David Byrne and 'Urban Revolutions' at MIT

Last night I was at the Urban Revolutions panel at MIT with velo-friend Biking in Heels. This was not something I planned to attend, but she had an extra ticket and I was free - so I came along. The event featured talks by musician David Byrne, director of Boston Bikes Nicole Freedman, director of the LivableStreets Alliance Jacqueline Douglas, and associate director of SENSEable City Lab (inventors of the "Copenhagen Wheel") Assaf Biderman.

In case some might not know, David Byrne was the lead singer of the Talking Heads and has since been involved in a number of artistic and musical projects. Most recently, he has become known for his cycling advocacy and for his book on the subject, Bicycle Diaries. Over the past year Byrne has been on tour giving talks throughout North America on the topic he describes as "Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around". Cambridge, MA was his latest stop.

David Byrne came across as thoughtful, knowledgeable and funny. His talk was neither gimmicky nor too heavy on the advocacy; I would put it more into the category of Urban Planning. He summarised the history of how our un-neighborhoodly neighborhoods came to be the way they are and discussed potential solutions, with urban planning initiatives and the return of "everyday cycling" being the primary points of focus.

Jacqueline Douglas and Nicole Freedman (pictured above next to Byrne) discussed similar ideas, but applied them specifically to Boston - stressing activism and grassroot movements as catalysts of change. They noted that Boston's cycling infrastructure has basically been created from scratch over the past 2-3 years, and that the number of cyclists in the Boston area has increased dramatically over this period of time. Douglas and Freedman plan to continue this trend, with a particular emphasis on infrastructure in the form of traffic-segregated bike paths.

The large MIT lecture hall was full for the duration of the event, with the audience listening intently and enthusiastically.

Somewhat to my surprise, the Q&A panel following the individual talks did not result in much debate. Namely, I expected vehicular cyclists to comment on the segregated paths issue, but this did not happen. Perhaps there were not any in the audience? Or else the speakers so clearly allied themselves with the Amsterdam/Copenhagen model, that the vehicular cyclists decided not to bother stirring the pot.

Biking in Heels (the lady in red) got in the queue to ask a question - but alas they stopped right before it would have been her turn.

After the event was over, the most popular panelist was Assaf Biderman of the SENSEable City Lab - demonstrating the "Copenhagen Wheel" to those who wanted to try it.

The Copenhagen Wheel turns any existing bike into an electric bike and "differs from other electric bikes in that all components are elegantly packaged into one hub". The energy spent while pedaling and braking is used to power the motor, and tons of additional features (including route planning and pollution levels detection) are bundled inside the hub.

The Copenhagen Wheel is meant to be a versatile option that will allow more of the population to cycle - including those who are elderly, have trouble handling hills, or do not feel fit enough to ride a bike. While I have no interest in electric bikes myself, I think that this option makes perfect sense for those who need it.

What does not make as much sense to me, is the decision that the prototype bike housing the Copenhagen Wheel should be a sleek, fixie-looking, diamond frame bike with aggressive geometry, narrow tires and "bullhorn" handlebars. It just doesn't seem to fit the population for whom the Copenhagen Wheel was designed. My suggestion to the SENSEable City Lab, is to put the wheel into a bike that is more accessible to the general public.

Also popular after the event was this nice woman from the LivableStreets Alliance, asking people to fill out requests for improvements they would like to see done to the Charles River bridges. Given that I almost get run over by cars 75% of the time I try to cross an intersection at the end of one of these bridges, I gladly filled out a form with my requests.

All in all, Urban Revolutions was an interesting event to attend. If I seem detached in my descriptions, it is because to a large extent I felt that the panel was "preaching to the choir". I suspect that most of the audience had heard and internalised all that was brought up by the speakers long before coming to this event. Furthermore, for all the talk of "equity" and "equal access" that went on, the audience was almost entirely White, and dressed in a way that suggested a very narrow demographic. What exactly, then, was this event meant to achieve? Perhaps a sense of community among existing cyclists and supporters of "livable streets" ideas. At that it was a success. Despite my aversion to "activism", I am genuinely glad that cycling is becoming more commonplace and safer in Boston. And I am thankful to all who play a role in making this happen.


  1. Excellent point about the marketing about the unit. Wrong market altogether. Throw it on a beach cruiser or something that speaks to old broads. I think they were trying to tap into the "hip". Bike component trends have a peculiar way, so perhaps they were trying to fit that model.

  2. Looks like a wonderful evening! I have David's book 'bicycle diaries' and I am going to take it with me on my hols for a good and relaxing read! LC x

  3. Every vehicular cyclist has experienced the feeling of fighting with bikelaneist's dogmatism. Isn't something nice.

    I think David Byrne is your new Copenhaguenize: a smokeseller you can't fight because of his popularity.

