In the world of bicycling, according to David Byrne, there are no fashion prerequisites.
"You don't have to wear spandex to ride a bike. You can be a normal business person in a suit," Byrne advised a full house at Trinity Repertory on Tuesday in downtown Providence. He commented on the final image of his PowerPoint presentation: a Louis Vuitton executive riding a vintage cruiser through Manhattan.
Byrne, former lead singer of the Talking Heads and a lifelong bicycling activist, spoke at the second annual Senator Claiborne Pell Lecture on Arts and Humanities. This year's sold-out lecture was a panel discussion entitled "Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around: How Bicycling Can Transform the Urban Experience." Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline initiated the lecture series in 2009 to honor the late senator Pell.
Tuesday evening, Mayor Cicilline welcomed Byrne, a man of "rock-solid rhythms and adventurous
In his lecture, Byrne discussed the ways in which bicycling can change a city. Samuel Zipp, a Brown University American Studies and Urban Studies Professor; Barry Schiller; the Providence Bicycle Coalition Head of Advocacy; and Thomas Deller, the Director of Providence's Department of Planning and Development, were among the other panelists.
Byrne himself has roots in Rhode Island; he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where the Talking Heads formed in 1974. "When I went to school here, the river was paved over," he said.
According to Lynne McCormack, the Director of Providence's Art, Culture, and Tourism Department, Byrne's publicist approached the city with the concept of the lecture in mind. Byrne recently released The Bicycle Diaries, a chronicle of his journeys through Buenos Aires, San Francisco, New York, and many other cities on a bicycle. He has given similar lectures at other cities worldwide.
Tuesday's four lectures ranged from romantic accounts of biking glory in days past to pragmatic outlines of a transportation mode's future. The event's diversity—if not its lack of cohesion—illuminated the complex state of bicycling in this era of fixie-loving hipsters and climate change. That is to say, biking likely signifies something different to each of the panelists, to each demographic in the audience, and to each individual in attendance. It is difficult to predict which one of the bicycle's present sub-identities—a factor in urban development, the transcendentalist's transport, proof of subcultural identification, or a cure for climate change—will define its future, or if bicycling can even be reduced to any single essence.
Poetry in Motion
Of the bicycle's many rôles, David Byrne is most fascinated by the vehicle as a factor in the changing landscapes of cities. He referenced the Parisian bike-share system, Portland's conversion of two parking spaces into complex bike racks, and Berlin's stoplight-equipped bike lanes as examples of how bikes have defined cities' spatial organization.
Byrne cherishes the unity of physical sensation and geographic cognition that biking provides. Zipp agreed that biking provides "much more intimate reflections on the kinds of social and cultural divisions that all cities have."
Some years before his time on College Hill, Zipp wrote in a book review of Travis Hugh Culley's The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power, "A friend of mine once observed that there is a certain soul to the job of messengering. It's in making a steady, motionless track stand at a busy intersection or a graceful, soundless curb hop paired with a fluid dismount and lock-up."
The single-speed Bianchi that sits in Samuel Zipp's office—one of the "three or four" bikes he owns—is, in a way, a vestige of his past. During the early ‘90s, Zipp made many soundless hops atop the curbs of San Francisco as a bike messenger.
"It was important to me," he said. "You learn cities in a novel way biking around, because you actually feel their geography."
Zipp discussed America's transition from bicycle to automobile culture. Towards the last half of the 19th century, he explained, the "feedless horse" became a phenomenon. Yet it was ironically the bicycle that paved the way for cars as city streets increasingly became single-use spaces. Cyclists lobbied for increased quality of roads, providing the automobile industry with an opportunity on which it capitalized.
Though the automobile has traditionally functioned as a substitute for its two-wheeled predecessor, it has never adequately replaced the nuances of bicycle travel.
"Bikes supply the same kind of freedom that cars supply, but with the added responsibility of physical exertion. You have more physical contact with the city on a bike," Zipp said.
It is perhaps this unique physicality of bicycling that lets it transform of urban experiences, and thus of the utmost relevance to city planners. Bikes can get into the interstices of cities, the alleys and uncharted spaces—but have no parking spots and multiple lanes, automobile accommodations now deeply ingrained into our metropoleis. It is no wonder that the integration of bikes into cities has entailed such innovative urban transformations.
No Child Left Inside
Based on a American Community Survey, bicycling comprised a small percentage of US transportation in 2005, especially in comparison to European cities like Copenhagen. Even in bike-friendly Seattle and Portland, bicycling comprised only 2.3 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively, of commuters' journeys. Those figures were still above the United States average of 0.4 percent. In Copenhagen, 36 percent of all commutes are by bicycle.
Since the 1980s, city planners in Copenhagen have been building bicycle tracks on main streets and reducing traffic on local streets—creating neighborhoods that cater to the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, rather drivers. The result is a city where there are more bicycles than cars. Copenhagen has also undertaken initiatives to create green routes—alternatives to urban bike paths that promote recreational biking at greater distances.
The panel's final speakers, Barry Schiller and Thomas Deller, shared their visions for a future bike-friendly Providence.
Schiller spoke of ways to reverse the transportation rates in Providence, currently at 90 percent car travel and 10 percent pedestrian and bicycling. The tone of Schiller's suggestions varied from humorous ("No child left inside! Teach your kids to bike!") to somber ("Help combat dangerous driving"), but his ideas were nearly uniform: less driving, more biking, again and again. He encouraged support for RIPTA, Rhode Island's public transit system, and the state's vast bike advocacy network, which encompasses organizations like the Providence Bike Coalition, Recycle a Bike, and the Narragansett Bay Wheelmen.
Rhode Island's Department of Transportation has a number of green bike paths, including the Ten Mile River Greenway, the Blackstone River Bikeway (which currently extends from Woonsocket to Pawtucket and will eventually reach Worcester, MA), the Fred Lippitt Woonasquatucket River Greenway, the William C. O'Neil South County Bike Path, and the almost-finished Washington Secondary. Deller mentioned on-street bike riding in Providence's Jewelry District and connections between the urban paths with the rural green bike routes as future goals.
Despite Schiller's enthusiastic call for Rhode Islanders to "help get the bike path system finished," neither he nor Deller offered any coherent policy for the completion of Rhode Island's urban bike routes.
A Routine Pleasure
The panelists eagerly anticipate a day when Rhode Island will resemble a cyclist's utopia. But that very bicycle haven remains a subjective notion in light of the many functions our pedal-driven, human-powered vehicles serve. The tensions implicit in the structure of Tuesday's panel discussion remain to be reconciled. Can the intimate connections that Byrne and Zipp have to their beloved cycled cities, the novel vantage points and urban experiences afforded by their off-the-beaten bike paths, remain intact in an age when all bicycles are awash with the green glow of pragmatism and zero fuel emissions? Let the existence of a blog by the name of Copenhagen Cycle Chic affirm the interrelated nature of biking's many facets.
Time will tell whether bicycles will dominate the streets of Providence as they do in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or even Portland. In the meantime, it's difficult to imagine any obligation more enjoyable than a daily bicycle commute down Benefit Street as our rubber tires roll gracefully over cobblestone. And what's more, you don't even have to wear spandex.
Katie Lindstedt B'11 doesn't mind wearing Spandex.