Bikes vs Cars Director Takes on Car Lobby, Bike Culture and Rob Ford

By Sean Plummer 3/31/15 |

Bike activist protesting against the removal of the Jarvis St. bike lane in Toronto — photo credit: Martin Reis.

Shot in cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Toronto, Sao Paolo, Berlin and Copenhagen, Bikes vs Cars documents the often contentious relationship between cyclists and drivers, which has resulted in the death of cyclists. Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten (Bananas!) also looks at the emerging bicycle activist community worldwide and the ongoing efforts of car manufacturers to shape public policy in their favour. It is serious-minded stuff, but Gertten’s interview subjects are hopeful, amiable people.

Gertten is on the phone with Samaritanmag from bike-friendly Austin, Texas, there for the film’s U.S. premiere at South by Southwest (SXSW), a popular film, music and interactive conference. The first of three Bikes vs Cars screenings was free and outdoors, an acknowledgment perhaps of the grassroots nature of his film. It was partially funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, which saw more than 2,000 people in over 50 countries raise over US$82,000. Gertten is grateful for the support and sees it as a measure of the strength of the worldwide bicycle movement.

“It shows a lot about how wide this new movement is,” Gertten tells Samaritanmag. “ I think it also says something about the need for independent films. Media is dying, they say. Many media outlets are going through financial problems and the content is changing a lot. So I think people tend to love documentaries, and they’re also willing to support independent filmmakers, which of course is a very cool thing.”

Screenings are listed on the film's web site and one can also host your own screening.

Gertten’s film opens in Sao Paolo. Here we are introduced to Aline Cavalcante, a student too scared to drive and too poor to take public transit in the Brazilian capital. So she decides to get around the busy city by bike instead. It is through her eyes that we see the problems inherent in city planning based around car ownership: pollution, increased gridlock (primarily due to cars coming downtown from the suburbs), and cyclist death.

“Cities are going down in gridlock,” says Gertten. “The population of the planet is growing a lot right now, and every major city is growing. So people are bringing more cars into the cities over the years. And everybody who is involved in city planning knows that a new highway won’t really help out because a new highway will also create new traffic.

“So you need change. And most people know about that, but it’s really hard to get people to take the first step, to change their habits a little bit. I’m not saying you should get rid of your car and nevermore ride a car; I understand that a lot of people need a car. But in the US 50 percent of all trips are less than three miles, and I think less than 25 percent are two miles.

“So most trips are really short, and if you change some of the short trips to bikes or walking or public transport then you will help the rest of the traffic to ease.

“Because traffic all together creates traffic. And traffic is not a mystic thing that comes down on us. If all of us are driving in a car then of course there will be a lot of traffic. Nobody will get anywhere.”

Bikes vs Cars is not meant to be a funny documentary per se. There is, however, one big (if unplanned) laugh and it comes during the closing credits when then-Toronto mayor Rob Ford is seen breezing past the Bikes vs Cars camera crew as his deputy mayor, Denzil Minnan-Wong, is being interviewed. Ford slams his office door, and Minnan-Wong, speechless, simply shrugs. There will be no interview with the mayor apparently.

Gertten laughs when Samaritanmag mentions the scene. “I tried for a very long time to reach out to speak to Mayor Ford. And you could say that I wanted to talk to him for his crack use and so on, but I [did] not.”


Instead, Gertten wanted to talk to the embattled mayor, who at the time was embroiled in a scandal surrounding his illegal drug habits, about his campaign promise to end what he called a “war on cars.” To that end, Ford, early in his administration, scrapped a car registration tax that brought some $60 million (CAD) a year into the city’s coffers. He also had bike lanes along one major street painted over at a cost of $300,000 (CAD); they cost $86,000 to install.

Ford’s attitudes towards cyclists is instead represented in the film by video footage of him in a Toronto city council meeting. Here he compares city cycling to swimming with sharks. “Sooner or later, you’re going to get bitten,” he warns.

“Here comes a guy who says, ‘I will save you from gridlock. I will help you poor car people,’” Gertten says by way of explaining Ford’s appeal to car-driving suburban Torontonians. “And that’s what he said. He scored a landslide election. Really won big-time. Of course Rob Ford couldn’t deliver.” (Toronto was rated the second-worst Canadian city for gridlock in a report issued last July, during the last few months of Ford’s administration; John Tory succeeded him as mayor last December.)

Ford’s ‘war against cars’ idea seems ridiculous in the face of the facts Gertten serves up. It is projected that in the next few years 30 million cars will be sold annually in China, a country where bike use has dropped 45 percent in the last 25 years. Meanwhile, the number of cars on the planet will rise from one billion in 2012 to an estimated two billion in 2020. It is also noted that of the 82.8 million cars sold in 2013, fewer than 1 percent were electric. Gertten also investigates the political power of the car lobby, exemplified by German chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to veto a bill to increase the fuel efficiency of European cars, including BMW, a contributor to Merkel’s campaign.

But Gertten remains hopeful for the future of cyclists and cycling. At the end of Bikes vs Cars, Sao Paolo is shown getting 400 km of new bike lanes installed. And with increased gridlock worldwide (Americans spend 55 working days in traffic every year, while 25 percent of their incomes go to transport), how can the bicycle not become a viable alternative in at least some situations?

“I would say that this wave of urban bicycling that is going on now, it’s unstoppable,” says Gertten. “And it’s moving at a pace that no one could expect. People around the movement have been taken by the speed of the change. But remember: this is a parallel development. On the other hand there is a road to hell where car sales are booming all over the planet and SUV sales are also booming all over the planet, so it’s a two-way direction.”

Gertten also thinks that there is a class issue at play, noting that increased rents downtown force poorer people into the suburbs, making them beholden to owning cars that they then drive downtown for work.

“So Toronto is a very good example, where the inner city will be more and more bike-friendly and more and more liveable, and the suburbs will stay in traffic and gridlock, and I think more cities will go in that direction… And that’s also not acceptable.”

Ultimately Gertten has no illusions about the impact his film will make. People love cars and always will, no matter if, like in Sao Paolo, they have to spend an average of three hours a day stuck in traffic. But opting out of gridlock, where and whenever possible, will make a difference, both to the planet and your own well-being, the filmmaker says.

“If you leave the car sometimes and jump on the bike, you will be part of the solution. It’s a sweet solution, because when you do, you feel the wind in your hair. You will also meet new friends. It’s a cool thing.”

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