by Laura Gildart Sauter

I’ve been a fan of the Salem Progressive Film Series for some time.  The monthly films are always thought-provoking and informative, and discuss issues that should be important to any concerned citizen.  However, this month’s award-winning offering, Bikes vs. Cars (90min), directed by Fredrik Gertten, produced by Margarete Jangard and Elin Kamlert, is particularly relevant to the City of Salem and many of its current issues: the disagreement over the construction of a third bridge, the controversy over downtown parking, the need for expanded bus service, and the movement to reverse the one-way street grid.  So, in partnership with the Progressive Film Series, Salem Weekly is issuing both an invitation and a challenge:  to any Salem City Council member, to Mayor Anna Peterson, City Manager Steve Powers, to any candidate for city office, or any Salem Planning Commission member – free admission if you attend this important film.

The film opens with shots of people sitting in traffic jams, of bicyclists pedaling between cars and busses, of oil rigs silhouetted by the sunset.  We hear a siren and the camera narrows in on an ambulance frantically battling its way through blocked traffic.  Bikes vs Cars focuses its lens on several large world cities: Sao Paolo, Brazil, Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada – all beset by horrendous traffic problems – feature prominently, as does Copenhagen, Denmark the most bicycle-friendly city in the world.


The film interviews young bicycle activists in Sao Paolo, follows them as they memorialize fellow riders killed in traffic (at least one a week) with “ghost bicycles” spray-painted on the pavement, watches as they plan and undertake to persuade their city to create a network of bike lanes.  Raquel Rolnik, a professor of urban planning in Sao Paolo, expresses outrage at how the city is completely car oriented “our system does not take people into account.”  The activists petition the city government to reduce the width of streets, reduce speed, add bike lanes and trees to segregate traffic and keep cyclists safe.

In Los Angeles, we accompany a young father, Dan Koeppel, as he follows the path of the Los Angeles “cycleway” – a wooden boardwalk constructed at the beginning of the 20th century to move bicycles from Pasadena to downtown.  The structure is gone now, but in some places the right of way remains; a grassy reminder that in the early days of the city, people didn’t drive – 20% of people commuted on bikes, and most worked close to home or took public transportation.  We learn how General Motors purchased and destroyed the bus system and Standard Oil (now, Chevron) began dismantling the trolley system in 1945, ripping up the tracks and dumping the cars into Monterey Bay, all in a calculated move to turn Los Angles into a city dominated by the automobile.  To quote Koeppel: “The entire structure of LA is defined by the illusion of speed and convenience, but what we have are endless traffic jams: 2-4-6 lanes of freeway have become 10 or even 12 but no matter how much they build, traffic has gotten worse.”

The filmmakers interview Joel Ewanick, a car buff at an Irvine car show,  who says he cares about clean air, and climate change but “loves gasoline.  We’re addicted to it, its fun, its history.  I’m not selling my gas car and I’m as green as they come.”  At this point in the film, the audience begins to realize how deeply irrational humanity’s love affair with the automobile has become, but the film is not entirely one-sided.  The camera portrays the “pro-car” faction with some sympathy.   We can relate to the elderly gentleman lovingly polishing his 50s Ford convertible, and to the soft-spoken taxi driver in Copenhagen who delicately negotiates the streets through annoying “swarms of bicycles.”

One of the most infuriating segments of the film is the section on Toronto.  We hear former Mayor Rob Ford declare that the “war on cars stops today” as he sends out crews to paint out the bike lanes and vows that there will be no more light rail tracks laid in the middle of city streets.  We learn that, in Toronto, a pedestrian is hit by a car every three hours and a cyclist every seven, while the film shows Mayor Ford, blithely stating that “it’s their own fault.”

The camera returns to Sao Paolo, where Rolnik informs the audience that 60% of the space in the city is taken up housing cars, not people.  The film ends with a montage of traffic jams from a dozen cities: Mumbai, Jakarta, Paris, Rio, London, Beijing, Mexico City.  We do not see the iconic shots — the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben– what we see is the numbing monotony of endless automobiles.  The blur of traffic enforces what Koeppel tells us: “We need to decide how we want to live. We cannot make life better in cities by making more room for cars.”

We have all of the issues depicted in Bikes vs. Cars here in Salem, on a smaller scale.  Within the next few years we will, as a city, decide what direction we want to take – will we go the way of Toronto or Copenhagen?  The film shows us how when downtowns and neighborhoods are designed on a human scale – with room for bikes and pedestrians, with slower traffic, with trees, with fewer parking garages and more public transportation– business thrives, people flock to these areas to cafes and restaurants, to theaters and stores.  Salem has the potential to be a world class small city – the capital of the Oregon wine country, a destination for eco-tourists, a home for the creative and entrepreneurial spirit.  Will we live up to our potential or sink into sprawl and smog?  You decide.


Bikes vs Cars

 Salem Progressive Film Series

Guest speakers & audience discussion follow, 

Tuesday, May 17, 7 p.m.

The Grand Theater

191 High St. NE, Salem

(503) 881-5305