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Bikes Vs Cars – Documentary Paddles through the Harsh Reality of Cyclists’ Dilemma across the World

It is not exactly as confrontational as what you would expect it to be! But, with the film’s message – from the streets of North and South America and Europe– makes it plain that the war is exactly what it is, it is our centuries of car centric cities design that are hostile to bikes, and cars are not designed for life. The Nordic ambassadors were kind to host the screening of “Bikes vs Cars” in early December at the Norwegian Ambassador’s Residence in U Thant. A group of us decided to taste the prelude of the much confrontation sounded documentary by taking a 10km ride from the office in Bangsar to the venue. Literally “bikes vs cars” by bracing through the fumes and potholes, cutting across the traffic jam queues and reaching the venue within 45 minutes during the off work peak hour was definitely a reflection on what the 2 wheels can offer in Kuala Lumpur.

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The evening event took off with a Nordic reception from the Nordic Ambassadors with the much pride heritage into holistic urban transportation. The 90 minutes screening film, which was directed by Fredrik Gertten, one of the top Sweden’s environmentalist, was available on Vimeo in late September. Rather than emphasizing the norms of traffic congestion and 2 wheels solution, this film zooms into the few activists and thinkers, in events across Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, and Toronto, who are fighting for better cities, who refuse to stop riding despite the increasing number killed in traffic. The routine cyclist would recognize the distinctive, sentimental dilemmas of an urban cyclist, however I would say the pro-bike film will be happily riding on the guilt of car users. It is an uneven fight. Activists and politicians are facing a multi-billion dollar car, oil and construction industry that use all their means to keep society car dependant.

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During the night on the streets of Sao Paulo, bicyclist community converged and lower a white bicycle through a street post amid the busy street. This ghost bike along with bicycle spray paint logo on the road, signifies as a memorial to a lost brethren, a symbol of a flawed urban system dominated by automobiles. Meanwhile, one speaks wistfully of the infamous California Cycleway, an elevated wooden bike tollway between Pasadena and Los Angeles that opened in 1900 but was dismantled afterward for the emergence of freeways in 1940s and 1950s, with its interest primarily driven by General Motors.

Along the way we are presented with the multitude of pro-car individuals. Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, which is portrayed as an indignant politician with a hostility towards bicyclists and penchant for removing bike lanes. The footage of the mayor is the most striking political segment of the film, quoting that ‘Roads are built for buses, cars and trucks, not for people on bikes”. In Sao Paulo, a car salesman engage in huddle chants and boost that car sales are a good business. A hilarious segment will be experiencing the stressful routine of a taxi driver based in Copenhagen in navigating around the city which has more than two thirds of bicycle ownership. Their performances, humorous and somewhat absurd at times, are interlaced with an equally fervent group of pro-bike and anti-car individuals speaking out against traffic jams, conspiracies, and a system that favours highways and automobiles.

However, the movie is not putting car drivers and the car industry on the limelight, leaving the audience with some sympathy for those who are unable to escape their cars in the never-ending gridlocks (am sure it is a familiar grief for most Malaysians too!). Instead it points the finger at failed urban planning systems that does not transport people but cars, which is obviously unsustainable for the increasing urbanization that draws the demands for even more cars, more freeways, and more congestions, which affects livelihood and hence economy via cost of time and opportunity too. There are unresolved questions and puzzling detours along the way, but Bikes vs Cars does show that cars, millions and millions of stationary cars, may yet prove the bike’s best friend.

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The screening session, attended by estimated 50 individuals from various organizations such as CETDEM, ThinkCity, PEMANDU, PenangBikeShare and Cycling Kuala Lumpur Bike Map project was followed by a QnA session with one of the producers, Ms Elin Kamlert. The feedback session, over the questions such as missing public transportation discussion and targeted audience in mind, quickly evolved into a localized urban transportation issue debate. While there are indeed interesting developments on bicycle lanes across local councils in Malaysia, I wrote in the last few columns that indeed, most bicycle lanes are badly designed and constructed so far. It is a struggle to even address walkability under the threat of street crime today, what more with a car centric township with our national automobile policy and our national car makers in priority. Nevertheless, it was another timely event that brought few key stakeholders together to exchange views on the development of urban transportation.

The only way to make a change is to reduce the number of cars, and really making cars bear the cost to society that they actually create. We will need this fundamental systemic change, away from car-oriented societies, to a rethinking of an effective public transport by the guidance of the 3Cs, Cheap, Convenient and Comfortable. In which, I can’t help but to ask, along the hype with various MRT packages and the future federal highway bus rapid transit, how sure are we that the soon to be that a fraction of the 10 million Greater Klang Valley population will choose to ditch their cars for public transportation?

Note: “Bike Vs Cars’ can be streamed via Vimeo @ www.vimeo.com/bikes-vs-cars‎ for $9.99 at the time of writing