The Best Reason to Ride a Bike

The film “Bikes vs Cars” tells us that bicycling for transportation can reduce our emissions. But more importantly, bicycling can change our mindset.

Aline Cavalcante rides in São Paulo, Brazil.

Photo by Rodrigo Marcondes.

Cars have taken over our cities: More than half of downtown Los Angeles is devoted to roads and parking lots. Bikes are an afterthought at best, and those brave, or perhaps foolhardy, souls who bike risk life and limb.
So says Bikes vs Cars, a 2015 film by Swedish director Fredrik Gertten. At first glance, the film comes across as a straightforward piece of bike advocacy. It focuses on two passionate bike activists in two car-friendly cities—Aline Cavalcante in São Paulo, Brazil, and Dan Koeppel in Los Angeles—as they describe their battles against cars and ask us to imagine cities designed for people. What’s really at stake here is how we live.

Like Koeppel, I’m an everyday bike commuter living in Los Angeles. Biking keeps me fit and healthy (I get sick less often than I did before I started biking), saves me money (bikes are much cheaper to operate than cars), prevents me from wasting my life in traffic jams, and resets me emotionally. It just plain feels great. At the community scale, I no longer buy things from the big box stores; I support the local mom-and-pop stores, which I can get to by bike. And at the municipal scale, bikes help solve thorny urban problems, such as traffic congestion, parking, and air quality. More bikes and fewer cars would make our cities safer, cleaner, quieter, more beautiful, and more integrated.

Bikes even take a bite out of global warming, not merely by reducing our emissions but also by changing our mindset. Bikes are more than just the world’s most efficient transportation machines: They might also be the world’s most efficient awareness-building machines.

But Bikes vs Cars won’t convince anyone to get on a bike. The film largely ignores these benefits and instead works hard to portray biking as terrifying. This was a fundamental error in the film’s conception because, while traffic danger is certainly a crucial part of the bicyclist’s predicament—as I ride I’m aware that this ride might be my last—it turns out that biking is actually significantly safer than driving. One statistical study found that a modest bike commute adds 90 to 420 days of life expectancy from increased cardiovascular health, while the increased risk from accidents subtracts only five to nine days. Other studies find the effect to be even greater.

Still, in the United States we could easily improve both safety and perceived safety for bicyclists. A relatively modest investment in real bike infrastructure—a network of bike lanes and bike paths connecting schools, transit hubs, and workplaces—would make biking feel safer; and when biking feels safer, more people ride. The film discusses controversy over a bike lane along York Boulevard, a major arterial here in Los Angeles. Koeppel claims it adds to street life without hurting traffic flow; I can tell you that I feel safer when I’m riding on it.

How else can we get people riding? Bikes vs Cars misses an opportunity to provide real insight here. For example, the film briefly visits Copenhagen, where 45 to 50 percent of commutes are on bikes. Perhaps to be playful, we share the point of view of a bike-hating cab driver. The film makes no attempt to explain the vast gulf in ridership between Copenhagen and L.A., where only 1 percent of commutes are on bikes. In Copenhagen, there’s 50 times more biking. What lessons can Copenhagen teach us?

Bikes vs Cars also misses an opportunity to make the connection to climate change. It’s an undeniable fact that cars are killing our biosphere: The average American contributes more to global warming by driving than by doing anything else. Although the film beats the problem of traffic congestion to death, in my opinion global warming is more urgent.

Still, in the United States we could easily improve both safety and perceived safety for bicyclists.

But climate change is mentioned only once, during an interview with a former marketing director for General Motors who probably speaks for most of us when he says, “Do I want to have cleaner air for my kids, do I not want climate change? Yeah, you’re dang right. [But] I’m not selling my gasoline car, and I’m as green as they come.” The cognitive dissonance captured here is widespread today and is at the root of climate inaction.

The film barely discusses solutions to any of the interconnected problems it raises. It does suggest congestion pricing on tolls, parking to reduce traffic jams, and more bike lanes. But perhaps it’s time to think bigger. For example, a carbon fee and dividend would not only encourage biking, it would gradually transform our entire society by providing a clear financial incentive for people and businesses to move away from fossil fuels.

Where Bikes vs Cars does excel is in revealing how money in politics destroys urban livability. People are beginning to see how the corporatocracy co-opts national policy and takes control of state legislatures. Bikes vs Cars shows how the car industry managed to buy Angela Merkel, block emissions caps, and install a deeply dishonest efficiency labeling system in Europe.

Directed by Fredrik Gertten, 2015, 91 min.

This plays out at the municipal level as well. For example, Koeppel fought for bike lanes on North Figueroa, an especially dangerous street for bikers and pedestrians and a key corridor that would connect the bikeway on York Boulevard to other neighborhoods in northeast L.A. His local city council member, Gil Cedillo, had complete control over the decision. But local politicians can be bought cheaply, and Cedillo accepted contributions from Chevron, whose interest is “to see more freeways built.” Koeppel does “not imagine that the oil companies do not expect a payback on their investment.” The North Figueroa bike lane project was halted indefinitely.

My favorite sequence of the film, though, was near the beginning, when the camera follows Cavalcante as she bikes skillfully along the wet streets of São Paulo at night. For me, this beautiful scene captured the sheer joy of riding, the ineffable magic. I ride for many reasons but mainly for this. At its heart, Bikes vs Cars is saying that it’s time to decide how we want to live.