Cycle Killer (Qu’est Que C’est)


Posted by in February's Magazine

Gordon Munro, labour councillor and lifelong cyclist, follows in the giant steps of David Byrne, songwriter turned diarist.

The book Bicycle Diaries proves to be as amusing, erudite and thought provoking as it’s multi-faceted author. From the ironic pose struck by Mr Byrne on the cover, to the well laid out illustrations that reinforce points in the text, you know you are in good hands. Throughout the author is pro-bikes, pro-people and pro-cities.

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He views the world from the saddle of his bike and takes in Berlin, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Manila, Sydney and London, along with the cities of his adopted homeland America, including his hometown of Baltimore. If you want his view on Leith take a look at his website, where he has photos of Leith Walk shop fronts. ‘Talking Heads’, naturally, features.

A Corbusier disciple
Byrne has been riding a bike since the early 80s; he started off with an old three speed leftover from his childhood and now takes a folding bike on tour. From the start he felt ‘energised and liberated’. He states that he does not cycle for speed or sport, rather it is ‘enough to centre him for the rest of the day’. Very true, and reason enough for anyone to mount their bike.

But Bicycle Diaries is much more than an encomium for cycling; indeed he makes a persuasive case for reclaiming the city for its citizens. Starting off with a blast against Cruiser’s vision of a ‘radiant city’ he soon comes under the influence of Jane Jacobs, author of the great book The Life and Death of American Cities. Appropriately enough, when one of Corbusier’s disciples, Robert Moses, tried to cut a swathe through New York for automobiles in the early 60s, none other than Jane Jacobs opposed his ‘master plan’ – there will never be a ‘mistress plan’.

Wall Street dollar sign
Byrne goes further than making intelligent observations about cities. In his final chapter on New York and in the epilogue he becomes an activist. He organises a forum at City Hall to give the biking-as-a-means-of-transport idea a little nudge. However he ensures, though this is going to give him some measure of grief, this is not going to be a room full of worthies agreeing with each other. His aim is to make it fun, informative, and yes, thought provoking. So here we find bike related entertainment, music, and design innovations, all of which are leavened by a talk from leading urbanist Jan Gehl. Gehl was hired by the city of New York due to his successful input in Melbourne and his native Copenhagen and work in Amsterdam, Sydney and London. Funnily enough Gehl did a study for the city of Edinburgh, which was ignored. I’d have him for Leith anytime.

All of this has an impact; the City of New York said they would install his innovative bike rack designs if someone paid for their fabrication and it’s happened. I’ve seen these and they are great fun and practical (for Wall Street, a dollar sign). Imagine these bike racks in Leith, made by Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop or Powderhall Forge; a rack of boats at the Boundary and a foot at the Foot o’ the Walk. Can you imagine it happening? I can, but it will need support.
The best response is that of Janette Sadik Khan the new transportation commissioner for New York. Byrne asks for her views on cycling, then asks for her long term view of how their city can develop. This frees her from the usual short term time frame of the city official and allows her free rein to imagine a more cycle friendly New York of the future. So in effect the dialogue has been kick started on both the shop floor and at the political level. In Edinburgh cyclists still have to shout to be heard, although ‘Spokes’ is doing an excellent job…

Lest I leave you with the wrong impression, this book is also worth reading for his observations on art and music. He loves cycling to galleries. The sounds he checks out in Buenos Aires – especially the tango – tantalise, with names new to me. His trip to Manila is, intriguingly, for a project with Fatboy Slim on the life of Imelda Marcos. It also offers an interesting insight into his thinking and working methods. A book for the cyclist in your life, or that grumpy old man who swears there are no ‘tunes’ today. Above all, buy it because you will enjoy it.

Review by Councillor Gordon Munro

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