Cities are congested with cars, and Bikes vs Cars’ answer to that problem is to do away with them—and to replace them with bicycles. Even if rising population numbers will make automotive travel a gridlock nightmare in the coming years/decades, Fredrik Gertten’s documentary forwards no cogent argument in favor of replacing fuel-based vehicles with bikes, for reasons that are painfully obvious. Cars allow people to travel tremendous distances (for work, for recreation, for basic life needs) at great speeds. They allow people to transport things with ease. They let people travel in numbers in a safe and efficient manner. And they afford people the opportunity to get around in horrible weather, cleanly—all things that are not possible, at least in any real way, with bicycles.
Nonetheless, Gertten’s film would have you believe otherwise, positing two-wheelers as the solution to a mounting crisis that, as one Sao Paolo bicycle activist opines, is leading to the collapse of the modern city. Those who live in major metropolitan areas might disagree with the dire view that our urban meccas are on the verge of total ruin. Yet such is the alarmist tone struck by Bikes vs Cars. When not sounding the siren about the imminent demise of our car-infatuated culture, the film lurches to and fro in search of different, barely related arguments to make against the car industry and the global misery and devastation it breeds.
That’s the film’s first shortcoming—namely, that it doesn’t really make a single, lucid point. The director begins by detailing the discontent of a few bike riders in São Paulo as well as an architect in Los Angeles, who lament cars’ status as the dominant mode of transportation in their cities, and the fact that lots of space and laws are allocated to them (and the construction of roads/freeways) while bikes are treated like low-priority afterthoughts. Much is made about the (relatively low) number of bikers who are fatally struck by cars each year. However, despite championing the ineffable virtues of bicycling—the energy it gives you in the morning! The communion it inspires between riders and their surroundings and neighbors!—not a single biker explains how riding is a feasible way of getting around for anyone who isn’t in tip-top shape, or who needs to travel while dressed nicely, or who lives in the suburbs, or who has to carry or move something of significant size/weight.
That Bikes vs Cars doesn’t bother to address those issues immediately undercuts its contentions. Worse still, though, it maintains that increased bicycling will reduce urban congestion—a notion that’s immediately refuted by a Copenhagen-set vignette in which a taxi driver struggles to deal with hordes of bike riders flooding his streets at every corner. In that brief segment, the film makes plain that more bikes would lead to only more bike-related headaches, which is an idea that anyone who’s ever navigated a bustling metro area knows is all-too-true. Not to mention that, in many cities—such as Manhattan, where I’ve lived and/or worked for decades—bikers treat traffic regulations as suggestions rather than directives, and thus create an environment of increased danger and chaos not only for motorists, but for pedestrians as well.
There’s truth to Bikes vs Cars’ belief that, because of population expansion, societies may be fast approaching a tipping point regarding the ability to preserve current car-driven infrastructures. Yet by envisioning bikes as symbols of liberal-progressive freedom, and cars as tools of evil capitalist conglomerates in league with paid-for government lackeys, it turns a multifaceted topic about modernization into an us.-vs.-them plea for a nonsensical future. It trumpets Amsterdam and Copenhagen as exemplars of bike-driven metropolises, and casts former Toronto mayor Rob Ford as a bad guy for spending more on car-related public services and systems (the one time, perhaps, that Ford hasn’t come across as an outright lunatic). Yet it gives us no facts or figures about biker deaths in cities in Denmark or the Netherlands—cities that aren’t, in terms of size and complexity, comparable to a sprawling place like L.A. And it trots out statistics about cars that are so fuzzy as to be meaningless, including the claim that people spend 55 days each year stuck in traffic—a misleading “fact” given that “traffic,” in this context, is never properly defined.
Meanwhile, almost no attention is paid to more feasible urban-planning solutions to auto-overcrowding, such as myriad modes of public transportation (all of which are cursorily shown to have been defunded in favor of cars). That area seems to be one ripe for further outraged investigation. Bikes vs Cars, however, is simply an agenda-driven affair, one that cares less about long-term, forward-thinking sustainable remedies than about championing grassroots, low-tech minorities as Davids pitted against monolithic auto-industry Goliaths. By the time the documentary begins slamming cars as noxious not only because they create congestion, but also because they generate pollution by shirking emissions standards—a separate, environmentally oriented problem with many potential resolutions, none of them as far-fetched as reverting to a bike-driven society—the film has revealed itself as merely agitprop compelled to demonize cars (and, by extension, their users) in whatever way possible.
Eventually, we won’t have enough land for roads to accommodate billions of cars—and, in places like L.A. and São Paulo, there’s already enough traffic to make travel a miserable chore. But Bikes vs Cars provides no concrete evidence that replacing parking spaces with bike lanes makes an appreciable difference to a city’s overall health. And it exhibits no interest in actually confronting the fact that as local populations increase, residential and commercial areas expand to the point that car travel becomes the only practical (non-train and subway-related) mode of passage. As a result, Gertten’s film—no matter its swelling music at sights of bikers zooming through nocturnal city streets, or its ominous tones when turning its camera to gridlocked highways—is a backwards-looking work that screams that the sky is falling, and then suggests that rather than building a sturdier roof, we just go back to hiding in caves.