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Culture clash

Bikes vs. Cars calls for a reimagining of cities

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If we're talking about a fight to the death, it's not really a fair fight. Car crushes bike every time, and that's sort of the point of filmmaker Fredrik Gertten's poignant documentary, Bikes vs. Cars. The new film tells the story of several bicycling enthusiasts who aim to level the playing field in cultures the world over that have become dominated and stifled by too much automobile traffic.

We begin with Aline Cavalcante in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a feisty cycling advocate who's passionate about making bikes safer and easier to ride in a city whose infrastructure has been crippled by too much expansion. (This isn't in the movie, but I read recently that traffic in Sao Paulo is so bad, its most affluent citizens have dispensed with the roads altogether and instead travel by helicopter.)

The film spends a lot of time watching Cavalcante navigate her bicycle through Sao Paulo's perilous city streets. Even after the film tells us one cyclist dies there every week, the girl's got no helmet on, but never mind the danger: Cavalcante on a bicycle looks how one imagines freedom tastes. A blogger by profession, we watch her put some live grass in a box under her desk, so as to rest her bare feet on the earth. I've never seen anybody do that before, and what a touching way for a film to show what a person is all about.

In Los Angeles, Dan Koeppel and Don Ward are bike advocates in a city famous for its impossible urban sprawl, traffic jams and dismal public transportation. Everybody knows this about LA, but it hasn't always been so. In the early 1900s, newly invented bicycles dominated the landscape. It wasn't until the car industry got ahold of the hearts and minds of people who were hungry for faster commutes that the city became the deadlocked horror show it is today. You can see how it happens innocently enough: two-lane freeways become four, then eight, then 12, and pretty soon there just isn't room on the roads or in our hearts for a bike lane anymore.

Easy rider.
  • Easy rider.

In Toronto, infamous Mayor Rob Ford advocates passionately against any attempts to make Toronto a bike-friendly city. The bikes are a dangerous nuisance in an infrastructure designed for automobiles, he argues. Thanks in large part to Ford's ceaseless campaign, bike lanes that cost $80,000 to install are just as swiftly removed by the crack-smoking mayor for $300,000 a few years later. I'm reminded of that time back in the 1980s when President Reagan made a big to-do about removing the solar panels his predecessor had installed on the White House, lest our enemies perceive us as weak. From that perspective, it starts to look like a cultural war more than anything, wherein fans of the old ways see bike riders as bleeding heart hippies who hate freedom and want all that war oil to go to waste. Idiotic, I know, but when you're lobbying for something as environmentally devastating as billions of cars, a little hyperbole goes a long way.

The automobile advocates in this film are given short shrift, but in that politely respectful way you would expect from a Swedish filmmaker. In Copenhagen, where bikes overrun the streets like Hindu cows, we hear briefly from a cab driver. He thinks the bikes are okay and all, but he wishes they would stay in their lanes and follow basic traffic laws.

Nobody thinks we're going to eliminate cars from the planet entirely, but what if we started re-imagining our cities to decrease our dependence on cars and make cycling safe, fun and easy for everyone? Bikes vs. Cars is a sweet and poised film intent on getting you hip to revolutionary new ideas in the surprisingly fascinating field of urban planning. If nothing else, all those aerial shots of California's dreaded 405 freeway should give you renewed appreciation for Montana's precious little traffic.

Bikes vs. Cars screens at the Top Hat Tue., April 28, at 8 PM.

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