"Bikes vs. Cars": A Film That Fights the Tyranny of the Tailpipe

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 07, 2015

The new documentary Bikes vs. Cars, which gets a theatrical release this month, is a tale of four cities, and three of them are deeply unfriendly to two wheelers.

In the just-released film, director Fredrik Gertten travels to São Paulo, Brazil, Los Angeles and Toronto (the bad guys) and to Copenhagen, Denmark (the good guys) for a close-up view of the transportation wars. The New York Times says the documentary “could be called a tale of congestion-plagued cities", and that’s indeed what a lot of it is. But there's hope and happy cyclists, too.

In São Paulo, we ride along with student and bike activist Aline Cavalcante, who says she came to town intimidated by the streets clogged with cars. Transit was expensive, so she started riding her bike, and found it liberating. But in a modern city an urban planner says was built around cars, a cyclist is killed every week—we see one such tragic scene via a TV report. In another, a motorist knocks a biker’s arm off, and drives five miles before discovering it on the passenger seat. “Ghost bikes” and flowers mark the locations. Despite this, efforts to add bike lanes don’t get much of a hearing.

Activist Aline Cavalcante takes her life in her hands on the mean streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. (from Bikes vs. Cars)In Los Angeles, we strap on a helmet with activist Dan Koeppel and his son (who rides in a basket up front). Koeppel says, “I love bicycles and hate to drive so I really shouldn’t be living in LA.” He discovers that around 1900 the city had something called the California Cycleway, a wooden bike lane that funneled commuters from Pasadena. Back then, he says, 20 percent of Angelenos commuted by bike. “People didn’t drive two hours to work,” he said. “They worked in their neighborhoods.”

Predictably, Koeppel demonizes GM for ripping up streetcar lanes from the 1940s to 1960. The company did indeed do that, though people of the time weren’t aware that tailpipes polluted, and were probably glad to get into private cars. The city panicked because of a 2011 phenomenon known as Carmageddon when the 405 freeway was briefly shut down.

Dan Koeppel riding around Los Angeles, where he discovered remnants of a century-old bike trail. In 1900, 20 percent of the city's commuters used bikes. (from Bikes vs. Cars)And in Toronto, we see, again via TV reports, newly elected Mayor Rob Ford (later removed after drug binges) in 2010, railing against the tyranny of bicyclists. He literally sends vehicles out to scrub away bike lanes, and removes a well-regarded auto congestion tax. Cyclists who get hit by cars “deserved it,” he says. “For too long we’ve been focused on transit only.”

Laying down in front of the bike-lane erasers in Toronto. (from Bikes vs. Cars)And then there’s Copenhagen, paradise for bikers, with 1,000 miles of dedicated trails. In 1937, the city had one bike for every three of its 900,000 residents; today, three of four own them, and 40 percent commute by cycle (it’s 0.8 percent in LA).

I talked to Gertten, the Swedish filmmaker, who tells me, "Traveling the world [to make his documentaries], I always missed being on a bike. Now I'm seeing more and more bikes around, so I thought it was maybe the moment to do this film. To do only a love story to the bike would be a bit boring, so I thought it was time to tell the story of why our cities are the way they are." The auto industry's attitude, Gertten said, is "business first, and then we can be green."

Cars vs. Bikes is beautifully shot, and we see the city from the point of view of a wonderfully articulate (in English) cab driver. Can you imagine a motorist intimidated by bicyclists? It’s only possible there. More people commute by bicycle in Copenhagen than in the entire U.S.

The bikes rule in Copenhagen. (Tony Webster/Flickr)But there’s hope, even in LA, where interest in biking is growing hugely. Themed rides organized two years ago now draw 2,000 people. Bike commuting in the U.S. has grown 50 percent in the last 10 years, but that’s from a pretty small base.

Bikes vs. Cars is a good film to see while the Paris climate talks are on. It’s a look at how people are taking personal initiative on the grassroots level—all over the world. Here's a look at the film's trailer:

BIKES vs CARS TRAILER from WG Film on Vimeo  


Get the Car Talk Newsletter