“The bicycle, an amazing tool for change. Activists and cities all over the world are moving towards a new system. But will the economic powers allow it? Bikes vs Cars, a new film project from BANANAS!* and Big Boys Gone Bananas!* director Fredrik Gertten, looks into and investigates the daily global drama in traffic around the world.” You can rent or buy the film on vimeo on Demand here. Read on for my thoughts and takeaways.
When I first heard of this film I was immediately interested in what it had to say. I initially didn’t like the title as it is too inflammatory suggesting a war between drivers and cyclists. Ideally we would all get along, but in many places, bikes v cars is the reality.
Too many drivers today appear to have lost all sense of courtesy, even to each other, never mind the guy riding his bike in the gutter for fear of being hit by a driver not paying sufficient attention. Every time I drive on a highway at peak times, where traffic is at a standstill, drivers will still try and close the gap to prevent someone getting in front of them. Something has to change to encourage courtesy to our fellow human beings on the road, regardless of choice of vehicle.
As a keen cyclist I have been fairly lucky to avoid anything more than very close passes by vehicles, close enough to generate a few expletives at the driver who likely is totally oblivious to how close they just came to me.
I prefer to do my cycling off-road and despite the image of mountain biking on Vancouver’s north shore being extreme and dangerous, I’d far rather take my chances with a stationary tree than a one ton metal box being piloted by a distracted driver. I spend some time on cycling forums and the frequency of threads appearing where someone has been knocked off on their commute is almost a daily occurrence.
Anyway, back to the film, it starts with the story of Aline Cavalcante, who moved to Sao Paulo in Brazil to study, after finding the transit service expensive, she discovers the the benefits of cycling to University, arriving more refreshed and with a clear mind, albeit being initially very scared by the experience. She begins to question the city’s choices, why do they spend so much on bridges for cars, why is transit expensive when it does not offer good service. Why does the city chooses to ignore the bicycle as a means of transportation. She goes onto state this is a key problem in every city and for the most part she is correct. Some are starting to get it, but there is a long way to go.
We later cut back to Aline as she weaves through traffic from lane to lane, i’m not even sure I would be so confident in the drivers around me to ride so care free. She tells the story of someone knocked off their bike and killed by a bus, in fact pushed into the path of another bus by a bus. As you watch the vehicles passing by while she is interviewed at the side of the road it become obvious that such large vehicles and humans don't mix well. If there is a collision only one is going to come away worse than the other. And that is as much justification as we really need for protected bike lanes. the consequences from very minor interactions are very likely to be fatal.
They come to examine the causes. In this case the street design played a major part, it allows vehicles to travel too fast, the faster cars travel the less reaction time there is, the higher the consequences are. The beauty of changing our streets to be safer is that by narrowing lanes we not only makes space for cyclists, but even street trees or landscaping. It reminds me of the cartoon sketch about climate change where it states ‘what happens if its all a hoax and we make the world a better place for nothing’. In this case, what happens if we make the street a safer place for cyclists it also makes the street just a nicer place to be, with slower and potentially even less traffic. It seems like a no brainer, if it weren't for the ingrained desire to provide as much capacity for traffic. When the top priority is moving more cars rather than making roads safer for all people, we have our priorities mixed up!
Next we meet Dan Keppel, a resident of LA that loves bicycles and hates driving, joking that he shouldn’t be living in LA. He looks back on the LA of the early 1900’s when more people biked and lived and worked within the same community. Many people today are advocating for a return to such a model with higher density mixed use developments.
The film moves on to some of the reasons we find ourselves in this situation. the car industry lobbying, taking over and killing streetcars, supporting political parties to influence decisions have all contributed to the current state of infrastructure we experience today. The car has gained such a foothold only through propaganda and lobbying. Logically, why would we give so much priority to one group of people just because the choose one way of travelling? Marketing has made car a must have, a lifestyle accessory, a stud symbol, now in places its creating its own demise as younger generations choose not to own one as often it has become more impractical than practical.
We can't have a film against cars without mentioning induced demand, no matter how many freeways have been built, traffic has always become worse. There are probably no examples where the construction of more freeways has actually improved traffic in the longer term. The argument being that by widening a highway you make it more attractive, thus its new capacity fills up much quicker than 30 year projections would suggest.
Carmageddon, the predicted apocalypse when the Interstate 405 Freeway shut down over the weekend is mentioned. It is one of the busiest, most congested highways in the world. Chaos was predicted, and as a result people changed their habits that weekend, they stayed local, they walked. It proves that with enough motivation people can change their habits.
The film even features ex Toronto Mayor Rob Ford discussing the “war on the car” in that city, calling cyclists a pain in the ass, saying its their own fault if they get killed, he says there is a huge animosity between motorists and cyclists that won’t go away. The funny thing is, if you provide the separated facilities that cyclists are calling for, you remove the conflict and the animosity will go away.
We cut to a taxi driver in Copenhagen, who while very relaxed and softly spoken, faces a battle with too many cyclists. I suspect this reflects my experience in Amsterdam, where cyclists have somewhat taken over and the cars have become second, or even third class citizens. Cyclists tend to assume they have right of way regardless of the situation. While this is the pinnacle of bike friendliness, it does create different problems. Drivers are certainly more aware of cyclists, they have to be! Is this a bad thing? well when you have somewhere in the region of 50% commuting by bike the benefits speak for themselves! Less cars, less pollution, healthier population, lower health costs, more people on the street, streets that are nicer places to be. If the only drawback are drivers having to take more care, is that really a bad thing?
The subject of suburbs comes up, the car dependancy it creates, the film suggests that developers can buy the land much cheaper than in the city, which of course is true, and therefore houses are cheaper. For me, the problem here is more one of housing expectations and the desire for a single family home. Many would rather have that and drive everywhere, and many people it would appear are happy with that or they would’t do it. I think changing peoples housing expectations is one of the great challenges to addressing the reliance on the car. I think it is changing slowly and in large part due to younger generations rejecting the notion of being trapped in traffic for a large part of their day.
We need our city planners to think about the long term legacy rather than 5 minute fixes. Look at what we have been left by car orientated planners of the 50’s! Are we going to leave the next generation and even more auto dependent environment, or are we going to start to change things? It is not sustainable to just keep widening roads, you would eventually end up with just roads! Congestion makes it easier to argue for other modes of transportation, it is living proof that past methods have not worked.
The only way to make things better is reduce the number of cars. The only way to do that is to make it more expensive, by reducing parking or making it more expensive, or by implementing some form of road pricing.
Cycling is just one alternative, an alternative that has largely been forgotten in past decades. It's time fro drivers to share the road, although not the same part of the road!