Are We Looking at the Bikes vs. Cars War Wrong?

Let's not fight each other on the road. Let's blame the government.

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Aug 6 2015, 6:45pm

Look at all those damn cars. Photo by Janice D'Avila

In the world's big cities, the bikes-vs-cars conflict seems to be getting worse every year, with the morning commute filled with enough cursing and venom to almost fill a comment section. Not only are the two modes of transport colliding on the road, but they are clashing philosophically, pitting suburbia against the downtown, liberal elites against "stop the war on the car" conservatives, David on two wheels versus Goliath's SUV.

At least sometimes this clash of civilizations is funny, but it can be deadly.

Now, the fight for how to navigate a city efficiently has made its way to the big screen.

Documentary filmmaker Fredrik Gertten has strapped in to referee this dichotomy by not characterizing it as such, despite the film's title. Bikes vs. Cars is about the danger, disdain and debate that packs roads across the world and who the true natural enemy of the bicycle is: governments heavily influenced by car, oil and construction revenue.

Video via Daily VICE.

"You can't blame the individuals," Gertten told VICE in Toronto, where his film had its Canadian premiere last week. "It's not people in cars, it's not cyclists taking risks—it's the city planning that is to blame... city planning kills.

BvC is less about road rage-induced street fights and environmentalism and more about big industry and the big ideas they miss out on by trying to solve the problem at the stem and not the root.

"The car industry, they [are experimenting with] things like self-driving cars, a lot of stupid things that they think will create a better society," Gertten says. "But... it's not shifting the paradigm—it's re-confirming it.

"The bottom line is there are a lot of people who don't want to change the world. I think we have to highlight that and point them out. The car industry don't really want to change the world. They want to keep going."

Gertten is native to Sweden—where road deaths have recently hit record-lows thanks to parliament stepping in—but it's Denmark's Copenhagen that is portrayed as the bike utopia, where there are 1,000 kilometres of bike lanes and four out of five people own a bike. This is contrasted with Toronto where former mayor Rob Ford is shown declaring the "war on the car" over on his first day in office.

Fredrick Gertten meets with fellow cyclists outside the Bloor Cinema. Photo by the author

But in BvC, it's LA and Sao Paulo where the film takes a deeper look at how governments can dictate the availability of transport infrastructure for their citizens.

The film argues the car, as a macro-mode of transport, is simply not working, despite the continued sell-job that it provides individual freedom. Los Angeles, where less than one percent commute on bike to work, once had a transit system that was the envy of the world until it was allegedly bought by the auto industry and scrapped in favour of mammoth freeways that seemed to create hours of traffic, though some call it a myth. BvC argues that the lobby power held by the car industry became such that it was able to eliminate its competitors in transit swiftly.

Raquel Rolnick, professor of urban planning at the University of Sao Paulo, says in the film that 60 percent of built space in the Brazilian city is for roads, freeways and parking and Gertten uses this fact to argue that the electric car—like the driverless car would only take more space away from cyclists and pedestrians.

All the while, Joel Ewanick, former marketing chief from GM, Hyundai and Porsche explains why the car "makes you feel better about yourself." For many, the feeling of owning a car still derives from the car commercial, driving alone on an empty road at top speed.

That might be an old fantasy to young people in North America who are increasingly driving less, but it's still an existential global issue that has more people than ever stuck in gridlock. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) projects that the number of vehicles on the world's roads will double to 2.5 billion by 2050.

"The car came as a tool for freedom but it's not anymore," says Gertten. "If you're depending on a car to get somewhere, it's not freedom. If you live in a place where you have an option to say, 'Today I'll go on bike, tomorrow I'll take the bus, Friday I'll take my car,' then it works."

"Life is complicated and I'm not pointing fingers at anyone in a car," the director says. "The main character in the film is talking about co-existence, 'This is not a war, it's a city,'—the closing line of the film."

Gertten's last two films were Bananas (2009) and Big Boys Gone Bananas (2012), about the Dole food company and how they came to sue the director after they claimed the first documentary defamed them (they eventually dropped the suit, and were later ordered to pay Gertten's legal fees) .

Bikes vs. Cars director Fredrick Gertten rides with fellow cyclists to the Bloor Cinema in Toronto to view his latest film. Photo by Martin Reis

"That made me understand that to make this bicycle film," he says. "I should focus also on the other side. Who are these guys who don't want to change the world? I always wanted to make a film about city planning and bikes but suddenly I could understand how to do it. If you made a film about how great the bike is, it would be kind of boring. You need a resistance."

In one segment, Gertten gives the mic to Ewanick—the former marketing chief of three major car companies—who explains that no car industry executive is without empathy for the environment but that they innately fight for survival in their industry. It's an argument cyclists might scoff at but Gertten isn't taking sides entirely.

"I think maybe all of us are in the middle," he says. "If you work in media, you have a lot of car ads. If you're a filmmaker, you do a lot of car commercials. All that money is everywhere and it's a lot of money. But at the same time, we live in an era with a global crisis. And if it's dangerous, don't we have to do something? It doesn't mean we have to take away the car but we have to find new ways of building cities and creating a good life for all."

This is a bike film but not just for cyclists. Where pro-car and pro-bike supporters lose patience with each other and governments give way to car industry leverage, Gertten has made a documentary that prompts both sides to lay down their arms, sit still and watch his movie.

"When film works, it hits you in the stomach," says Gertten, who also spent years as a journalist. "It can have an emotional impact which can actually make people think, 'Oh shit, I have to change."

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