About two-thirds of the way through Bikes vs Cars, a new feature-length documentary from Swedish director Fredrik Gertten, the film zeros in on a protest taking place on a busy avenue in São Paulo, Brazil. A large group of mostly young bike activists are marching and pedaling down the street in the pouring rain, blocking traffic in response to a horrific incident where a drunk driver hit a man on a bike, tearing his arm off in the process. The energy of their march — defiant, oppositional — is the central energy of the film. Bikes vs Cars is a story about the David and Goliath battle of bike activists hoping to curb driving’s global dominance. It feels at once dated and hugely relevant in a world where streets advocacy is increasingly moving from grassroots activism to establishment politics.
The documentary follows a slew of characters including bike activists, educators, drivers, car industry representatives, politicians and others in São Paulo, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Toronto, Bogota and Berlin. The three main characters laying out the case for bikes are Aline Cavalcante, a bike activist in São Paulo and one of the organizers of that Brazil march; Dan Koeppel, a writer and streets activist in Los Angeles; and Raquel Rolnik, an urban planning professor at University of São Paulo. Viewers also hear from Gil Penalosa, former head of Bogota Parks, an activist fighting against the car lobby’s influence in Germany and others.
To help illustrate driving’s stranglehold on transportation, Bikes vs Cars interviews a former car industry marketer, the deputy mayor of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (who famously removed bike lanes from his city), a car salesman, a car commercial director and a Copenhagen cab driver. The cabbie scene is one of the best in the film. Rather than just show the thousands of cyclists everyone already knows fill the streets of Copenhagen, the film drives along with Ivan Naurholm who detests the cyclists, but is nonetheless incredibly cautious driving around them.
The film’s narrative will probably be familiar to the audience of bike riders and transportation nerds likeliest to go see it. It charts the fast and intentional rise of the automobile. Huge swaths of the population rode bikes for transportation until the car came along. Then, with the promise of autonomy and freedom and destruction of transit lines and safe biking routes, cars became king. Now as our roads fill with constant traffic jams and emissions poison the air, people are realizing that perhaps personal cars aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. But, because of the car industry’s economic dominance, the fight to shift the driving status quo is immense.
And though it’s fairly well-trod material, Bikes vs Cars does a great job telling the story. It is peppered with lots of notable facts: One cyclist is killed each week in São Paulo; 70 percent of land in Los Angeles is either roads or parking lots; the car industry is the top global spender on advertising; there were 1 billion cars in 2012 and there will be 2 billion by 2020; 7 million people die each year from air pollution.
Because there are so many characters and scenes, the film runs a little long, but that huge variety also helps keep things interesting. Gertten comes at this transportation problem from many angles and perspectives and it works.
One the most striking things from the film was how dated the São Paulo bike activism felt. Filmed just a few years ago, the scenes of young people on fixed-gear bikes organizing protest rides and installing ghost bikes with big ceremonies are reminiscent of the American bike movement in the 2000s. Thanks in part to the popularity of fixed gears, the bike movement had a major influx of young people. Those young people brought an activist energy to the bike movement with huge showings at critical mass and other confrontational protest rides, big reactions in the wake of traffic deaths, and more grassroots organizing for safer streets.
Certainly that activist energy still exists in some places in the U.S. (The film has a scene from L.A.’s Midnight Ridazz events, a grassroots monthly group ride that brings out as many as 2,000 participants.) But in big bike cities such as Seattle, New York, Portland, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, bike activism has largely given way to bike advocacy with a direct line to city hall. That insider politics is important and has led to huge gains in bike infrastructure and other bike funding, which has in turn helped bicycling continue to grow.
Last July, I interviewed longtime Seattle bike activist Davey Oil, who explained the problem with insider-only bike advocacy is, “we’re already starting from the middle of a left position and we have nobody expressing more than what we reasonable expect to get. Everybody has something to lose, so we don’t get anybody asking for more than they think they can get.”
Cavalcante and her fellow activists aren’t asking for the middle ground. They’re demanding the safe infrastructure cyclists need so they’re not dying once a week in São Paulo. (At the end of the film, they get a piece of it in the form of a new protected bike lane.) Given that over 740 cyclists still die each year in the U.S. and our best bike infrastructure networks are disconnected patchworks of bike lanes and trails, maybe we moved too quickly from activism to advocacy in the American bike movement. It’s not to say that mainstream advocacy isn’t critically important, but as Bikes vs Cars reminds viewers, the problem is enormous so maybe we shouldn’t limit the tools we’re using to solve it.
Bikes vs Cars begins its limited U.S. release on December 2nd. It might not open your eyes to an unfamiliar issue, but it’s an entertaining way to remind yourself of just how serious a problem cars have become.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.