Wednesday, February 2, 2011

David Byrne Journal

Those of you in the world who are the right age or who have had proper educations, know who David Byrne is. To synopsize, he was Scot turned American, art student turned alt rocker (before there was a thing called alt rock when it was called college radio rock), and lead singer of the Talking Heads which was the last band that was really "cool" in a very purposeful way (not like Arcade Fire's lazy-talented Canadian way or Kings of Leon southern we're-all-related in the hill country way). Anyway, since breaking up the Talking Heads, David Byrne has become an idiosyncratic bon vivant, world beat promoter and bicycle advocate. It is a strange transition, but if you put aside the smugness, it seems to work.

The whole point to this? David Byrne does a periodic blog journal that last week included some cool information about "Barclay bikes" in London. Click on the link for the pictures, but here are the words.

David Byrne Journal

1.21.11 - London
Posted: 25 Jan 2011 03:37 PM PST

I went to London this week to do a couple of days of press and promotion for Ride, Rise, Roar—the concert doc on my last tour that Hillman Curtis directed. One piece I did before I got there, for the Sunday Times Magazine, will come out this weekend, and they have a headline that apparently quotes me saying, “Simon Cowell is the Antichrist.” Ah, the British press, always taking the high road. The Times, lest one forget, is owned by a Mr. Murdoch, and was once a venerable, though incredibly stodgy, paper (WSJ—your days are numbered). They were so reserved, in a British sort of way, that they didn’t run news on the front page—ugh, too garish and unbecoming! How Times have changed. I was sent an advance copy and had a jolt—Did I really say that? It doesn’t sound like something I’d say! Then, hours later, I seemed to remember saying something like “The Sex Pistols are not the antichrist [a reference to one of their lyrics]; Simon Cowell is the antichrist.” By which I meant to convey that the devil will not arrive in an obvious way—as a snarling beast or as an anarchist rebel, that would be too easy—but as a smooth corporate dealmaker. I didn’t read any more of the article, so I have no idea what other mischief they may have stirred up.

After two days of almost non-stop talking, I had a full day off (though in the evening there would be a screening and I would do a Q&A afterwards). I decided to try what are referred to here as Boris Bikes—a bike hire system (the mayor of London’s name is Boris) that was recently installed. It is modeled after the French Velib system. Barclays Bank is a sponsor (Boris sold naming rights of the program for £25 million, officially naming the system Barclays Cycle Hire) so they get prominently placed ads on the mudguards and bag holder. Would a US bank do the same? One Goldman Sachs exec’s bonus would probably cover a whole city’s worth of these things.

Anyway, here’s how they do—and sometimes don’t—work.

They have hundreds of these stations in central London, with most stations only a few blocks from one another. There is an online map, a print map and a downloadable PDF that shows where they all are.

There was a station behind my hotel, so that’s where I went first. If you are a subscriber you have an electronic key, which is sent to you, and you insert it into a docking point and a bike is released. If you are a foreigner or “casual user,” as I am, you go to the touch screen, agree to terms—as you would on any online purchase—swipe your debit or credit card, and you’re given a simple number code, which will unlock the bike from the holder.

£1 for 24 hours, no charge for the first half hour and then charges that ramp up after that. This is to encourage fairly short trips—all of mine were, it turned out, under 30 minutes, so I wasn’t charged for time. Hundreds of pounds if a bike is not returned.

Of course, if you’re riding out of the current coverage area in the central city you’re screwed. But presumably the system will expand to Hackney and Shepherd’s Bush. You soon get the concept—that you are meant to drop your bike near your destination, and then pick up a new one at that station when you make your return trip. If both trips are under 30 minutes there are no charges. That afternoon I made 5 trips—hopping from gallery to museum to lunch joint, and it worked with only a few hitches. All legs of my trip were under 30 minutes.
The bikes themselves are sturdy (as you’d expect), with only 3 gears—London has few hills, so it turns out 3 gears is plenty. There are fenders and mudguards, a bell, and front and rear lights that work automatically—powered by a turbine on the wheel hub. They’re heavy beasts—so carrying them up some stairs to a bridge, as I did, was a thing, but on the roads I kept up with the folks on their own bikes, so didn’t feel at a disadvantage.

Problems—yes, there are some. The first time I tried to rent a bike at the station near my hotel it couldn’t read my card. A local arrived, and it didn’t read his stick either. I called the help line to alert them, and the next day it was working (I walked a few blocks to the next station the first day). Usage patterns generate their own set of problems. One station near an art gallery I went to in the Mayfair district was full—there was nowhere to leave my bike, and the clock was ticking! This happened again at another station (Barbican) and I had to once more seek a station a few blocks further away. Likewise, I’ve heard that some stations are more popular than others, and all the bikes are quickly taken. In Paris and Montreal there are trucks that ferry bikes too and fro to remedy this situation. I heard that in Paris no one rides up to the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, but once there everyone grabs a bike and rides down the hill, so the station at the top is continually running out of bikes. The bikes have fat tires, so street bumps are cushioned a bit. One bike I had needed some gear adjustment—though it still worked. None had flats and all were clean and in good shape.

I saw lots of locals riding them—it’s becoming an accepted way of getting around here. While I was there the weather stayed dry, so I was spared dealing with the British rain. I have a feeling the locals are always prepared with collapsible nylon rain ponchos always ready in their bags. It was incredibly efficient—London traffic, despite congestion pricing, is still painfully slow at some times of day. The streets wind and meander, so a bike is often as fast as a cab, and way faster than the tube or a bus on shorter trips.

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