David Byrne Talks About Bicycles, Herbst Theater, 9/29/09

by Mielle Sullivan on September 30, 2009

Bicycle

Last night David Byrne hosted an event for the “29th Annual Literary Events Series Benefiting the 826 Valencia College Scholarship Program” on “Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around.” Also on the forum was Mike Teitz, a Senior Fellow and former Director of Research at the Public Policy Institute of California, David Chiu, the President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and Leah Shahum, the Director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition. I came not having read his book, Bicycle Diaries, or ever having ridden a bicycle in San Francisco. So, I felt like a bit of an outsider. But I don’t have a car and I am as big a supporter of bicycles as anyone who hasn’t owned a bike in ten years. Also, I like David Byrne and I am interested enough in what he has to say, on most subjects, to come out on a weeknight.

First David Byrne showed several slides taken around the world of bicycle paths and the things one sees while riding. He spoke about each slide and said, frankly, rather obvious things about cycling: cycling brings people together, cycling makes you notice the world, bike paths make cities better and are part of the all-important common spaces. As much of a David Byrne fan as I am, I really wasn’t too impressed with his presentation. As most people who are at least remotely liberal, I had heard these arguments before. The only surprise was his slide of Filipino maids picnicking on a subway platform in Hong Kong because there are no parks for them to go on their day off. Very depressing.

Next, Mike Teitz gave a short speech about the importance of multi-modality (I know, very academic) in modern city thinking. He asked us to imagine a alternate-universe San Francisco in which the bike had become the primary form of transportation. As he pointed out, such a scenario may not have been the bike utopia one might imagine. San Francisco is not a very bike friendly city, with steep hills and sudden gusts of wind. When faced with this problem in the early 20th century, engineers might have proposed the same type of drastic, narrow-minded solutions that they proposed for automobiles. They might have proposed flattening all the hills or boring large holes through them etc. The key, argued Teitz is allowing for multiple forms of transportation, controlling congestion with creative solutions and just generally thinking holistically about neighborhoods and city development.

The third speaker was David Chiu, and I have to say I was very impressed with him as a politician. I don’t have a lot of experience in listening to, or dealing with, city level politicians. I am also a foreigner to San Francisco politics (I live in Oakland) but everything he said sounded like straightforward, honest, understandable English. I can’t remember having that experience with literally any other politician I have ever seen. At best, politicians are often hedged and vague from my perspective. Maybe a lot of local level politicians are like this, but I was surprised to get a speech that dealt directly with the issue at hand and didn’t seem aimed at re-election. Chiu spoke about his own experience biking, the importance of bike paths, the reality of community conflict to get them (basically, drivers feel they are being pushed out) and the success of common space ideas like Sunday Streets.

Last was Leah Shahum who also spoke enthusiastically about the benefits of good bike paths to cities. Good bike paths are good for drivers and pedestrians too because they cut down on congestion. She spoke about the rise of cycling culture in San Francisco (cycling has risen 53% in SF in the last three years) and the strength of the San Francisco Biking Coalition. (11,000 members, yikes!) She showed some enviable slides of European cities and even more enviable slides of recent New York improvements and topped all that off with concept pictures of San Francisco streets. You could tell she had a true passion, not just for biking, but for showing how a better biking infrastructure could improve the city even for those who never get on a bike. She also presented concrete ideas for improvement and spoke about the recent approval of city bike plan that will double the number of bike paths in San Francisco.

Overall, I left feeling psyched about biking, optimistic about San Francisco politics and hopeful about urban planning. Not bad for a Tuesday evening. And towards the end I realized that it was really better that David Byrne prepared a rather modest introduction and then got out of the way for the other speakers. He could have easily upstaged them, but he didn’t. He just gathered a forum and let it happen. As celebrity advocacy goes, it doesn’t get more graceful than that.

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Just Sing, Bono is a continuing series about what musicians are doing other than music.

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