have more than any other city in the United States. But sadly most of them are not safe enough that one can truly relax, as is possible on the almost completed path along the Hudson or on many European bike lanes. That’s changing, bit by bit. As new lanes are added some of them are more secure, placed between the sidewalk and parked cars or protected by a concrete barrier.

Between 2007 and 2008 bike traffic in New York increased 35 percent. Hard to tell if the cart is leading the horse here– whether more lanes have inspired more bicycle usage or the other way around. I happily suspect that for the moment at least, both the Department of Transportation and New York City cyclists are on the same page. As more young creative types find themselves living in Brooklyn they bike over the bridges in increasing numbers. Manhattan Bridge bike traffic just about quadrupled last year (2008) and the bike traffi c on the Williamsburg Bridge tripled. And those numbers will keep increasing as the city continues to make improvements to bike lanes and adds bike racks and other amenities. In this area the city is, to some extent, anticipating what will happen in the near future–a lot more people will use bikes for getting to work or for fun.

On a bike, being just slightly above pedestrian and car eye level, one gets a perfect view of the goings-on in one’s own town.Unlike many other U.S. cities, here in New York almost everyone has to step onto the sidewalk and encounter other people at least once a day–everyone makes at least one brief public appearance. I once had to swerve to avoid Paris Hilton, holding her little doggie, crossing the street against the light and looking around as if to say, “I’m Paris Hilton, don’t you recognize me?” From a cyclist’s point of view you pretty much see it all.

Just outside a midtown theater a man rides by on a bike– one of those lowriders. He’s a grown man, who seems pretty normal in appearance, except he’s got a monstrously huge boom box strapped to the front of the bike.

I ride off on my own bike and a few minutes later another boom-box biker passes by. This time it’s a Jane-Austen-reading, sensible-shoe-wearing woman. She’s on a regular bike, but again, with a (smaller) boom box strapped to the rear … I can’t hear what the music is.

City Archetypes

There is a magazine in a rack at the entrance to my local Pakistani lunch counter called InvAsian: A Journal for the Culturally Ambivalent.

What is it about certain cities and places that fosters specific attitudes? Am I imagining that this is the case? To what extent does the infrastructure of cities shape the lives, work, and sensibilities of their inhabitants? Quite significantly, I suspect. All this talk about bike lanes, ugly buildings, and density of population isn’t just about those things, it’s about what kinds of people those places turn us into. I don’t think I’m imagining that people who move to L.A. from elsewhere inevitably lose a lot of that elsewhere and eventually end up creating L.A.-type work and being L.A.-type people. Do creative, social, and civic attitudes change depending on where we live? Yes, I think so. How does this happen? Do they seep in surreptitiously through peer pressure and casual conversations? Is it the water, the light, the weather? Is there a Detroit sensibility? Memphis? New Orleans? (No doubt.) Austin? (Certainly.) Nashville? London? Berlin? (I would say there’s a Berlin sense of humor for sure.) Düsseldorf? Vienna? (Yes.) Paris? Osaka? Melbourne? Salvador? Bahia? (Absolutely.)

I was recently in Hong Kong and a friend there commented that China doesn’t have a history of civic engagement. Traditionally in China one had to accommodate two aspects of humanity–the emperor and his bureaucracy, and one’s own family. And even though that family might be fairly extended it doesn’t include neighbors or coworkers, so a lot of the world is left out. To hell with them. As long as the emperor or his ministers aren’t after me and my family is okay then all’s right with the world. I had been marveling at the rate of destruction of anything having to do with social pleasures and civic interaction in Hong Kong–funky markets, parks, waterfront promenades, bike lanes (of course)–I was amazed how anything designed for the common good is quickly bulldozed, privatized, or replaced by a condo or office tower. According to my friend civic life is just not part of the culture. So in this case at least, the city is an accurate and physical reflection of how that culture views itself. The city is a 3-D manifestation of the social, and personal–and I’m suggesting that, in turn, a city, its physical being, reinforces those ethics and re-creates them in successive generations and in those who have immigrated to the city. Cities self-perpetuate the mind-set that made them.

Maybe every city has a unique sensibility but we don’t have names for what they are or haven’t identified them all. We can’t pinpoint exactly what makes each city’s people unique yet. How long does one have to be a resident before one starts to behave and think like a local? And where does this psychological city start? Is there a spot on the map where attitudes change? And is the inverse true? Is there a place where New Yorkers suddenly become Long Islanders? Will there be freeway signs with a picture of Billy Joel that alert motorists “attention, entering New York state of mind”?

Does living in New York City foster a hard-as-nails, no nonsense attitude? Is that how one would describe the New York state of mind? I’ve heard recently that Cariocas (residents of Rio) have a similar “okay, okay, get to the point” sensibility. Is that a legacy of the layers of historical happenstance that make up a particular city? Is that where it comes from? Is it a constantly morphing and slowly evolving worldview? Do the repercussions of local politics and the local laws foster how we view each other? Does it come from the socioeconomic-ethnic mix; are the proportions in the urban stew critical, like in a recipe? Does the evanescence of fame and glamour lie upon all of L.A. like whipped cream? Do the Latin and Asian populations that are fenced off from the celebrity playgrounds get mixed into this stew, resulting in a unique kind of social psychological fusion? Does that, and the way the hazy light looks on skin, make certain kinds of work and leisure activities more appropriate there?

Maybe this is all a bit of a myth, a willful desire to give each place its own unique aura. But doesn’t any collective belief eventually become a kind of truth? If enough people act as if something is true, isn’t it indeed “true,” not objectively, but in the sense that it will determine how they will behave? The myth of unique urban character and unique sensibilities in different cities exists because we want it to exist.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from BICYCLE DIARIES by David Byrne. Copyright © David Byrne, 2009

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