…the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold.

David Harvey, The Right to the City

Watching this film, I was reminded of a sketch I once heard on an English regional radio station. It featured a couple that had just run over what was implied to be roadkill, ‘should we put it out of its misery?’ one of them asked. The punchline was something approximating to ‘nah, it’s only a cyclist’.

Had the joke’s target been a hapless motorist or pedestrian it would have provoked outrage. But cyclists: those slow, sanctimonious, middle class people who occasionally impede motorised progress, are fair game.

This opposition, caused by the need of vehicles of different speeds and carbon emitting abilities to share roads: is the subject of the straightforwardly named Bikes vs Cars.

The film takes a sweeping look at urban road and transport politics: mainly in the congested western hemisphere cities of Los Angeles and São Paulo.

As an Edinburgh cyclist with no driving license and an almost religious opposition to getting one, I think cars are terrible. I want to judge people who drive in them all the time. What kind of wanker would move round a densely populated area demanding an enclosed private space of 2 x 5 metres?

Lots of them, it turns out. Many are friends of mine that I’ll occasionally call up if I need to move house or travel to a rural part of the country. Because, the thing is, I enjoy the moral convenience of not driving, but, like so much else about modern urban life, such choices usually represent an awkward triangulation between practicality, income and how those square with our self-image.

Like many left-green narratives, Cars vs Bikes is only able to ride awkwardly towards a radical message. It tells us that change is not going to arrive via individual non conformist heroes making better lifestyle choices, but through a political desire to change the structure of the economies and societies we are all complicit in. Bike or no bike. 

We get there via some faltering attempts to follow several keen cyclists and activists: coping with the death of friends and trying to navigate obstacles thrown in the way of their modest demands by intransigent car cultures. They’re presented to us as antiestablishment mavericks: healthy, free and sadly lacking the kind of grit and backstory that would allow us to properly empathise with them. We see them dart past busses on fixies, or career majestically through nighttime cityscapes, but this film never makes us feel like we’re in the saddle. Instead, we’re presented with prefabricated paragons of liberal American virtues. This includes the Los Angeles yoga instructor who delivers the film’s ultimately reformist message:

The only way to make a change is to reduce the number of cars. The only way to genuinely reduce cars is to make it more expensive to have cars. Which means reducing the number of car lanes, reducing the amount of parking, increasing the prices and adding toll roads. And really making cars bear the cost to society that they actually create.

Cars are evil. They are the perfect symbol of the more blatantly sociopathic and ecocidal norms of consumer capitalism. A disastrous desire to accommodate their needs has fucked up many of our cities (Edinburgh has survived better than most but is still horribly scarred here and there).

The problem is, as commodities, cars are brilliant. They don’t last, are easily marketable and their production has long benefited from government subsidy. If the film fails to offer a combative solution to this: its visit to Copenhagen and talk of a mass transit revival, at least gestures in the direction of a post-car culture. Yet like the individual narratives this film asks us to follow, the journey is just not compelling enough. In failing to reach out across the motorised divide, we’re presented with evangelicals and sinners, a drama of small scale individual and political choices, in a context that screams for massive systemic change.

That’s not to say that Bikes vs Cars doesn’t have moments when it really starts to buzz with campaigning zeal. It reveals to us that the benefits of going car free are truly societal: as in its portrayal of L.A’s much hyped “Carmageddon”. We see kids in Bogotá getting to grips with the joys of cycling en masse and witness moving stories behind ‘ghost bikes’: the road side memorials to dead cyclists that have become a global motif in the fight for road space. Coverage of the destruction wrought on Toronto’s cycling infrastructure by its pro-car suburban mayor is also compelling.

However the real problem with Bikes vs Cars is that, particularly for a United States whose upper house denies man-made influence on climate change, there’s a failure to grip radical solutions. The film fixes its sights on the extremes of pro-oil, pro-market fundamentalism (that produced the urbanist’s purgatory that is LA) while refusing to demonstrate that doctrine being challenged. Similarly, by focusing on the personal benefits of the evangelical cyclist: the radical notion of car free cities is offered up in a way that foregrounds individual freedom, feeling the wind in your hair and all that, over the collective freedom that is at the heart of what municipal politics should be about. Basically, for a film about transport and journeys, there’s a real lack of any sense of a movement here.

‘This is not a war. It’s a city’, we are told, just before the credits roll. An odd, non comital conclusion to a film premised on the opposition between two road using tribes. The right to the city, which as Harvey so eloquently argues, is a defining issue in resisting capitalism, is in a large part what this film is driving (or pedalling) towards. The right to live in a city that affords you collective and individual rights, that can balance the needs of urban and suburban communities rather than always privileging the wealth of the latter. The right to live in a city that doesn’t kill you because it’s rammed full of metal boxes, or because of the chemicals those boxes emit. These are massive confrontations of our age and seeking for their solution in the worthy armour of reformist urbanite America fails to convince. The film displays an absence of vital activist politics, in the context of a very real public vs private battle for the city. A conflict in which people die and often live miserable lives. As Harvey puts it:

The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization.

A better film would not have shied from the radical question Bikes vs Cars raises. Namely, which side are you on?