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Book Review: Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

bikediariesimg.jpgFor a recent project, I had the opportunity to ask some of the most prominent leaders of the New York City triathlon community what needs to happen to keep the sport growing locally over the next three years. At the top of each of their lists was to continue to make the city more bicycle-friendly. More people need to feel safe taking their bikes out for their training rides.

When I thought more about the comments, the more I came to appreciate how intricately tied so many different interests are to basic urban planning initiatives, like installing bike lanes. On a cross-country plane trip this holiday, I pulled out and read the newly-released paperback edition of Bicycle Diaries that brings this connection vividly to life.

I purchased the book on a lark based on a recommendation from a staff member at a book store in Grand Central Terminal. In it, David Byrne takes us on a journey by folding bicycle through more than eight major cities around the world. Some of the cities have embraced bicycle and pedestrian traffic, like Paris. Others, like Buffalo seem to make little accommodation for any vehicle traveling slower than 35 miles. In a few sections, you can almost feel the blast of air from the semi-trailer passing Byrne on a long stretch of open highway.

As much as the book is about exploring cities by bike, it is much more about what holds the city together, how its residents interact, and what kind of culture emerges as a result. In Buenos Aires, a city with enormously wide boulevards running through the city, Byrne rides alone. So few people ride bikes, in fact, that newspapers write stories about his recreational activities while in town for other art and musical events.

Ironically, as Byrne points out, the more traffic is slowed in a city, the faster the interactions become between residents, merchants and civic leaders. When people feel like they can safely take a walk or ride a bike, the streets come alive with commerce, conversations, and a sense of community.

I naturally gravitated to his chapter on New York City. From personal experience, I have witnessed the bicycling transformation of the city. During, my first two seasons in triathlon, I become experienced at navigating Long Island City in the dark. I would ride down Queens Boulevard, over the 59th Street Bridge, through Midtown to arrive at Central Park. It felt like bike traffic over the bridge increased a good 30% during those years.

On my favorite long run down along the FDR, to Battery Park and up the West Side Highway, I literally watched improvements being made to the bike paths all the way up to the George Washington Bridge. At the same time, "ghost" bikes that commemorate biker deaths appeared along the path with far too much regularity for my taste. Lots of progress has been made. Much more work needs to be done.

Byrne discusses the changes in New York City in great detail. He appropriately singles out the group Transportation Alternatives for its positive impact over the past five years. These types of change don't happen by accident. Individuals need to step to the forefront and let their voices be heard through groups like TA or directly with their local representatives.

I don't expect to see David Byrne anytime soon in a wetsuit jumping from the platform into the Hudson River at the start of the NYC Triathlon. (I had to laugh at his description of the Five Boro Bike Ride: "There is lots of spandex, way too much spandex.") But the bike activism he supports has really provided a boost to triathlon in the New York metro area.

bicycle_diaries.jpgFor triathletes, Bicycle Diaries is a great off-season read. Get ready to mentally put away the power meter, slow down to about 10 miles an hour, and see what some of the major cities really look like on two wheels. Get your copy of Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne at Amazon.com

Author: Paul Tyler
Paul is an active runner and triathlete in NYC who enjoys sharing his passion through writing and the recently launched Triessential iPhone app. 365 days of Triathlon Tips, Inspiration and Motivation. www.triessential.com