    Ahhh, famous people talking in public about things they don't know and aren't really interested in learning. That old cliche.

  4. The Copenhagen wheel concept is cool but so far over the top inregards to it's enviromental monitoring capabilities and it's dorky smart phone integration. I'm not against the Idea but it's a bike wheel isn't it? What purpose is served by adding all the paraphernalia of modern consumer excess and loading it down with all that complicated electronic and social baggage... Of course that is my stance on anything that has been invented since I turned 35 and I am still trying to come to grips with remembering to keep the battery charged on my 6 year old cell phone.

  5. I noticed they have a pic of a Dutch bike with the Copenhagen wheel on their web site.
    Any idea what the price will be on these?
    I can't seem to find it on the net.

  6. I thought the last question was one of the best (if somewhat rambling). the woman told a personal story of integrated traffic in a piazza in italy (cars, bikes, pedestrians, an ATV). she mentioned that it worked because everyone was looking out for one another, so nobody crashed. we're a long way from this in Boston, but I am concerned that these segregated "cycle tracks" will make things TOO separate - cars won't have to worry about bikes, bikes won't have to worry about people. Pretty soon, we're just building highways for bikes! (ironic, since Byrne's talk began with images of highways). Cycle tracks might be a good next step, but I was hoping we'd talk about what happens NEXT. What will our cities look like after cycle tracks? Will we ever get past the need to segregate modes of transport? Isn't that what got us here in the first place?

  7. spindizzy - I have complicated feelings about what you brought up. In general, there is a trend now to associate cycling with "community" and "social integration" - whereas I think the two things are entirely separate. The very reason I like cycling is the independence it gives me, and the way it clears my head from an increasingly public and overly-social-networked existence that today's society compels us to lead. So the tracking and facebook aps and all the other stuff are in many ways the opposite of what I want in a bike. At the same time, I recognise that others feel differently.

    Mr. Haramis - They can't quote a price, because the wheel is not yet in commercial production stages. The way I understand it, they are waiting for a manufacturer to make them an offer and pick it up commercially.

  8. I really appreciated you pointing out that the event was pretty much preaching to the choir. Considering that the event sold out in 24 hours and therefore could only have been attended by those with direct connections to the biking community didn't leave much room for a wider audience.
    To bring bike enthusiasm and a livable streets lifestyle awareness to other demographics can maybe be done as a networking extension on campuses and across neighborhoods. At least for now I guess it's an incentive to ditch the car and promote the bike in this oh-so-lovely weather.
    ps. are those greenways throughout the city still in the works?

  9. Oh thanks. I really want to try the wheel. I was thinking about it today and how I would love a Copenhagen wheel ( if it worked well etc) on a ant roadster that might help me when I was feeling sluggish. They should totally be put step through.

    Did you by any chance try it? Did you hear what ppl who did try it have to say?

  10. Vee - I did not try it, because I didn't feel comfortable riding a bike like that. One woman who tried it said that she could't really tell the extent of the hub's effect in the limited context of the MIT hallway - which of course makes sense. You could try contacting SENSEable City Lab, since they are local, and see if they want to try out the hub in your cargo bike : )

  11. That Copenhagen hub looks like a fab idea that may well get more people cycling, or remaining able to cycle as they get older - but on a less aggressive bike, that's for sure. I like the idea that simply cycling charges the motor; don't know that all the extras are essential though.

  12. demimismo-- I think it's a bit harsh to refer to Byrne's efforts in this way. The man clearly spent much of his personal time on this over a period of several years, book notwithstanding most of it likely uncompensated, and free time is something we all must allocate with due care.

    Regarding the "wheel." I saw a video about it on Youtube a few months back, but heard nothing since. If it only charges as you cycle, since energy must be conserved, then you must pay back for this energy (assistance on hills) by pedaling harder on flats and pedaling downhills (maybe it feels like headwind). When I cycle alone I don't use the brakes nearly enough to charge anything. The bottom line, as I understand it (and please correct me if I am wrong), this hub provides not so much "assistance" as "redistribution" of your cycling effort and likely would not work very well in a sustained hilly environment while simultaneously making it harder to "rest" on flats. And it wouldn't help at all in a flat area. Or am I grossly misunderstanding something?

  13. My cycling remains an electronic free zone(mostly). I started having more fun when I removed the computer from all my bikes except my roadbike that I ride hard with groups. You get there when you get there and knowing how far I went to the 10th didn't seem to be serving a usefull purpose, sometimes it IS fun knowing how fast I was going at the bottom of that hill but it doesn't make the wind whistling past my face any nicer... Some of my friends feel differently and really get a kick from the added dimension that this equiptment provides...My Amish cousins don't drive cars but they like to hide a radio in the buggy. It's all O.K. if you don't let it get in the way.

