Last night's City Arts & Lectures program on "Bike Advocacy and the Urban Environment" featured former Talking Heads maestro David Byrne as lead-off for a panel friendly to the two-wheeled revolution that is transforming select cities in the US and abroad.
Byrne, who recently published Bicycle Diaries (Viking), acted as frontman for a bicycle-commuting San Francisco city supervisor, David Chiu, an urban planning professor, Mike Teitz, and the head of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Leah Shahum.
Byrne has been riding in cities around the world since the 1970s, and his new book features essays on his two-wheeled experiences in Paris, Istanbul, New York, Manila, Italy and beyond. Last year Byrne created designs for bicycle racks in nine Manhattan locations.
His slideshow began with cover shots of some favorite books: Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of An American City, Michael Sorkin's 20 Minutes in Manhattan and others, before he launched into an overview of the good, bad and ugly in urban planning.
- Copenhagen: "I show this photo (of about 15 people on bikes waiting at a stoplight) to people and they say, 'That must be a parade or special bike event," but it's not, it's just an ordinary day with everyone on their bike."
- Amsterdam and Beijing bike racks filled with (or oddly stacked vertically 40 feet upward in the case of Bejiing) with hundreds or even thousands of bikes.
- A termite mound, towering out of a pond. "It's water cooled housing."
- The Velib bikeshare progrm in Paris. "It has changed not only getting around, but it actually changes the way people interact with the city, what they choose to do. You can spend the night riding a bike through the city as its own thing."
Velib bikeshare in Paris (photo by Diana Karlenzig)
- Frank Lloyd Wright's sprawling design for Broadacre City, which featured Jetsonesque towers, complete with flying saucers, and endless expanses of cars ("Auto-mobile citizens" Wright called them) and landscaping. "Thank god he didn't get to do it," Bryne said. "Where would you buy groceries?"
- A photo taken underneath a freeway exchange in Austin, Texas: "I ended up riding here. Everything is separated by giant highways. There's no one in this area and why should there be?"
- Downtown Houston: "There's one person on the streets, and it's like 11 a.m. on a weekday. I did find a clump of people around the corner from here--they were the smokers."
- Byrne showed aerial photos of sprawled suburbs outside Dallas, San Francisco and somewhere else he couldn't identify. "It all looks the same after a while."
- Buckminister Fuller's plan for 100-story towers in Harlem. "I think these were supposed to be transparent and air cooled, and thankfully they were never built."
She cited newly released statistics that the city had increased its bike ridership 53% over a period of three years, with 6% of all trips in the city now being taken by bicycles. Compared to Copenhagen's overall 36% bicycle commuting rate or downtown Amsterdam's 50% rate, this seemed rather dinky.
Still, San Francisco is the leader of bicycle commuting of large US cities (not counting Portland, Oregon, which hit the 8% ridership rate in 2008) and only yesterday, it started an experiment to make its main thoroughfare, Market Street, largely free of private cars.
"We want to see more car-free space," Shahum said. "I'm not afraid to say it."
But not all in San Francisco's Herbst Theater were convinced that car-free was the best arrangement. "What will make bicycles begin to start following traffic laws, like stopping at streetlights and stop signs?" a man in the audience demanded of the panel.
Berkeley professor emeritus Mike Teitz aptly characterized the nature of the conflict: "We have been a uni-modal society, and uni-modal dominance is struggling with its transition to multi-modality."
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and co-author of a forthcoming book from the Post Carbon Institute on urban and societal resiliency.