REVIEW: Bikes vs Cars

Directed by Fredrik Gertten
Reviewed by Marc Glassman

If there’s one thing I love about point-of-view documentaries, it’s that directors don’t feel the need to pretend to be objective. Take Fredrik Gertten, the director of Bikes vs Cars. Here’s what he told The Guardian’s Zoe Williams, “Car dependency is a disease for society. If you’re dependent on having a car every day, you have lost your freedom. It’s very sad. Most people are unhappy in traffic. The people who bike their cities, they become city-lovers.”

So car-lovers beware. This doc is not for you. And readers of this review, beware. I agree with him. But that doesn’t mean that this is a great film.

In Bikes vs Cars, Gertten looks at the growing phenomenon of people biking in big cities. He picks two of the biggest in the world, Sao Paulo and Los Angeles, to demonstrate his case, that biking is taking place in every major city, even the ones that are famously car-oriented. Gertten introduces us to a couple of dedicated, likeable individuals, who are courageously pioneering the growth of bike riding in metropolises in their area of the globe. Aline Cavalcante is a young Brazilian woman, who came to Sao Paulo to continue her studies. She discovered the joys of biking in a city of 20 million people and seven million cars. Dan Koeppel is a dad with a young son, who is a health, community and bicycling advocate in Greater Los Angeles, a metropolitan area of nearly 19 million people, of which 0.08 percent ride bikes.

Bikes vs Cars switches back and forth between Cavalcante’s efforts to get better laws passed for bicyclists in Sao Paulo and Koeppel’s potted history of L.A. biking, which goes back to a heyday in the early part of the 20th century when there was actually a bike freeway in the young, burgeoning city. Through Cavalcante’s activism and Koeppel’s tales, Gertten is able to show how politics has been able to hold back progress for bicyclists in both cities. It’s made clear that oil and gas companies and car manufacturers are able to buy favours from politicians with munificent contributions to their election coffers.

In his weakest section, Gertten expands his story, showing off Copenhagen and to a lesser extent Amsterdam as the great bike capitals of the world, travelling to Germany to examine a case of corruption and to other areas of the world, including, sadly, Toronto. Our city comes off very badly as Gertten’s footage is from the early days of the Ford administration when Jarvis Street’s bike lane was removed and the whole idea of bikers and motorists hating each other was the subject of one of our former Mayor’s significant early speeches at City Council.

The trouble with making his tale more global is that things change quickly as they have—happily—in Toronto. Gertten only diffuses his central conceit by taking his argument internationally. And what of his two main stories? Nothing much happens in L.A. except for high hopes, but Sao Paulo does experience a definite move towards accommodating bicyclists when a new Mayor is elected in 2014.

Bikes vs Cars has a number of nice scenes with bicyclists racing through urban streets enjoying their freedom even in hectic circumstances. The message is certainly conveyed that bikes and bikers are here to stay—and that they will help to make the world a more sustainable place.

Could Gertten have done more? I can’t help feeling that he could have. Though the director is passionate about his subject, the film is perhaps a bit too pat and self congratulatory. To paraphrase a sentiment from the ‘70s, “We still have a long way to go, baby.”