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As the world grapples with the climate crisis and rising congestion, a new documentary reveals that the war playing out on our streets could be the decisive battle of our time.
Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten is no stranger to controversy. In 2009 he made a documentary entitled “Bananas!” about Dole Foods’ mistreatment of its workers in Nicaragua. When he was subsequently sued by Dole, he followed it up with the 2011 documentary about the lawsuit, “Big Boys Gone Bananas!”
From the title of his latest documentary, “Bikes vs. Cars” one might assume (as I did), that Gertten is attempting to stir up controversy once again. But Gertten is adamant that, such as in the case of the previous two films, he is simply highlighting an issue. “A film gets controversial when somebody is attacking it,” he explains. “I’m telling a story about different ways to plan a city. You plan a city based on the car model or you plan it from a more human-scale model where the bike is more in the center. Is that controversial?”
In titling the film “Bikes vs. Cars,” Gertten wasn’t being antagonistic so much as pointing towards where the antagonism already exists. “My job as a filmmaker is to highlight conflict in society,” he explains. “So if I want this film to be useful as a tool to change cities, we need to talk about conflict.”
“Bikes vs. Cars” lays out in plain view just how bad the conflict has become, and its message is clear: if we build cities for cars, they become hostile to people.
The film looks at urban transportation in Los Angeles, São Paulo, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Toronto. In one particularly gruesome incident in São Paulo, a cyclist has his arm ripped off by a passing vehicle. The driver continues on for 5 miles before dropping his friend off and then tossing the arm in a creek. It is an extreme incident, but unfortunately unsurprising given the climate of aggression that we’ve come to view as normal on our streets.
This, ultimately, is the message of the film. It isn’t a story about people on bikes vs. people driving cars, but a story about love vs. hate. Do we want to build the kinds of communities where one human being could have such blatant disregard for the life of another? Or do we want to build communities where people can be safe, can talk to each other on the street, can experience the social life of their city by pedaling or walking through it, rather sitting in traffic in a metal cage?
“Bikes vs. Cars” upends the commonly-held notion that traffic is just a necessary or natural facet of urban life, that cars are the most rational choice for getting around, or that cycling and pedestrian deaths are an unavoidable consequence of multi-modal transportation.
In LA, a city which was once home to the world’s most sophisticated public transportation system and North America’s first bike highway, we see a city so choked by automobiles that its residents can barely even get across town. Was this an accident, fate, the natural progression of things? Or was it decades of investment by the auto and oil industries to phase out public transportation in order to sell cars? Evidence points to the latter.
“We need to see who the enemies are,” says Gertten. “And we need to see how they work. And they work by selling themselves, promoting themselves as something good. They are working hard with the powers in politics to make them not do laws that are against their business. We need to see that, and understand that the biggest companies on the planet do everything they can to not change the world. They invest billions so we should not have a better planet.”
While the story focuses on five cities, Gertten says it just as easily could have been filmed anywhere. “It’s basic stories about how this planet is organized,” he says. “Big companies buy more lobbyists than small companies do, and they buy more political campaigns than the small people do. The rich are more powerful than the poor.”
It’s a reality that can produce a sense of hopelessness. Why even try when the powers that be are working so hard to prevent you from succeeding? Why not just throw in the towel?
The documentary is filled with damming statistics on the auto industry’s efforts, but even more shocking are the statistics on the culture and the urban landscapes the industry has created as a result. A full 70% of the area of Los Angeles is dedicated to roads and cars; a pedestrian is hit by a car every 3 hours in Toronto, and a cyclist is hit every 7 hours; the average commuter in São Paulo spends 3 hours a day in traffic; the average American spends 25% of their income on transportation; 7 million people die every year from air pollution-related illness.
Cities worldwide are choking to death on smog and people are dying just trying to get across town. In a sense, the auto industry has been so successful in its quest for dominance that it has precipitated its own demise. The bicycle, in its simplicity, offers a way out that not only creates a better community and a cleaner planet, but frankly, is just more fun.
“If we think about the bike, we can actually do something,” says Gertten. “And we can do it for pleasure. We can still consume, we can still have great dreams, we can still have fun. So it’s not even giving up something that we like to do. It’s very inspiring.
“When I meet people from the bicycle movement now it can be a CEO of a company, it can be a lawyer, it can be a worker it can be a university professor, it can be an activist,” says Gerrten. “It can be a lot of different people, and it’s not left, it’s not right, it’s not that easy. It’s a lot of people who are fed up with sitting in traffic.”
While the documentary is highly political, Gertten insists that the bicycle movement itself is not a leftist movement. He recounts receiving praise from right-wing commentators in big newspapers in Sweden, simply because they themselves ride bikes and understand the vulnerability that accompanies cycling or walking in a city designed for cars. “There is something like a power hierarchy in traffic,” he explains. “And when you are on a bike you’re low down. So even people who are in powerful positions in their workplace or in society, when they’re on a bike in the street, in traffic, they have a totally different perspective on power.”
While “Bikes vs. Cars” can be at times shocking, at times depressing, and at times quite funny, its ultimate tone is one of optimism. Alongside the bleak picture of the way our cities are organized now, we see passionate advocates working in all corners of the globe to change the way they’ll be organized 10 years from now. If anything, it reminds us that car culture is not irrevocable, that spending our lives in traffic does not have to be part of who we are as a society.
For those who already bike, the film reminds us of why we do what we do. And for those who have never considered doing so, it serves as a wake up call to the ways in which we could engage with our environment, our communities, and ourselves.
“We have had cities for thousands of years,” says Gertten, “But we’ve only had car culture for about 70 years…and this car model has now reached a point where many cities are going down. They can’t take more cars, there is no more space, there are no more solutions, it’s over, we have to change.”
“Bikes vs. Cars” hits theatres across the US, beginning in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco on Friday, December 4. You can host a screening in your own community, and the film will be available online for North American audiences beginning on December 15.