Talking Heads frontman David Byrne adopted the bicycle as his chief form of transportation back in the 1980s. Prior to taking to the chaotic streets of New York, with little more than a flimsy helmet for protection, his only experience of cycling had been in his native Baltimore, where, as a child, he’d pottered along on a beaten-up old three-speed. Soon enough, he realised that even a city as busy as New York was much more easily traversable by bike.
Anyone who has lived in a big city like New York or London will tell you that they can be very oppressive environments, and not only because of their towering, tight-packed architecture. There’s something about travelling by car, bus or train that – rather counterintuitively – tricks us into believing the city is larger than it is. Byrne found that travelling by bike was not only amazingly fast and efficient but that it helped him realise that the city was far more interconnected than he had once thought.
But perhaps Byrne’s most profound cycling revelation was it allows the individual traveller to adopt the status of the Flâneur; the meandering observer who, being free from the city’s mechanised flow, is able to observe the relationship between man, city, and society with greater clarity. As Byrne says of cycling in the introduction to his meditative cycling odyssey The Bicycle Diaries: “I felt more connected to the life on the streets than I would have inside a car or in some form of public transport: I could stop whenever I wanted to; it was often (very often) faster than a car or taxi
for getting from point A to point B; and I didn’t have to follow any set route. The same exhilaration, as the air and street life whizzed by, happened again in each town. It was, for me, addictive.”
So, in the spirit of getting more of you lovely people out of cramped train carriages and onto your local bike lane, we’ve put together a list of David Byrne’s favourite cycling cities in the world. Who knows, maybe one of them will turn out to be your home town.
David Byrne’s favourite cycling cities:
New York, USA
According to Byrne, New York is gradually becoming much more bike-friendly. Since he started cycling around the grid-structured cityscape back in his Talking Heads days, it has become much more accommodating for cyclists – to the extent that Byrne can cycle from Midtown to Lower Manhattan without feeling the need to wear a helmet. “They started by adding painted bike lanes. Now, in the last few years, the pace has really quickened. I’ll plan my route from A to B based on where the bike lanes are.
Byrne’s daily ride takes him along The Hudson River Bikepath, which he uses as a way of getting from his home in Midtown to Upper or Lower Manhattan: “I’ll come down to say Canal or Spring Street and cut into Soho rather than riding down the streets or avenues.” While the route can get a little busy during commuting hours, The Hudson River Bikepath is one of the best ways of seeing the span of the city.
American cities being what they are, it’s often hard to find peaceful routes to meander along without the pressure of keeping one’s eyes fixed keenly on the incoming traffic. This isn’t so much of a problem in smaller towns in southern Europe, which often feature urban layouts perfectly catered to cyclists.
“Probably the most friendly bike cities in the world aren’t the ones you’d expect,” Byrne told the New York Times. “You would expect Amsterdam, Copenhagen; they are very bike-friendly – especially for their size. The ones that are incredibly bike-friendly are these northern Italian towns: Ferrara, Modena. Those ones, it’s almost as if the whole centre of the city is closed off. In the centre, you see Grandmas, beautiful women, kids, everybody just biking around.”
San Francisco, USA
While Bryne notes that San Francisco is one of the most “philosophically and politically bike-friendly” cities in America, he’s quick to point out that its hilly topography has even made him think twice about cycling its sun-dappled breadth.
Thankfully, the local cycling organisation has taken the time to put together a map indicating the steepness of the streets, so you’ll always be prepared. As Byrne notes in The Bicycle Diaries: “A street shaded light pink is a mild slope, but a dark red street is a major hill to be avoided unless you’re a masochist. Luckily, this map allows one to plan a hill-free trip at a glance. I wouldn’t have thought so, but one can plot a route to and from almost anywhere and avoid the worst hills—almost.”
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Somebody once labelled Buenos Aires the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere. But for Byrne, this city excels in a way that the French capital does not. Because it is built on the floodplain of La Plata River, the city is – on the whole – pretty flat. Add to that temperate weather and a street system laid out on an easily navigatable grid and you’ve got yourself one of the best cycling cities around.
Of the Argentinian capital, Byrne said: “It is perfect for cycling around. Despite this, I could count on one hand the number of locals I
saw on bikes. Why? Would I inevitably find out the reason no one else was pedalling around here? Was there some dark secret explanation about to pounce on me? Am I a naive fool?” The truth is, or at least was when Byrne wrote The Bicycle Diaries, that cycling simply hasn’t caught on in Buenas Aires in the same way that it has elsewhere. Still, it is one of the great hidden gems of urban cycling.
Germany’s capital, like many modern European cities, is incredibly manicured. Together, the streets form a great chain of balanced urbanity, with the occasional square of parkland offering the only green space. From that description, you’d think Berlin would be the worst place to explore by bike, but that’s not the case according to Byrne.
“It all seems very civilised, pleasant, and enlightened,” Byrne says of cycling around Berlin. “No cars park or drive in the bike lanes, and the cyclists don’t ride on the streets or on the sidewalks either. There are little
stoplights just for the bikers, even turn signals! (Cyclists often get to turn a few seconds before the rest of the traffic, to allow them to get out of the way.) Needless to say, most cyclists here do stop for these lights. Pedestrians don’t wander into the bike lanes either! I’m kind of in shock—it all works so well. Why can’t it be like this where I live?”