David Byrne on why riding a bicycle reveals truths about cities, societies and yourself

The musician David Byrne has been riding a bicycle for 30 years, mostly in urban environments, and often in metropolises outside of the United States.

From the perch atop his bicycle as he guides it through Rome, New York, Istanbul and many other cities, he describes a window that gives him a clear view into values and beliefs of societies and individuals across the globe.

The introduction to the audio version of Byrne’s book, Bicycle Diaries(embedded at the bottom of this post), provides possibly the most inspiring description I have ever heard of why it’s worthwhile to mount a bicycle and ride your city.

Being a regular rider in New York, where I often feel no safer than a fish in a barrel being shot at by a machine gun, there was one particular thing he said, at the 6:30 point, about riding in Rome that stuck with me:

“The every man for himself vibe hasn’t encouraged the creation of secure bike lanes in these big towns, but if one accepts that reality, at least temporarily, and is careful, the experience is something to be recommended.”

Every man for himself.

On a practical level, that means the tourist exiting the taxi at 41st is definitely not going to look before swinging the yellow door of doom right into the path that you are so happily cruising down. You just have to expect that kind of … well, whatever positive, neutral or negative thing you want to call it. Indifference. Ignorance. Apathy. Forgetfulness. Aggression.

No one is looking out for you, so you look out for yourself.

Is that sad? Some kind of social failure? It makes me think that in these gigantic, dense centers of humanity, where the most advanced products of society are for the taking, life becomes remarkably tribal. You have to pick who you care for; there’s too much humanity to care for it all.

Doing that, you lose something. Even if, for example, you never helped a bum passed out on the sidewalk in the winter, to give up a thought about this person’s fate, the passing pang of concern for his or her suffering, illusory or not, truly cuts the world into Us and Them.

I don’t know if you can just do it temporarily, when you’re threatened, when you’re on your bicycle. Like any action, it changes you, and, like the past, cannot be undone.

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