REVIEW: Bikes vs Cars [2015]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 90 minutes | Release Date: March 6th, 2015 (Sweden)
Studio: WG Film / Folkets Bio
Director(s): Fredrik Gertten
Writer(s): Fredrik Gertten

“In heaven everyone rides a bicycle”

The amount of gasoline-powered automobiles on Earth is growing at an exponential rate and everyone needs to look at what this realization is doing to humanity. I’m not even talking about global warming, pollution, depletion of natural resources, or any of those highly-politicized issues where proponents and detractors wield hyperbole to strike fear in the populace rather than spark change. I’m talking about a simple issue of safety for motorists and pedestrians alike made to share less and less space as each year passes. Despite being someone who doesn’t even own a bicycle, I’m a firm believer that we do need more bike lanes if only to force everyone on the road to be cognizant of their place. I have to imagine drivers don’t want to take a life as much as cyclists don’t want to lose theirs.

I think director Fredrik Gertten believes this too because while his new documentary Bikes vs Cars skews towards bicycle enthusiasts, his content uses them to seek a happy medium. His film isn’t saying automobiles need to be eradicated and bikes anointed the one and only transportation mode—his goal isn’t to be so militant. What we learn from folks like Aline Cavalcante in Sao Paulo, Dan Koeppel in Los Angeles, and Liliana Godoy in Bogotá is that there’s a way to co-exist. Data shows increased freeways and more lanes have done nothing to decrease traffic and in fact have made it dangerous enough to force those who’d rather not drive follow suit. I applaud those who steadfastly refuse because even if I enjoyed cycling I’d never willingly put my life in the hands of road ragingly entitled motorists.

The reason is because I’m one of them. I do my best to follow traffic laws and make room for cyclists when in my car, but the majority of riders around my neighborhood don’t do the same. They either don’t know the laws governing their vehicles or simply don’t care. They pretend they’re pedestrians when the light turns red but refuse to walk their bike through the crosswalk, in effect taking the best of both worlds while proving impossible to predict. Will this person act like a car and remain behind me when I’m turning right on red or dart onto the sidewalk straight through? Bike lanes won’t prevent this entirely—just ask Copenhagen taxi driver Ivan Naurholm when 40% of his city’s residents ride and still don’t fully comply—but it’d be a good start.

Sadly, changes like restructuring road patterns and excising parking spaces for bike lanes need us to enter the political forum. And as Gertten’s subjects unilaterally explain, this is possibly the most futile process on the planet. Not only are government officials doing anything they can to get elected—Rob Ford pretty much won every suburb despite losing downtown Toronto because he swore he’d erase the bicycle lanes so those commuters could “see a decrease in traffic” that never came—but they’re taking money from car and gas companies to sway their stance. Guys like former marketing director for Porsche and General Motors Joel Ewanick have their ear and even though he’s now spearheading a move towards hydrogen fuel, he still spins for his friends by saying big oil wants cleaner air but haven’t found the “right” solution to back.

Some of what we learn is completely subjective like the feel-good tale of Joshua Dysart riding along empty Los Angeles streets during “Carmeggedon” as though shutting down the 405 was a solution. It wasn’t. People were so scared about traffic that they stayed home. So the quiet didn’t prove less freeways equal good, just that the media terrorized people to the point where only cyclist could travel. It was a fluke that should ignite minds to think of ways to mimic it not copy as a utopian blueprint. There still needs to be a reeducation of motorists to embrace alternative methods like Godoy teaching students to ride as children before adults can brainwash them. There needs to be accountability on behalf of drivers and bicyclists alike too. Just because the latter is more vulnerable doesn’t mean they can run wild.

Hopefully scenes of ghost bikes set up as memorials for those tragically dead as a result of bad planning and governments ambivalence to public safety so they can satisfy voters seeking faster commutes will open eyes. The statistics are depressing when you learn a cyclist dies every week in Sao Paulo and one gets hit every seven hours in Toronto. Cars aren’t going to go away as the permutations estimating close to two hundred percent increases in auto manufacturing and consumption, but they can slowly be converted from every day accessories to “use as needed”. Gertten doesn’t pretend to have an answer—despite some of his subjects thinking they do—because it isn’t an issue easily solved. A dialogue must be opened and Bikes vs Cars is a great catalyst with international scope for such a conversation.

There’s humor from Naurholm’s saintly cabbie airing his frustrations in an almost abnormally calm manner and drama from Cavalcante’s hopes being dashed by more pain and suffering from her Brazilian cycling community. We hear from architects and urban planners explaining what’s wrong and what should be changed. We hear from car dealership managers overjoyed by the growth of their industry providing financial stability regardless of the impact their product has on society. Its diversity is extensive even if opinions are mostly focused upon cyclist rights. Even so, it’s never posited that they are right and motorists are wrong. Both sides need to wake up and find a way to share the road and soon. Unfortunately, just like many plights in our society, much of the blame lies with bureaucratic conflicts of interest. Good luck fixing that.

[1] Aline Cavalcante, São Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Janice D´Avila
[2] Ghost bike memorial ride, São Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Flora Dias
[3] Dan Koeppel, Los Angeles, USA. Photo: Joseph Aguirre

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