Take A World Tour Of The Endless Struggle Between Bikes And Cars

Sao Paolo is a nightmare for cyclists, while in Copenhagen, a taxi driver sits in a bike and pedestrian jam. Is there a way out of the physical–and cultural–gridlock?

Fewer people might be buying cars in the U.S., but around the world, cars are selling in record numbers. In five years, there may be 2 billion on the road. At the same time, there are also more bike lanes than ever before.


As cities evolve, will more end up like Copenhagen–where 40% of people bike to work every day–or gridlocked Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford tore up bike lanes in 2012? A new documentary called Bikes vs. Cars, premiering on March 15 at SXSW, takes on this question.

The film opens in Sao Paolo, a city built around the car, where cyclists struggle to get noticed by drivers in a sea of traffic; every week, someone on a bike is killed in the city. Later, we see the alternate universe of Copenhagen through the eyes of a taxi driver, impatiently waiting for never-ending streams of people on bikes to ride by. It’s interesting to see a little antagonism between cars and bikes even in a city where most bike lanes are separated.

“My take of Copenhagen is about a city where the the order of command is very different,” says the film’s director, Fredrik Gertten. “In Copenhagen, the bike is king, not the car. So it’s kind of funny to see a taxi driver living the frustration that normally belongs to bicyclists or pedestrians.”

Still, even if the Danish cyclist utopia isn’t perfect, Gertten believes that it’s possible for bikes and cars to successfully share roads. “I totally believe in sharing the streets, in coexistence,” he says. “The more bikes you have on the streets, the bigger the respect will grow.”

After visiting several other cities around the world–like L.A., which once had one of the world’s best public transit systems and a bike superhighway leading from Pasadena to downtown–the film finally returns to Sao Paolo. Bike activists that struggled throughout the movie to get any support from city government are celebrating: A major street is being painted with its first bike lane.

Part of the reason the activists were successful, despite a powerful local oil and automotive lobby, is that cars are so clearly failing the city. On Friday at rush hour, the traffic jams stretch for 183 miles on a bad day. If you live in Sao Paolo and drive, you probably spend a full month of your life stuck in traffic every year.


“As the urbanist professor Raquel Rolnik says in the film, ‘The traffic jam is the solution,'” says Gertten. “As traffic is not working any longer most cities need to search for better solutions, and bicycles are better for the cities. Every car owner who moves over to a bicycle donates space to the city. Car owners should never be frustrated with bicyclists–their worst opposition is the other car owners. Together they are traffic, they create gridlock.”

And of course, Sao Paolo is not unique. The end of the documentary flips through shots of London, Mumbai, Jakarta, Lagos, Mexico City, and Beijing at rush hour, showing exactly how much the current system of freeways is failing.

“We are at a very exciting time and we need to develop a sense of urgency, because the population is going to grow another two and a half or three billion people,” urban planning expert Gil Peñalosa says in the film. “Whatever we do or don’t do is going to be there for hundreds of years. We need to decide, how do we want to live?”

The film makes a clear case for the bicycle as the better option. “To make an environmental film these days tends to be a bit depressing,” says Gertten. “But the cool thing with this film is that we have a revolutionary tool connected–the bicycle. Everyone who wants to create better cities and a better climate can act today. Jump on your bike. Now.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.