It was a night when bikes had their day

Feb. 5, 2010

By JoAnn Greco
For PlanPhilly

It was hard not to keep humming “I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike” at last night’s Urban Sustainability Forum. The bike love in the room was that strong, even if the rocker on stage was very different from Freddie Mercury.

As former frontman for the Talking Heads, David Byrne’s brand of late-’70s quirk relied not on eyeliner, but on gawky movements and strangled vocals. These days, though, he’s almost a regular guy —the thinking biker’s celeb.  

Last fall, Byrne published his “Bicycles Diaries,” the product of 25 years spent tooling around the world’s cities via a fold-up bike he totes everywhere. From his perch, Byrne’s observations are both astute and well-informed. “Getting around in a way that doesn’t feel completely divorced from life that occurs on the street is pure pleasure,” he writes at the book’s conclusion.
Playing to a capacity crowd — many of whom arrived on two wheels, judging from the scene outside the Academy of Natural Sciences — Byrne began with a Planning 101 primer that attempted to illustrate the damage done by cars and modern urban design on cities.

Tanned, trim and white-haired, the black-clad 57-year-old, showed slides of three books — Michael Sorkin’s “Twenty Minutes in Manhattan,” Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building — before moving onto photos of Australian termite hills. From here, it was a short leap to the imaginary radiant cities — “giant towers separated from each other with no people and only strips of cars between them” — by Hugh Ferris, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, R. Buckminster Fuller, and even General Motors. “These guys really didn’t like cities,” he commented.

Byrne next showed cities filled with highways that have created dead zones, cities with dismal waterfronts, and cities laden with blocks and blocks of surface parking. For some “good news,” he included shots of pedestrian-filled piazzas and streets in Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Mexico City. And, he took us for a wobbly ride through a cobblestoned Italian piazza — one of his patented Bike Cam journeys. Here’s a look at his harrowing ride through Times Square.

He wrapped up his presentation with a dose of cycling evangelism: commenting on shots of biking parking structures, bike sharing systems, and bike lane methods in cities across the world.

Interesting enough — but with no big suit and not many big ideas, the notoriously reticent Byrne wasn’t really the star. An ebullient Alex Doty, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, was on more solid ground.

Devoting his share of the evening to the strides that Philly bike advocates have made in the past decade, Doty cited the “power of paint” — painted bike lanes — as an example of accomplishing much with little. Bicyclists are “cheap dates,” he added: easily made happy. Now that census data reveals that Philly is number one in bicycling commuters among America’s top ten cities, “there’s a new way of thinking about the streets of Philadelphia,” he posited.

Doty, along with another speaker, Katherine Gajewski, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, also outlined promised future developments. These include the continual removal of parking spaces, conversion of old parking meter stumps to bike racks, creating comprehensive, Google-based bike maps, and someday, bike sharing. Although much of the evening was devoted to downtown riding, Ignacio Bunster-Ossa of WRT concentrated his presentation on his firm’s work in creating greenways and trails near and around urban centers.

Each speaker, including moderator Christine Knapp of Penn Future, sounded the expected notes on the green (environmental), clean (energy efficient), and lean (healthy) aspects of bike riding.

But cyclists in the audience seemed more concerned about smoothing tensions between bikers and motorists. In reply, Byrne and the others emphasized that by acting as model citizens, cyclists would strengthen their bargaining chips.

“Bicyclists have for awhile had a mindset of being a put-upon group,” said Doty. “And I’m here to tell you: we’re winning. We can afford to be gracious.”

Contact JoAnn Greco, ASJA, SATW, at
Check out her new online magazine, TheCityTraveler at

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