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The Best Reason to Ride a Bike

The Best Reason to Ride a Bike thumbnail

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.

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.

Yes! Magazine

20 Comments on "The Best Reason to Ride a Bike"

  1. Brad on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 2:24 pm 

    During a holiday in Croatia the gearbox of my 14 year old car broke down. I decided to give the car away for free to the guy who happened to live 50 m from the place the car died and who was specialized in repairing old cars.

    Via Italy-Rome I travelled to Switserland, spend a week mountaineerung and back home in Holland I was pleasantly amazed about the considerable weight loss.

    I decided to not loose momentum and travel to Gothenburg-Sweden from Holland by bike and loose extra kilos. Now I am in the heart of Jutland-Denmark and merely 150 km are left until Frederikshavn, from where I will take the ferry to Gothenburg, 1000 km in total, in two weeks time (when I was young I once travelled to Copenhagen in merely four days with a friend on race bikes and tents, instead of four star hotels).

    Perhaps I will buy an e-bike for next season as steep hills have indeed become a challenge. Nevertheless 100 km or more per day are perfectly doable; my record this vacation was 123 km to Flensburg at the German-Danish border.

    Wonder what my scale will tell me, in a few days.

    P.S. Back at home I will buy a CNG-benzine hybrid car 😉

  2. Anonymous on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 3:54 pm 

    The problem, lies not in making cities bike and human friendly, we could have done that 100 years ago had the correct decisions been made, but they were not. The problem is, the cars and what we call ‘the economy’ here in the free-world order, are joined at the hip. Oil powered garbage cans, and the entire superstructure of ‘BAU’, are intimately tied together. Cities are designed not as places to live, but places to ensure car-dependency is the only game in town, as it were.

    Economically viable bike, mass-transit cities and towns, are not what ‘we’ built. ‘We’, and we by ‘we’, I of course mean GM, Standard oil, traffic planners and so on, built cities by and for oil powered cars. Trillions have gone into to creating a cars-only world and they were deliberately designed in a such a way to exclude any attempts to build out alternative arrangement on any significant scale.

    Even if our lords and masters could amidst huge investments in the wrong philosophy were made, they are loathe to change anything. Car-dependency is just too profitable. A bike-transit centric world is just too efficient to milk the staggering sums of money and resources out of its population that enforced car-dependency does.

  3. bug on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 3:57 pm 

    I ride my bike around my county for exercise to stay fit,sight seeing and trips to local stores. The best reason to ride a bike is that bicycling creates finely shaped asses on women. In my opinion.

  4. GregT on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 4:09 pm 

    “The best reason to ride a bike is that bicycling creates finely shaped asses on women. In my opinion.”

    I would have to agree with your opinion bug. We need more bicycles in North America, and fast.

  5. onlooker on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 4:22 pm 

    It is a joy to ride a bicycle. Too bad car supremacy makes it difficult and dangerous in many area in the US. Also, too bad that China decided to emulate us rather than continuing their biking ways.

  6. Apneaman on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 7:46 pm 

    Biking should help with what’s coming.

    40 now hospitalised after anthrax outbreak in Yamal, more than half are children

    “The concern among experts is that global warming thawed a diseased animal carcass at least 75 years old, buried in the melting permafrost, so unleashing the disease.”

    There could be any number of microscopic horrors in the ice that the humans have never encountered and thus have never developed any immunity to. I guess the humans will be finding out. Biking should come in handy.

  7. Apneaman on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 7:51 pm 

    This should help open up more bike paths.

    Turmoil at the Top of the World

    The Arctic tundra is being drained and dried by the warming climate.

    “Subsurface ice wedges in Arctic permafrost create a distinct topography in the tundra that is disrupted when the ice wedges melt. Steadily rising average annual temperatures aren’t the only cause of ice-wedge melting; even brief periods of unusual warmth, such as what’s now regularly occurring in a single summer, can cause profound and irreversible ice-wedge degradation. The result is a draining and drying effect on the tundra, which can change how essential elements, like carbon and nitrogen, cycle through the system.”

  8. Apneaman on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 7:53 pm 

    Inhale deeply when riding by the river.

    Tests Reveal Florida’s Toxic Algae is Threatening Not Only The Water Quality but Also the Air

    “Tests conducted by authorities in Martin County revealed that the toxin microcystin is in the air at sites along the St. Lucie River, which is coated with thick clumps of algae blooms. The blooms themselves contain toxic levels “I never dreamed we’d see,” county ecosystem manager Deborah Drum told the TC Palm.

    According to the report, the air was tested for hydrogen sulfide, species of algae, levels of toxin present and particles that could be inhaled. Water quality samples were also collected at two sites for algae species and toxin levels. ”

  9. Apneaman on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 7:59 pm 

    NASA Satellite Spots More Green Water, This Time in Washington State

    “Green-hued water has been appeared across the nation from Florida to Colorado, but this time a bloom has been spotted in Washington state.

