Director Fredrik Gertten’s Bikes vs. Cars is passionate but contradictory, a frustrating combination for a documentary that utilizes admittedly interesting data as a pitch to wean our car-crazed world off excessive driving. True to its title, Gertten frames the doc as a battle between the two modes of transportation vying for their share of the road, as well as the conflict of bicyclists fighting with local politicians in various cities around the world over urban planning that doesn’t revolve around the car.
Traveling to many of these places, like São Paulo and Toronto (and often simplistically regarding the act of cycling as a romantic novelty rather than as a method of transport), the film hits its stride with passages in America’s worst city for traffic, Los Angeles, by following avid bicyclist and community organizer Dan Koeppel. The man’s lifestyle, in which he manages to easily navigate throughout L.A. without the use of a car, and his discussion of the city’s past as a biking mecca offer a personable context to the film’s increasing reliance on talking heads and graphics reading off statistics.
In the most ominous segment of the L.A. visit, Gertten peeks into a public meeting where Koeppel frequently spars with reluctant city officials who seek to not have the roads accommodate cyclists, and who are later revealed to be taking money from energy companies. Oddly, this is the rare sequence in the film that not only acknowledges the stranglehold that oil has on politics, but the inherent environmental problems that come from carbon emissions.
As a city where the bicycle is overwhelmingly the main form of transportation, Copenhagen is essentially a vision of the world Gertten ostensibly yearns for. But the filmmaker sends out a mixed message by presenting bike traffic as a public nuisance for drivers as he rides along with Ivan Naurholm, a taxi driver stressed over his daily dealings with bikers. Naurholm repeatedly bemoans his annoyance at how Copenhagen has become friendly to the cyclist and less reliant on cars, and since these sequences are told from Naurholm’s perspective and shows only shots of bikers failing to follow the traffic rules, it appears that Gertten even agrees with him.
After ardently making a case for more cities to become like Copenhagen, given its increasing detachment from cars, Gertten’s sojourn to that very place proves maddening because it effectively negates his thesis. When he makes a final climactic push for more bicycle traffic in cities with compelling evidence and activist success stories, it almost, and rather unfortunately given the film’s admirable intentions, feels like it should be taken with a grain of salt.