  14. demimismo & MDI - I agree with MDI that Byrne's efforts seem sincere and well informed, based both on research and his decades of personal experience. There are different standpoints on certain issues within the cycling community, and he is at one pole of it whereas others might be at the other. Still, his is a valid point of view.

    MDI - I understand what you mean about the wheel, but that can't possibly be how it works - precisely because it sounds problematic and inefficient. I would be interested in getting more details form them.

    spindizzy - Amish cousins... I will try to contain my excitement and curiosity.

  15. i would tend to agree with MDI's explanation of how the "wheel" works, by redistributing energy. think of it as a hybrid drive, but instead of a gasoline/electric drive, it's a human/electric drive. although bicycles are extremely efficient machines, it is possible to "capture" some of the kinetic energy lost to coasting and braking, which is exactly what a hybrid drive does for a car. however, i would reason that the "wheel" would work best while cycling on hilly terrain, where you would spend a lot of time alternating between pedaling uphill and coasting down hills, using your brakes. it is these times that the kinetic energy would be captured and used to charge the battery. if you do primarily flat city cycling, it may not offer any real benefit. but this is just my guess.

  16. Velouria: I think attempts to make cycling an instrument for bringing about "social integration" and creating "communities" is exactly the reason why audiences like the ones at the panel are as homogeneous as they are. Nearly all dedicated cyclists become so because they have experienced some sort of benefit to themselves--whether in fitness, reduced commuting costs, convenience or simply the pleasure of riding. Even those who join the clubs or go to the mass rides are, in the end, doing so because they like to ride, for whatever reasons.

    Ditto for the idea of selling cycling as a "green" alternative to other forms of transportation. That never turned anyone but a hippie on to cycling. And the hippies, to the extent that they thought about environmentalism, had utterly misguided notions about it. And, almost any attempt to make "going green" more appealing to the masses makes use of those same mistaken notions.

    I say, let people experience cycling as the enjoyable activity and practical transportation alternative at it is. To "sell" it as anything else is like telling people to drink red wine or eat dark chocolate because they're full of antioxidants.

  17. somervillain - If you're cycling in the city though, wouldn't you be braking a great deal because of traffic and intersections? Maybe that's where they are counting on the energy to come from.

    Justine - I agree. Also, the whole "smugness" aspect of it bothers me tremendously. It gives me the uneasy feeling that cycling, for some, is just a newfound way to assure themselves that their lives are superior to others. Five years ago it was perhaps a "McMansion" in the suburbs and a countryclub membership. But now the new thing is eco-consciousness and "sustainable living". You can still show off how much money you have by buying endless organic and Earth-friendly products, with the added bonus of feeling enlightened and morally superior.

  18. hey david you're gorgeous :D

    nice post, nice to see all ths pics of him around the world.

  19. I did not know who David Byrne is, but I did know who Nicole (not "Nichole") Freedman is. She was one of the top racers in the country for a number of years, and has written extensively and entertainingly on various cycling topics. The Boston city government is lucky to have her.

  20. S Molnar - I've corrected the spelling of the name. I copied the names from a press release, and with them the typo. I have never met Nicole other than seeing her at this talk, but she seemed like a nice person.

    I was just reading on another website about the "decline of women's racing in New England"; would be interesting to get her perspective on that.

  21. Great write-up! I'm a member of the Board of Directors for LivableStreets and we love to see great energy at talks like this.

    Sadly, I had a spring vacation / bicycling tour of Brooklyn and the boros planned before they announced this date, so I thank you for the pictures and details!

  22. hey again, you don't have to publish this comment. I was hoping to get your contact email so I could send you a press release every once in awhile (once a month if that) about LivableStreets' events. You could then post the event on this blog or disregard it if it doesn't fit your message.

    My email is megalisha@gmail.com

    oh, and I'm also organizing the spring Tweed Ride this Memorial Day - you familiar with it?

    much thanks, Meg

  23. Thanks Meg - I am posting your comment so that others can contact you as well if they are interested.

  24. Velouria, just to be clear. Famous people tend to get attention no matter what they have well informed oppinions or not. I have spent A LOT of time too, but I haven't got that level of attention. Understand me, I'm not jealous of this rich and good looking man... oh wait!

    I think there aren't well informed urban cyclists that talk about bikelanes without even mentioning vehicular cycling.

    Saying that vehicular cycling is the way to go is an oppinion, but saying that bikelanes are not safer than vehicular cycling is a fact.

    And I think that is bad for urban cycling when some famous people get into the scene selling that so-bikelane-oriented point of view. You know, is bad for places as where I live, where we don't have the resources to build bike infrastructure and are working hard to get people on bikes.

    Anyway, I appreciate your blog because of your gorgeous photos of bicycles. I don't really care about all this.


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