    An image captured by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) shows a phytoplankton bloom stretching across Hood Canal, a narrow inlet in the Puget Sound in Washington. ”

    It’s a trifecta of nitrogen from emissions, nitrogen from Industrial Ag runoff and increased temps from AGW.

  10. Apneaman on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 8:12 pm 

    This one you can definitely blame on the Russians. Putin personally struck the match that lit it.

    World’s largest sawdust dump is on fire ‘and will burn for years’

    “The mountain of sawdust is the size of more than 800 Olympic swimming pools at a site in the Ust-Kutsky district of Irkutsk region. A council spokesman said: ‘It is now impossible to extinguish dump with such an amount of sawdust.

    ‘Obviously, it will keep burning for a few more years.’

    It has remained aflame winter and summer for around three years – and is seen on the video below.”

  11. Davy on Fri, 29th Jul 2016 9:24 pm 

    I have three bikes and a trainer. Two of my bikes are monocog the other a geared bike. I like monocog because they are low maintenance and tough. I use the geared bike with my trainer for wintertime use. The geared bike does better on a trainer because you need a low gear to get a hard workout. I work out twice a week with weights and biking. I ride a gravel road in the summer and I ride my trainer indoors in the winter. I also have a monocog bike I use around the farm. When I am burning native grasses I need several pieces of equipment for fire suppression. I use my bike to get back to the barn to get another piece of equipment. I have a bike cart. I don’t use it but it is a prep item just in case I ever need it.

    I enjoy my biking and it keeps me fit. It clears my head to ride a country road near sunset. Most of the time I never see another person just animals. Bikes are perfect for sneaking up on animals. They are not used to bikes so before they know it you are next to them. I highly recommend bikes for your prep tool chest but that is a no brainer. What else could top getting you somewhere quicker and making you healthier.

  12. Apneaman on Sat, 30th Jul 2016 2:36 am 

    Not sure if anyone already posted this, but this Steve Ludlum is totally under appreciated.

    History On Vacation

  13. .5 on Sat, 30th Jul 2016 6:55 am 

    Weaklings, I walk. Ever kill a bear on a bike? You suckers are dead meat when TSHTF and the end of BAU nears. All I suggest is LSMFT and RFD.

  14. bug on Sat, 30th Jul 2016 7:04 am 

    .5, bikers can obviously walk.
    But, when the CBNW goes VSZX and the
    QAZX feels HBHB then you will be SDSFLKJ.

  15. Kenz300 on Sat, 30th Jul 2016 8:27 am 

    Riding a bike is fun and good exercise………walking, bicycles. mass transit and electric vehicles will all be part of making cities livable.

    Ride to school………ride to work………ride for fun………..

    Bike to work day should be everyday….. employers needs to provide places to park and lock bicycles and encourage employees to ride a bicycle to work.

    Children should be riding a bike to school instead of being dropped off by their parents.

    Cities need to do more to provide safe walking and biking trails and paths that connect homes, schools and businesses. Speak up and ask for more bicycle paths in your community.

    Obesity is a growing problem around the world leading to an increase in heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure. Walking and biking can help improve health.

  16. frankthetank on Sat, 30th Jul 2016 8:39 am 

    Electric bikes are better. Recharge them with solar panels… I think i figured it worse for the environment if you pedal especially if you eat a lot of meat.

  17. Boat on Sat, 30th Jul 2016 9:43 am 

    Bikers don’t need more paths to kill the planet with more infrastructure. Riding in traffic does great things. Population control. Humans make great filters for smog.

  18. frankthetank on Sat, 30th Jul 2016 10:23 am 

    The problem with biking is that it sucks in hot weather. Showing up at work all sweaty, smelling of armpits and ass is not a fast way to that big promotion. Taking a shower in the bathroom sink/..dripping water all over the floor (i speak from experience)is messy and a health hazard (slippery). Around here biking is great early spring and fall…temps around 45f to 70F… Below 30F its too cold..about 70F its swamp ass city.

  19. bug on Sat, 30th Jul 2016 11:54 am 

    Frank, girls in sweaty biking outfits are hot. I get sweaty at work 2 minutes after
    I leave the car, I work outside.
    And as boat said, bikers dying of heat stroke controls population.

  20. Kenz300 on Mon, 1st Aug 2016 5:14 pm 

    Ride a bicycle….save money on your commute………………

    Electric cars, trucks, bicycles and mass transit are the future…..fossil fuel ICE cars are the past…………..

    Think teen agers vs your grand father…………………. cell phones vs land lines…….

    NO EMISSIONS……..climate change is real………

    Save money……no stopping at gas stations… oil changes……..less overall maintenance……

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